By: Dr. Jane Matheys
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance
While many cat owners are are aware of potential pet health dangers outdoors– there’s one that’s sometimes overlooked which can end up costing pet owners thousands of dollars at the veterinarian. That’s why this time of year we need to be on watch for “invaders” from the plant world. As temperatures soar and rain is scarce, grasses and weeds dry out and seeds begin to scatter. This can mean trouble for cats that roam outdoors.
Cheat grass is one of the more common and invasive weeds found in many parts of North America and especially in the West. It is also known as June grass, Downy Brome, grass awn, foxtail, or by the scientific name, Bromus tectorum.
The danger for cats lies in how invasive the dry seed pods found in late summer and early fall can be. These pods have one-way microscopic barbs that allow the seed to work its way into fur, skin and mucous membranes, but not work its way back out, much like the one-way movement of a porcupine quill.
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These annoying and troublesome weeds have been found in the skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, rear end, and between the toes of animals; basically anywhere on the body. Many times they will migrate deep into tissue and can even work their way through skin into body cavities such as lungs and abdomen, causing life-threatening infections.
It’s important that cat owners do not underestimate the potential seriousness of this common problem.
Cats will show clinical symptoms relating to where the awn has penetrated. Cheat grass in the ear typically causes scratching at the ear and head shaking. Cheat grass in the nose can cause intense sneezing fits and nasal discharge, and awns stuck behind the third eyelid usually cause squinting and rubbing of the eye, sometimes with severe swelling of the inner eyelids. Cats with an infected grass awn penetration will show signs typical of an infection: lethargy, anorexia, pain or signs of drainage. Any time you see your cats showing any of these signs, have them checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible to prevent further damage.
Cats are better at grooming and removing cheat grass from their coats, so the pods are most commonly found in their eyes and ears. One cat patient of mine had two grass awns in her eye and suffered a deep corneal ulceration from the barbs scraping against the surface of the eye. The ulcer was so severe that the cat had to be referred to the local veterinary ophthalmologist for treatment. She required some expensive eye medications and multiple rechecks until the ulcer healed. It turned out to be quite a costly venture. Unfortunately, the owner did not have pet health insurance and had to pay the whole expense out of pocket. It’s always best to be prepared for unexpected medical emergencies like this, and pet insurance plans are more affordable than you might think and may help make veterinary care more affordable.
Since most cats that go outside roam freely, it can be difficult to keep them out of grassy fields and roadsides where cheat grass grows. Keep your own yard free of these nasty weeds and try to identify any neighboring areas where they might exist and can be controlled. Keep long haired cats trimmed and free of mats. Check your cats after they have been outdoors. Daily skin and foot inspections plus quick removal will reduce or eliminate potential serious and expensive problems.