Ask the Veterinarian: What’s lurking in the grass?

Dr. Brianne Hagerty and Avery

After assisting in veterinary work on game reserves in South Africa during my final year in vet school, I gained a new appreciation for what may be lurking in the grass, bushes and trees. Bright yellow and black spiders, the size of my hand, would drop onto us while perched on the back of the trucks during early morning game drives. Spider webs dripping with dew ominously hanging overhead warned us of the waiting danger. I am not afraid of spiders, but trust me; it took every ounce of will power to not jump overboard if they landed on us. Immature ticks no larger than the point of a pen eagerly crawled down the tops of our socks and into our hiking boots after a brief jaunt into the brush. Although tiny and painless, they still required careful removal and often exceeded double-digits by the end of the day. Their larger and shinier counter parts coated the softer areas of rhino’s skin like glittering sequins creating a semblance of armour and found many meals in the ears of the antelope. Mosquitos buzzed in our ears at dusk, as if whispering their threats of Malaria. These wild and wonderful creatures of South Africa make our island landscape appear tame. However, we too have a few hidden surprises!

 Attacking Awns:

“Spear grass”, named for its hard sharp seed filled awns, is found everywhere from your back yard to Dallas Road. Although not a single species, “spear grass” makes up a family of non-native grasses such as Wall Barley and Rip Gut Brome. Even their names suggest their sinister tendencies. Starting in late spring and extending to early autumn, spear grass assures its propagation by sticking to clothing, fur and any passers by. Danger escalates when the grass begins to dry out and falls from the stalks more easily. The distinctive shape of the grass awns allows penetration into the body. However, like a spear, it cannot back out of the entry point and only migrates deeper into tissues. Like a splinter, the body reacts to the foreign material. Redness, swelling and pain quickly occur at the site and an abscess may form. This pocket of pus surrounds the grass awn, increasing the pain and pressure at the site. Common sites for spear grass to enter your pet include: between the toes, into the ear canal or even the eye. However as local veterinarians, we have found these organic terrors in many other sites, as they excel at migration once in the skin. 

Signs to monitor for in your pet include any areas of redness, swelling or pain. If spear grass is found between the toes, Fluffy may suddenly start to limp on that limb or lick at his paw continuously. If the awn enters the ear canal, a sudden onset of headshaking, pawing at the ear, restlessness or even yelping may be seen. If you see any of these signs, a prompt visit to your veterinarian is required.

Early detection helps prevent complications, such as perforation of the eardrum, infection and significant migration of the seeds, which may require surgery. Often sedation and local freezing is required for the safe and pain free removal of plant material. 

Protection:

Be aware of what’s planted in your backyard and where you take your pets. The grassy jungle, which your avid feline hunter prowls daily, may actually be a field of danger. Keeping your dog off the grassy areas of Dallas road or out of any tall grass going to seed is recommended. Take the time to inspect their paws and coat after a walk. If Fluffy is “extra fluffy” lately, getting a shorter clip at the groomer may be recommended to reduce the “hitch-hike ability” of their fur for the grass seed travellers.

Eight legged Vampires:

As if spear shaped attack grass wasn’t enough, another hidden predator may be hiding in the grassy fields and wooded areas around our city and surrounding areas. Over twenty species of ticks are found in British Columbia, however, the Western Black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus, is the most common species found on Vancouver Island. With its plated body armour, and camouflaged colours, the tick will silently begin to search for its next victim by “questing”. This involves using its third and fourth pairs of legs to hold on tightly to its vegetative perch, while outstretching its first pair of legs waiting to quickly climb onto a host when the moment is right. Once aboard, the tick will select a skin area to begin taking its blood meal. A sticky biological glue is used to firmly attach itself allowing it to make “mealtime” a slow process lasting up to 48 hours. Once satiated the tick releases a second biological substance, which dissolves its “glue”, allowing it to pull its mouthparts out of the skin and ultimately drop off the host. 

The bite of the tick is painful, and the site that the tick used, as its lunch spot, remains red and inflamed long after the tick has moved on. Lyme Disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) and Anaplasmosis  (Anaplasma phagocytophilum) are two tick borne diseases, which can affect dogs, as well as humans. These diseases can be debilitating and life threatening if untreated. Signs of tick borne disease include joint pain, lameness, fever and lethargy. Fortunately, confirmed cases of either disease remain low in number on Vancouver Island compared to the surrounding areas. 

Stop them in their tracks:

“A tick just bit Fluffy! HELP!” Before using harmful substances such as Vaseline, matches or kerosene, which often don’t work, ask your local veterinarian about the best way to remove a tick. Tools such as tick twisters, tick pullers or tweezers are much more effective and safe.
Prevention is key in protecting your pets from ticks, as well as other creepy crawlies like fleas, mites and lice. There are several safe veterinary prescriptions (both topical and oral) that can either kill the tick prior to taking a blood meal or stop them shortly after starting. If your pet lives a lifestyle of adventure and travel which puts it at a high risk for tick borne disease, discuss the possibility of annual vaccination against Lyme disease as well. 

Lastly, just like surveying for the formidable spear grass, take the time to check your pet after walks and outside summer fun for ticks too! 

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

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