Grass Awn Migration (Foxtails) in Cats

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Key takeaways

Foxtails and other grasses produce seeds that have evolved to stick to hair and penetrate skin as a dispersal mechanism. 

  • Grass awns penetrate the body through the skin or tissue around the eyes, but are also often found in the mouth, nose, or ears
  • Superficial grass awns may be visible sticking out of an irritated wound, but as they penetrate deeper advanced imaging is needed to diagnose them
  • Treatment varies from simple removal by hand to surgical removal with treatment for secondary infections
  • Outcomes vary depending on the tissue affected
  • Foxtails that migrate deep in the body or are found in the eyes, mouth, ears, and nose are more difficult to remove and may have a more serious impact than those found in the skin
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A closer look: Grass Awn Migration (Foxtails) in Cats


A grass awn is a type of grass seed found all over the United States with a higher percentage occurring in the West. Grass awns are very sharp which allows them to enter tissue easily. Grass awns also have barbs which enable the grass awn to migrate in one direction only once they enter the body. Grass awn inhalation is rare. Prognosis is good, but diagnoses and treatment may take advanced imaging and surgery to remove.

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Risk factors


Migrating grass awns are rare in cats, especially in comparison to dogs. Symptoms, and the severity of the case depend on what part of the body the grass awn penetrates and migrates through. A grass awn migrating through the eye, for example, may lead to blindness.

Severity of symptoms vary depending on the migration path.

Outdoor cats living in climates with high populations of foxtail grasses are at the highest risk of grass awn migration, especially during grass pollination season.

Possible causes


Any outdoor cat that comes into contact with foxtails has the potential to develop a migrating grass awn. Simply walking through grass that has gone to seed provides an opportunity for an awn to penetrate the skin or get lodged in a nostril, ear, or around the eye.

Main symptoms


Symptoms of grass awn migration vary depending on where the awn penetrated the skin or orifice and the path the awn travels before it is detected.

Migration through the eye accounts for almost 90% of feline cases.

Testing and diagnosis


Initial diagnostics usually include X-rays, physical exam, and bloodwork. Advanced imaging is needed to pinpoint the exact location of a grass awn located in deep tissues.

Steps to Recovery


Treatment varies from simple removal by hand to surgery for deeply penetrating awns. Sedation facilitates removal of a grass awn lodged in the ear canal, nostril, mouth, or around the eye. After care includes antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and supportive care.

Symptoms persist until the grass awn is removed. Prognosis is good with removal and treatment of secondary infections.

Prevention


The best prevention is to avoid areas where grass awns are present. Indoor only cats have virtually no risk of developing a migrating grass awn.

Is Grass Awn Migration (Foxtails) in Cats common?


Migrating grass awns are not common in cats.

Typical Treatment


Typical treatment consists of:

  • Removal by hand if superficial
  • Surgery to remove deeper awns
  • Antibiotics
  • Anti-inflammatories

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