The cough was small, but it was distinct. My head swiveled sharply, like a bird dog’s turning into a scent cone. I was on it.
The July morning was still cool; by design, early runs through the hills with a dog squad beat the heat. Despite the comfortable temperature, one of the canine crew had been dragging. Not overt impairment—just enough for me to notice. The young springer was the wild child of the pack, and prior to that day I had never, ever had the thought that he was anything but full throttle.
Springtime and early summer in the western US are peak grass-awn season for bird dogs and their owners. “Awn” is a term for grass-seed structures with stiff bristles that are often serrated and with sharp tips to help seeds penetrate and auger into soil to germinate. In my region there are two grass species of concern: cheatgrass and speargrass, which is also known as needle-and-thread for its remarkably sharp tip and wispy, spiral tail. Cheatgrass is ubiquitous and in my experience a greater concern. If you and your dog hunt in or visit the West, odds are the two of you will encounter it.
Like many “mean-seed” species, cheatgrass is an annual plant found on dry sites. It’s non-native (introduced from Eurasia), germinates and sprouts in fall, then lies dormant in winter. With its head start, once growing season begins, growth is rapid. Green, developing awns are soon visible on wispy shoots. As soil moisture begins to drop, the awns “harden”— becoming dry, stiff and sharp. That’s when they are most dangerous. Around my place, cheatgrass seeds typically harden in the first week of June. At lower elevations or farther south this can happen a month or two earlier.
The cough underscored the uncharacteristic pace of the dog. The time of year was a third data point that made me wary. Within a few hours I had the dog at the vet's office.
She plied the stethoscope. We discussed my concerns and seat-of-the-pants diagnosis. “I don’t know,” she said, “It could be something else, like pancreatitis.”
When chest X-rays appeared on the screen, we stood silently for a few seconds. “Damn.” Her finger pointed. Milky haze surrounded the middle lobe of the right lung—fluid, infection in the chest cavity. “You’re right. Pyothorax. But it’s early.”
Awn-producing species of concern vary for dog owners across different regions of the US. Cheatgrass throughout the West. Speargrass in the Plains States. The West Coast is cursed with an abundance of nasty grass seeds, most notably green foxtail. I’ve encountered abundant three-awn in Mearns quail country. Canada rye is a frequent component of wildlife-food-plot seed mixes, and it seems especially abundant in the Midwest.
Awns injure dogs in various ways. Caught in fur or between toes, awns can pierce skin and work their way in; they can enter through orifices. Once inside the body, an awn may migrate dramatically, causing infection and abscesses as it goes. An abscess between toes is probably the most common and mildest manifestation—yet vet bills for draining an abscess can be hundreds of dollars and the dog may be on injured reserve for two to three weeks.
The most severe manifestation of a weed-seed problem is pyothorax—an infection within the chest cavity. Typically, this occurs when an awn is inhaled, enters the lung and migrates through lung tissue and into the chest cavity, where raging infection ensues. Pyothorax is often fatal, in part because it may not be noticed until the condition is advanced, the heart and lungs are severely affected, and the dog is in shock. Cheatgrass awns, given their small size and superabundance, are more likely than awns of other plants to be inhaled, which is why cheatgrass is especially pernicious.
For greater insight about prognoses and costs of weed-seed pyothorax in bird dogs, I called Dr. Greg Kuhlman, DVM DACVIM, a veterinary internal medicine specialist at Advanced Veterinary Care, in Salt Lake City—himself a bird hunter and field-trialer. As is the case for all Great Basin states, cheatgrass is the de facto state plant in Utah. Kuhlman regularly treats cases of pyothorax and notes those are skewed to spring and summer.
Early diagnosis and treatment are key
“Most cases I see are referrals from other vets,” he said, “and often more advanced. At that point the prognosis is guarded at best—odds are maybe fifty-fifty.”
When it comes to treating pyothorax, sticker shock is real. Kuhlman estimates initial costs in low thousands of dollars, if imagery like a CT scan or an MRI is included. Surgical treatment, if necessary, may add $8,000 to $12,000. For owners who do not want to pursue the surgical option, medical management offers a prognosis that is even less optimistic.
Grass awns affect all breeds of bird dogs, although certainly short-haired breeds possess greater resistance. Pointing breeds tend to be longer of leg and work with their heads up; flushing breeds tend to be shorter of leg and more likely to work with their heads down, at awn level. I suspect spaniels and Labradors are among the most vulnerable breeds. But no breed is immune. Within my circle of friends and acquaintances afield, I can recall pointers, setters and GSPs that have been severely affected and even perished.
I wish I could report that pyothorax is the only weed-seed problem my crew has experienced—but there have been many abscesses, too, in feet, necks, chests and legs. What’s a bird hunter to do to help ward off problems and expenses? In peak seed season I clip fur short in long-haired breeds, especially between toes. Another key to keeping your bird dog safe: Become a bit of a botanist. Be aware of dangerous plant species in your region or in any region you visit. Keep dogs out of patches of the stuff. Post-session, give dogs a once-over, especially between toes. If your partner is a long-haired breed, comb him out. If you notice a respiratory problem or a dog that seems “off” and you suspect seeds, get after it promptly. Find a specialist who treats more than a few cases a year. Pyothorax is a very serious condition that may develop rapidly. Much of the mortality I’ve encountered has occurred because owners or trainers initially didn’t notice a problem or failed to act quickly when a dog seemed off. Early diagnosis and treatment are key.
In the case of my dog, because the problem was caught early, because I was immediately referred to a specialist in Fort Collins, Colorado, and because I was willing to drive 1,200 miles round trip, he survived with medical management. That was 20 years ago, and the cost of the treatment was much less than it would be now—but it was still stout. Like many dogs afflicted with weed seeds, he spent years on an antibiotic cocktail. The awn migrated out of his chest cavity and down his spine, causing abscesses and great pain along the way, but I learned to manage and minimize episodes. Happily, the dog was young at the time and lived a long, active hunting and field-trial life. In my experience, if things can go wrong in the bird dog veterinary department, they will. But from time to time we pull a dog through and there’s a happy ending. That was mine.
John Stewart Wright is a Montana hunter, ecologist and photographer. His dogs have accumulated seven national field-trial titles and many field championships in the US and Canada. His current resident pack consists of four springers, a shorthair and an English setter. Find him on Instagram at @theartofbirddogs.