Look Out for Foxtails

Posted on October 10, 2007 under Pet Health & Safety

Posted by Audrey Pavia on 10/10/2007 in General Articles

At first glance, they seem innocent enough. After all, they are just seedpods looking for a place to lay down their roots. But beyond that innocent exterior lurks a menace that can easily wreak havoc with your dog’s health.

We aren’t talking about some alien life form here, but rather, a very earthly phenomenon known as the foxtail. Found all over the United States at various times of the year, these plant parts are the bane of dog owners everywhere.

What Are Foxtails?

We’ve all seen foxtails out in nature, whether in a vacant lot, along a roadside or in a mountain meadow. Foxtails are simply fox-tail-like clusters of seeds on the stalks of certain types of grasses. The clusters have sharp points designed by nature to penetrate the soil once the cluster comes loose from the plant, enabling the seeds to take hold in the ground and grow roots.

To help ensure that the seeds will be able to take root, the seed cluster contains barbs that make it hard for the cluster to come loose from the soil once it penetrates. The outside of the cluster also harbors a bacterium that contains an enzyme designed to break down cellular matter. This helps the seed burrow into the ground past other plants.

Grasses with this feature can be found all around the country, but are most common in the Western United States. The greatest foxtail problem occurs in California.

Foxtails are most troublesome to dog owners in the late spring and summer in drier climates because this is when they come loose from the plant and “look for” a place to bury themselves.

The foxtail’s unique design provides grasses with a very successful method of reseeding in the wild. Unfortunately, these same features are what make foxtails a problem for dog owners. When a dog comes in contact with a foxtail, the cluster attaches to the dog’s fur and begins to move inward as the dog moves. The barbs on the cluster keep the foxtail from falling off or “backing out” of the fur, and the enzymes in the foxtail’s bacterium begin to break down the dog’s hair and tissue. The foxtail begins to work its way into the dog’s body, just as it would work its way into the soil had it entered the ground.

Any dog that spends time in an area ripe with foxtails is at risk for picking up one or more of these problematic seed casings.

Health Hazard

Dogs that come into contact with foxtails stand a good chance of having one of these insidious plant pieces work its way into the body. The result can be a very sick dog. The degree of illness depends on the area of the body where the foxtail entered and the amount of damage it has caused. Foxtails can enter the nasal passages, eyes, ears and mouth, and can work their way into the dog’s lungs, along the backbone and into many other locations throughout the body.

It’s up to a veterinarian to locate the foxtail inside the dog’s body and remove it. In cases where the foxtail is beyond the reach of tweezers or forceps, the dog will need to undergo surgery for removal of the foxtail.

Keeping Foxtails Away

Given the potentially destructive action of foxtails that come into contact with dogs, it’s imperative that dog owners in foxtail heavy areas use preventative measures to keep their pets free from this hazardous plant part.

Try to avoid walking your dog in fields or on roadsides where foxtails are prevalent. Since the dry season is the only time foxtails are really a problem, you don’t have to worry about walking your dog in these areas when the grass is green.

When camping or hiking with your dog, keep an eye out for foxtails in areas where your dog is walking or running. Try to keep him out of these areas if you can.

In the event that your dog comes into contact with a foxtail-infested area, be sure to go over him carefully to look for any foxtails that may have lodged in his coat. Dogs with thick hair are at greatest risk of you missing a foxtail, so look closely if your dog has an undercoat that could easily hide one of these problematic seed clusters.

To help guard against foxtails, some owners give their dogs a thorough grooming after the dog has come into contact with these plants. This includes combing through the dog’s coat with a fine-tooth comb. Owners also examine the dog’s entire body, especially the undersides of the paws, the armpits, stomach and inside the ears.

Owners of dogs with very thick hair sometimes clip their dogs down to help prevent foxtails from sticking to the hair and becoming hidden beneath it.

Signs that your dog may have a foxtail in his nose include sudden sneezing, pawing at his nose and possible bleeding from the nostril. As the foxtail works its way deeper into your dog’s sinuses, the dog’s reaction may eventually dissipate, leading you to believe whatever was bothering him has gone away. In reality, the foxtail has become even more dangerously embedded and may cause severe infection.

A foxtail lodged in your dog’s ear will cause him to paw at his ear, tilt his head, shake his head, cry and even possibly move in a stiff manner when he walks. You may not be able to see the foxtail since it may have become embedded deep within the ear.

Foxtails sometimes become lodged in the eyes, and cause tearing, squinting, and mucous discharge. Your dog may paw at his eye, but you may not be able to see the foxtail if it has lodged beneath the dog’s eyelid.

Your dog may even swallow a foxtail, causing him to gag, retch, cough, eat grass, stretch his neck and swallow repeatedly.

If you suspect your dog has encountered a foxtail that has entered his body and shows any of these signs, be sure to take him to a vet immediately if you can’t remove the foxtail yourself. It’s important to act quickly. Foxtails can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections.