By Paula Fitzsimmons
While enjoying the great outdoors with your dog, it’s important to watch out for foxtails, a type of grassy plant found in parks, open fields, backyards, and even on city sidewalks. They may seem harmless enough, but looks are deceiving.
The plants awns (seed heads) that rest atop the willowy foxtail plant contain sharp and sticky barbs. Once they take hold, they don’t let go. If you’ve ever tried to pluck them from your shoes or clothing, you know how stubborn (and painful) they are.
“They have a mechanism of moving forward with motion and don’t know the difference between soil and tissue,” says Dr. Raymond Bouloy, a veterinarian at Cypress Creek Pet Center in Cedar Park, Texas. “Once a foxtail starts to migrate, it will continue moving forward whether it’s in an ear canal, between toes, up the vulva, under an eyelid, or any other conceivable part of the body.”
Foxtails can cause severe damage to your dog’s health. “Dangers to dogs (and cats) include painful skin wounds with infections that can be difficult to eradicate as long as the foxtail is present,” he says. “If foxtails penetrate the chest wall or are inhaled, they can cause life-threatening chest cavity infections or lung abscesses. If the foxtail penetrates the nervous system, they can lead to spinal cord abscesses causing pain and paralysis or brain abscesses.”
The stakes are high, but by following these simple vet-recommended tips, you can help protect your canine companion and avoid a trip to the emergency room.
To protect your dog from contact, you first need to be able to identify a foxtail. “Awareness of the problem and being able to recognize what foxtails look like are the first key steps,” says Dr. Jason Nicholas, chief medical officer at Preventive Vet, based in Portland, Oregon.
Your region may be home to dozens of plant and grass species—so unless you know what to look for, you might mistake a foxtail plant for a wheat plant. Not all foxtails look the same, either. “Foxtails are generally golden brown but can vary from green to white to yellow to dark brown, and nearly black,” says Dr. Jason Sweitzer, a veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California. “They can also vary from half to three inches in length and one-eighth to half inch in width.”
There are different ways you can learn to identify foxtails, and other potentially dangerous plants, lurking in your region. The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, for example, maintains a database with pictures and maps. Other good places to educate yourself on dangerous plants include your regional U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) office, your county’s extension office, or a local garden club.
Getting Rid of Foxtails in Your Yard
You may not be able to control what grows in public places, but you can remove foxtails situated on your own property. One option is to trim or mow tall grasses from your backyard, then remove the trimmings, says Sweitzer, whose professional interests include behavior and emergency veterinary medicine.
Or you can try Bouloy’s recommendation: “If foxtails, spear grass, or other hazardous weeds or grass are getting a foothold in the area where a dog frequents, I would recommend removing these harmful grasses and plants with an approved herbicide, or burning the area under supervision with a hose readily available.” (Make sure you have a license to do prescribed burns, and use the least toxic herbicide available.)
Watch Your Dog’s Steps
Exercising with your dog is a good thing for both of you. But walking outside during the summer can also be like navigating a landmine, if foxtails are prevalent in your area.
“When possible, avoid fields, yards, parks, and even parts of the sidewalk or parking lots where foxtails are present,” says Nicholas, whose site focuses on pet safety.
If your dog will tolerate it, you can also try putting on protective gear. “That could include dog booties to help protect their paws and a special mesh head guard (specially designed to protect dogs from foxtails),” he says.
Examine Your Dog’s Coat
Make it a habit to check your dog for exposure to foxtails after walks, just like you would check for ticks, Sweitzer says. Once you’ve located the foxtail awn, try to dislodge it.
“Start by running a slicker brush through all of her hair,” he says. “Next, run your fingers between each toe and paw pad, around the ears, armpits, and the tail.” You’ll know you’ve found a foxtail because “they generally feel stiffer and sharper than regular hair, and will catch in the brush or will be felt by your finger.”
You can also try using a comb, Nicholas says. “If people can comb their dog after walks and hikes, that helps, especially if they use a fine-tooth comb, like a flea comb. This won’t only pick up foxtails, but can also help check for ticks and fleas.”
Trim Your Dog’s Hair During Foxtail Season
Summertime is when foxtails dry up and seeds disperse, making exposure more likely. Trimming your dog’s hair during the summer is a surefire way to not only keep your dog cooler, but also protect him from foxtails. Trimming your dog’s hair shorter can make it harder for the foxtails to stick, Sweitzer says. “A groomer can scoop out most of the hair between the toes and the pads. They can also trim or sometimes pluck the ear hair to make it harder to stick in the ear.”
Know When to Call Your Vet
Dogs sometimes need multiple, extensive surgeries to find and remove foxtails, Nicholas says. “Some dogs die from infections and other complications from foxtails.” This makes recognizing the signs of foxtail exposure and knowing when to call your vet for evaluation a priority, he says.
If your dog is excessively licking a paw, shaking his head, or squinting or holding an eye shut, he may have encountered a foxtail awn, says Bouloy, who is board-certified in canine/feline practice. Sneezing or nasal discharge may be signs that a foxtail is stuck in the nasal cavity. “I have seen non-specific signs with fever and abdominal pain from foxtails migrating into the abdominal cavity,” he adds. “I have seen dogs and cats with pain and difficulty urinating with foxtails in the vaginal vault or lodged in the urethra. Foxtails can migrate and penetrate any body system.”
Foxtail awn exposure can be painful, as well as lethal, to your dog. Taking precautions to prevent contact is your best defense against the dangers these plants can cause.