“Foxtail” is a generic term that’s often applied to several species of wild grasses, but is specifically associated with a type of wild barley that is indigenous to the western United States. The weed tends to grow in grassland areas and is common along roadsides, trails, and areas that include human disturbance, such as dumps. It also grows well on flatlands and Western prairies, and in irrigated meadows. Foxtails grow quickly with winter and spring rains. As they mature, a seed forms at the top of the stalk. With its soft, bushy appearance, the seed, which is comprised of numerous seed heads, looks like a fox’s tail – hence the name.
As the plant begins to dry out in the summer months, the seed heads, or awns, become brittle and fall off. As they continue to dry, the foxtail breaks into smaller and smaller segments each with a sharp-pointed awn sporting a few long bristles. Viewed under a magnifying glass, each bristle is covered with an infinite number of microscopic barbs. If an animal brushes by the dry plant or steps on it, sniffs it, rolls on it, or lies on it, the microscopic barbs catch on its fur.
Sometimes an awn may fall from the animal’s fur on its own. However, if the awn doesn’t fall out, or it hooks into another area of the animal, trouble may begin.
If you pick up a foxtail awn and stroke it with your fingers, you’ll quickly learn why this plant is so dangerous to dogs. The microscopic barbs facilitate the awn’s movement in one direction, following the sharp point of the seed. But you can’t rub the bristle the other way; the tiny barbs catch and prevent the backward movement of the bristle. If you force it, the bristle breaks off, leaving the rest of the awn behind.
Dogs often pick up foxtails between their toes and the flexing motion of the dog’s feet helps the foxtail work deeper and deeper between the toes, until it pierces the skin and keeps going. It’s also extremely common for dogs to get foxtails in their nostrils as they sniff and smell in the grass. Other common sites for foxtails to embed include the dog’s ears, eyes, and throats. Dogs can swallow them or actually aspirate them into the airways, which is very dangerous. Foxtails have also found their way into dogs’ anuses, vaginas, penile sheaths, or open wounds.
Once inside a dog, awns continue to burrow inward. If they are not found and removed quickly, they may embed in the animal’s body. An awn will continue to travel throughout a dog’s body, often leaving a hollow tract behind it, until it either comes up against something it can’t go through (such as bone), or pops out through the skin. Foxtails that insinuate their way deep into the dog’s body can be there to stay. Autopsies have discovered foxtails in dogs’ glands, hearts, brains, lungs, livers, and other organs.
Foxtails cannot be absorbed by the dog’s body, nor can they be broken down or digested, although if an awn is swallowed and reaches the stomach, it will probably just pass through.
The two main dangers posed by foxtails are foreign-body reactions and infections. The levels of the threat ranges from irritating, such as an abscess between a dog’s toes from a foxtail, to medical emergencies. Foxtails that have penetrated the chest wall or the abdominal wall may be life threatening. Foxtails that get deep into the nasal passages can continue to travel into the brain and cause seizures or death, or cause pneumonia or other infections when they enter a lung.
Foxtails in the ears can rupture eardrums or cause chronic ear infections, while foxtails in the eye can lead to conjunctivitis or blindness. Foxtails can create conduits for outside infection. Dirt-borne bacteria can be introduced into the body cavity by a burrowing awn and can wreak havoc. Discospondylitis, an infection of the spinal vertebra and intervertebral discs, can be introduced by foxtail migration.
Almost any dog that goes outdoors can encounter foxtails. Dogs with long fur are more likely to pick up and retain foxtails than short-haired breeds. Prick-eared dogs may be more likely to get foxtails in their ears than dogs with hanging ears.
The symptoms of an embedded foxtail depend on its location.
• The skin and the area under the skin are the most common sites for foxtails in pets, usually on the feet and the anterior portions of the chest and shoulders. Foxtails embedded in or under the skin cause swelling, pain, redness, and drainage of clear or bloody fluid from the site. Pets often lick the affected area of skin, and hair loss may occur. Limping is common if a foxtail is embedded in the foot.
• Foxtails located in the eye cause severe swelling, pain, and discharge. The eye usually will be held tightly closed.
• Foxtails in the nose usually cause violent sneezing. Mucus or blood may drain from one nostril.
• Foxtails located in the ear may cause head shaking, scratching or pawing at the ear, and an abnormal posture with one ear tilted downwards. An ear infection may develop in the affected ear, or the eye on the affected side may begin to appear abnormal.
• Foxtails that lodge behind the tonsils may cause a dry, honking cough (cats, dogs) or frequent, hard swallowing.
• Foxtails that migrate through the body may cause severe lethargy, pain, lack of appetite, weight loss, coughing, or difficulty breathing.
In many instances, foxtails are difficult to locate and are not visible on X-rays. However, inflammation and swelling associated with foxtails may be detectable on X-rays or CT scans. If a foxtail can be located, physical removal is the most effective treatment. Depending on the location, sedation or anesthesia may be required to search for and remove a foxtail. Antibiotics often are used to treat infections. Affected areas may be cleaned and flushed with antiseptic solutions. If a foxtail is suspected but cannot be located and removed, long-term antibiotics often are coupled with aggressive flushing and cleaning of the affected area.
After a foxtail is located and removed, symptoms generally resolve in 24-96 hours. Persistent symptoms may indicate the presence of additional foxtails or other medical issues. If a foxtail is suspected but cannot be located or removed, follow up evaluation by a veterinarian may be necessary, in some cases procedures to search for a remove foxtails must be repeated several times.
Preventing foxtails from embedding in your dog is critically important. Following these tips can significantly reduce the chances that your dog will suffer from health complications caused by foxtails:
• Do not let your dog near foxtails. You’ll find foxtails along roadsides, in fields, around telephone poles, in sidewalk plantings and other areas.
• Keep them out of your dog’s yard and enclosure. The best way to get remove them from your yard is to pull them out. I would recommend against mowing them because you could blow seeds all over your yard.
• Keep your dog’s coat clean and well-groomed to help reduce seed accumulation and make for easier daily inspections.
• Inspect your dog daily for foxtails, especially in hair mats and the feet, focusing an areas between toes and pads. Clipping the hair between paw pads will reduce potential for picking up the seeds.
• Any time your dog is excessively sneezing, drooling, shaking their head, scratching ears, whining, licking at its paw, or other body part excessively, have it checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible to prevent further damage.