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The Dangers of Foxtails

By Colleen Williams and medically reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM
May 18, 2018 • 4 min. read
dog wandering through grass

One person’s idea of a beautiful meadow can be a pet parent’s nightmare. Those long-stemmed grasses often contain foxtails (also called awns), and they are downright hazardous for pets. The barbed seed heads of the foxtail can work their way into any part of your pet. They can dig into the skin, be inhaled and lodge into the lungs, burrow into the spine, and can even lead to death.

foxtail grass seeds

What is a Foxtail?

A foxtail is a type of seedhead that occurs in several species of grass. Foxtails look like (wait for it) the tail of a fox, with layers of upward-facing spines protruding from the center. Foxtails are mostly found in drier western states but can pop up just about anywhere, primarily in open areas with tall grass such as hiking trails, overgrown parks, and open fields.

Unmown grasses produce seedheads that dry out in the summer and fall. These foxtails are designed to break off and hitch a ride on passersby to help grasses reproduce and spread. Unfortunately, foxtails are sharp, barbed, and streamlined, which means they can embed in and move through your pet’s skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, lungs… basically anywhere.

What are the Risks and Symptoms?

Foxtails go beyond a simple irritation because they’re tough seeds that don’t break down. An embedded or inhaled foxtail can lead to a serious infection for your dog or cat. They can cause discharge, abscesses, swelling, pain, and, worst of all, death. If you live around foxtails and your pet is displaying any of the following symptoms, visit your vet:

  • Ears: The most common spot! The usual symptoms include head shaking, a head tilt, or scratching of the ear. Some foxtails burrow deeply into the ear canal so you may not be able to see them.
  • Nose: Nasal discharge that may contain blood or pus and frequent, intense sneezing can mean that a foxtail is lodged in a nasal passage. There might also be gagging, difficulty breathing, and bad breath.
  • Mouth: Excessive licking, drooling, gagging, swelling of the gums, and lack of appetite can be seen when a foxtail is lodged in a pet’s mouth.
  • Paws: Foxtails love to burrow in between toes and paw pads! If your pup is limping after a walk or if your cat is gnawing at her feet, check to make sure there isn’t a foxtail lodged somewhere in a paw.
  • Eyes: Redness, watering, swelling, and rubbing at an eye can mean a foxtail is lodged under an eyelid. Seek veterinary care immediately.
  • Skin: Foxtails can cause swollen areas in or under the skin. They may drain pus or other fluids.
  • Genitals: Foxtails can even find their way to this area and can cause infections and abscesses. If you see your pet persistently licking at its genitals, foxtails could be the cause.
  • Internal organs: Once they’ve gained access to the body, foxtails can move almost anywhere including abdominal organs, the lungs, and the spinal cord. Symptoms will depend on where the foxtail is located and how much damage it has done.

Keep in mind, some foxtail injuries are fairly obvious – you might be able to see a foxtail in your pet’s eye or lodged in their gums – but oftentimes you’ll have no idea that a foxtail is to blame for your pet’s symptoms. If you can easily remove the foxtail at home, great, but if your dog or cat is exhibiting any of the signs that could be related to the presence of an embedded or inhaled foxtail, see your vet asap. Not only are they uncomfortable for your pet, but they can also cause significant illness and injury, particularly if they are left untreated.

How You Can Prevent Foxtail Issues

Any pet can get foxtails if they are outside in areas where they occur. The most common injuries from foxtails are seen in dogs that run free in tall grass. You can prevent issues by doing the following:

  • Examine your pet’s coat after visiting areas with overgrown grass. While you brush your dog, look closely for foxtails in the fur.
  • Check paws for foxtails – especially between the toes and paw pads, as well as your pet’s face, ears, mouth, and gums.
  • Use tweezers to remove any seeds you can easily get to. If a foxtail is deeply embedded, or if the area around it is red or swollen, call your vet right away. Deeply embedded foxtails will not come out on their own and have been known to burrow anywhere – including the brain, spine, eardrums, lungs, and kidneys.
  • Avoid walks through overgrown, grassy areas. Be especially watchful for foxtails at parks that have uncut grass and on hiking trails.
  • For hunting dogs, dogs in rural areas, and hiking/outdoorsy dogs — try these prevention aids:
    • Face Protection: OutFox Field Guard, a netted protective hood that keeps a myriad of culprits out of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
    • Paw Protection: You’ll want to try protective dog booties, such as Ruffwear and Muttluks. Keep in mind that even if you use a hood or booties, you still need to check your dog’s coat.
    • Protective Vest: Cuga Vests and other similar products can help prevent foxtails from lodging in a dog’s fur or skin as they run through the grass.
  • Weed out any foxtail-producing plants you find in your yard.
  • Consider a haircut! Trim your dog’s fur so foxtails are easy to see, especially if you’ve had foxtail issues in the past.
  • Keep cats inside and walk dogs on a leash.

What Would a Foxtail Injury Cost?

Depending on the severity of the problem, treatment for foxtail injuries can range from under $100 for simple removal and medical care to $5,000+ for a complicated case that requires surgery. One Healthy Paws pet parent’s very fluffy husky, Rocky, had a foxtail incident that caused recurrent abscesses in the groin area. Vets discovered swelling around a puncture wound from four months prior and suspected a migrating foxtail. After $5,905 in surgical costs to find the culprit, they removed the seed awn and the pup has since healed without another foxtail issue. Luckily, they had pet insurance and got reimbursed 90% of the treatment.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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jennifer coates
By Jennifer Coates, DVM

Dr. Jennifer Coates received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. After graduation, she worked for several years in the fields of conservation and animal welfare before pursuing her childhood dream—becoming a veterinarian. She graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and has worked as an Associate Veterinarian and Chief of Staff in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. Jennifer is also a prolific writer about all things related to veterinary medicine and the well-being of our animal friends. She has published several short stories and books, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian. She currently contributes to the Healthy Paws pet insurance blog as a freelance writer. In her free time, Jennifer enjoys life in Colorado with her family and friends… many of whom walk on four legs.

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