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The Dangers of Foxtails

By Colleen Williams
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 are called foxtails, and they are downright hazardous for pets. The barbed seed heads of the foxtail can work into any part of your pet; they can dig into the skin, be inhaled and lodge into lungs, burrow into the spine, and can lead to death.

foxtail grass seeds

What is a Foxtail?

The foxtail plant is a grass-like weed that looks like, well, the tail of a fox, with layers of upward-facing spines protruding from the center. It is mostly found in the Western half of the U.S., but can pop up just about anywhere in North America. In drier western states, particularly California, foxtails are pretty common. You can find foxtails most often in open areas such as hiking trails, in overgrown parks and open fields.

Wet fall and winter months give way to dry summers, causing the seed pods to dry off, break away, and go looking for a place to burrow – just hopefully not in your pet! Due to the unique shape of this seed, it’s built to move, which can mean it is moving into your pet’s skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, into the lungs… basically anywhere.

What are the Risks & Symptoms?

Foxtails go beyond simple irritation because they’re not just tough seeds that don’t break down if eaten, they also migrate inside pet’s bodies if inhaled. An embedded foxtail can lead to 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 shaking, tilting, or scratching of the head. Some foxtails burrow deeply into the ear canal, so a trip to the vet isn’t off the table!
  • Nose & lungs: Runny nasal discharge that may be bloody and frequent, intense sneezing without other obvious symptoms of an allergy can mean that a foxtail is lodged in a nasal passage. There might also be gagging, difficulty breathing, and even sudden bad breath.
  • Mouth: Excessive licking, drooling, gagging, swelling of the gums, and lack of appetite.
  • Paws: Foxtails love to burrow in between toes! 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 in the toe pad.
  • Eyes: Redness, watering, swelling, and pawing can mean a foxtail has burrowed into your pet’s eye. Seek veterinary care immediately.
  • Genitals: Foxtails even find their way to this area, and can cause abscesses. If you see your pet persistently licking at its genitals, foxtails could be the cause.

Keep in mind, some foxtail injuries are fairly obvious – you should be able to see if a foxtail has effectively “stabbed” your pet’s eye or you see it lodged in their gums. If you can’t easily remove the foxtail at home, or 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, they can cause significant damage.

How You Can Prevent Foxtail Issues

Any pet can get foxtails in the ears, nose, eyes, or mouth, if they are outside. The most common injuries from foxtails are seen in dogs with long ears and curly hair. You can prevent issues by doing the following:

  • Examine your pet’s coat during “foxtail season” (generally May through December), especially if you frequently visit open fields with overgrown grass. While you brush your dog, look closely for foxtails in fur.
  • Check paw pads – especially between the toes, as well as your pet’s face, ears, mouth and gums for foxtails.
  • 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. Foxtails will not come out on their own, and have been known to burrow anywhere – brain, spine, eardrums, lungs, and kidneys.
  • Avoid walks through overgrown, grassy areas. Be especially watchful for foxtails at parks that aren’t landscaped and 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 out a myriad of culprits from the eyes, ears, noses, 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.
  • Weed out any foxtail plants you find in your yard.
  • Consider a haircut! Trim your dog’s fur during foxtail season, especially if you’ve had foxtail issues in the past.
  • Keep cats inside.

What Would a Foxtail Injury Cost?

Depending on the severity of the foxtail issue, these injuries range anywhere from $500 for removal and care to $5,000+ for full 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 surgery 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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