Foxtails - A Danger to Your Pet

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“Foxtail” is a generic term for several types of wild grass with specially-designed parts to disperse the plant’s seeds.  They have a hard tip, or “callus” and bushy spikes resembling a fox’s tail, hence the name.  They attach themselves to anything that passes by:  in the case of humans: socks, pants, coats, shirts, etc. and in the case of pets: their fur, ears, nostrils, foot pads, etc.  They have microscopic barbs that cling to whatever they encounter and any movement causes them to burrow deeper, in only one direction, into the pet’s fur, skin, or other body part.

They are also known as grass seed awns, spear grass, timothy, cheat grass, June grass, and Downy Brome.  They are widespread, nearly impossible to avoid, and pose a real danger to pets.  They are often found in open or unkept areas and backyards, along trails, railroad tracks, roadsides, and other overgrown grassy areas. They are found in all but 7 U.S. states.  Unfortunately, Utah is not one of those without this plant.

They are a nuisance to humans, as anyone that has spent long periods of time picking them out of one’s clothing; in pets of any size they can also become a health hazard and can even occasionally cause death if it hits a vital organ, such as the lungs, heart, brain, liver, and vital glands.  Foxtails may become permanently lodged and can burrow through the animal’s soft tissues and organs.  This can cause infection and physical disruption of bodily functions.

If a foxtail is lodged in the pet’s surface fur or skin, it can be removed with gentle combing and grooming and any lesions treated as would any other small puncture wound.  Once a foxtail enters under the skin it doesn’t break down.  It continues to move forward - never backward and removal is difficult and antibiotics, sedation, or even surgery may be required.   A hollow path is left behind where the awn passes and this is generally infected and generates pus.   X-rays and ultrasound do not easily identify foxtails, so veterinarians may have a difficult time locating them once inside the pet’s body.

A foxtail in an ear canal can cause a punctured eardrum and cause hearing loss. In the nose it can move into the interior, causing intense distress and, in rare cases, into the brain.  Other areas where foxtails can lodge include: the mouth, the tonsilar crypt, or being swallowed; being inhaled into the lungs, into an anus, vagina, penile sheath, into a chest cavity, open wounds, the animal’s blood stream, between a pet’s toes, foot pads, or even under the pet’s third eyelid.

A article of 05/15/18, by Ginna Roe, “Foxtail likely to blame for young dog’s death” related the story of a Utah family whose Norwegian elkhound-Poodle died in March from pneumonia, which the family’s veterinarian believed likely started with a foxtail.  

Look for the following signs that your pet has a foxtail somewhere on or in its body: excessive head shaking, pawing at their eyes, ears or nose, avoiding the touching of their head, an unusual head tilt, painful lumps on the skin, redness and/or discharge from the ear, limping or excessive licking of a paw, swelling of the paw or a lump between its toes, violent sneezing, coughing, or gagging; difficult breathing, sudden onset bad breath, lack of appetite, nasal discharge, swollen, red, or irritated eyes; squinting, dragging an eye along the carpet or across furniture, or excessive licking of genital areas.

If your pet goes outside and may come in contact with grass seeds or foxtails, examine and groom your pets frequently with a fine-toothed comb.  If you see foxtails in your pet’s hair coat, gently remove them with your fingers, a brush, or tweezers before they can penetrate deeper and cause problems.
If you can’t remove a foxtail, contact your veterinarian right away before the problem gets worse and more painful to your pet.  

It’s recommended that if your yard has foxtails growing in it, you shouldn’t mow it, but rather pull the weeds out by the roots and dispose of the entire plant.  Mowing could spread the grass seeds all over your yard.