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Foxtails-Watch Out!

If you own a dog, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. If you have a dog and you don’t know about foxtails, keep reading.

Foxtails are small plant awns or seed-bearing structures, usually of the genus Hordeum. Starting in the Spring and continuing through the Summer, plants shed them indiscriminately. We started to see a steady flow of foxtail cases in our veterinary practice mid-April, right after several days of heavy winds which helped yank the awns from their plants and spread them far and wide.

Foxtails are shaped like a badminton birdie, but with a pointy instead of a round end. They also have tiny barbs along their shafts. All this adds up to a unidirectional migration pattern; they go in but they don’t come out. The most common problems we see with foxtails are wounds in the paws. Often the owner will just notice a swelling between the toes and think it is a growth or a tumor. After piercing the skin and entering the body, foxtails can actually migrate up the leg, if left untreated. We also see foxtails in noses, ears, and eyes very often.

The most dangerous exposure occurs when dogs inhale them. This typically happens if a dog is porpoising through a field of foxtail plants and inhales one, mouth wide open. As the dog takes a deep breath, the foxtail bypasses all the normal barriers, so they can end up in the lower airways of the lungs. These can be difficult to find, require extensive and expensive treatment and surgery, and are often fatal. Other places foxtails have been found, in many cases post-mortem, include the brain, spinal cord, urinary tract, and abdomen.

Fortunately for dog owners, foxtails usually represent a minor health hazard, although the expense of having the foxtail removed by a veterinarian (usually under sedation or anesthesia) can be considerable. For us vets in northern California, foxtails are simultaneously the bane of our existence and a significant source of income during the spring and summer. I even heard about one veterinarian who owned a boat named “Foxtail.”

So, what can you do to protect your dog?

  • If it is a long-haired dog, keep the coat short during the Summer, especially the feet. There are groomers who will do a “foxtail cut” if requested.
  • After each walk, check your pet thoroughly and remove any plant material.
  • If your dog suddenly starts sneezing uncontrollably, squinting, or shaking its head during or immediately after a walk, there is an excellent chance a foxtail is involved. Call your veterinarian’s office.
  • Do not allow your dog to run through fields of tall grass that contain these plant awns. (This is what I worry about most.)
  • Check your backyard for plants that shed foxtails, and remove the plants completely.

There are plenty of these nasty little dudes on Bernal Hill, so keep an eye out!

-Written by Dr Zarday

Dr Peter Hill’s pug bravely faced this field of foxtails to bring you this picture!