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Why Foxtails and Dogs Don't Mix

The Dangers of the Foxtail Plant

By Meredith Alling. July 23, 2013 | See Comments

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Why Foxtails and Dogs Don't Mix

Foxtails are spiky clusters of grass that can make their way into your dog's ears, eyes, nose, or skin while out for a walk and can cause serious health problems. Learn all about these dangerous plants here, in order to keep your pet safe.

One of the biggest seasonal hazards for dogs is also one of the least known. Foxtails are grass-like weeds that can become easily embedded in your dog’s feet, ears, nose, mouth, eyes, or skin. Foxtails have sharp points on one end and tiny barbs that make it easy for these plants to make their way into your dog’s body, but not out, causing damage along the way. Basically, foxtails and dogs don’t get along.

What are Foxtails?

Foxtails are spiky clusters of grass that serve to dispense seeds. All foxtails have a hardened tip, and the number of extending spikes (or spikelets) will vary depending on the species of grass. Barbs can be found on all parts of a foxtail, and these barbs are what move the plant in a “forward” direction through your dog’s body, lodging it deeper and deeper.

Where are Foxtails FOund?

Foxtails are found all over the United States, but mostly in the Western U.S., with the largest concentration in California.

Foxtails can grow just about anywhere, but especially in large open fields. They can also be found on roads, paths, weedy or overgrown areas, in small patches of grass, or in piles of leaves. Learn how to recognize the species of foxtail in your region so that you can avoid them.

When Do Foxtails grow?

Foxtail season is generally May-December, so dog owners should be extra careful during this time.

Signs That Your Dog May Have a Foxtail

The symptoms that your dog will show if they’ve picked up a foxtail will depend on the location. The most common parts of the body for foxtails to become stuck are the ears, feet, eyes, nose, and genital area.

  • Ears: If a foxtail is stuck in your dog’s ear, they may shake their head, tilt it to one side, or repeatedly scratch one ear. Check your dog’s ears. If you do not see anything, you may need to take a trip to the vet, as a foxtail could be deep inside the ear canal.
  • Feet: Your dog’s feet are foxtail magnets, especially the soft area between the toes. If you notice swelling or limping, or if your dog is persistently licking one foot, a foxtail could be the cause.
  • Nose: Just like humans, dogs will sneeze if something is caught in their nose. If your dog has a foxtail in their nasal passage, you may see violent sneezing, discharge, or a bloody nose.
  • Eyes: A foxtail in the eye can cause redness, swelling, discharge, squinting, or pawing at the eye.
  • Genitals: Many dogs regularly lick their genitals for grooming purposes, but if you notice incessant licking, it is possible that a foxtail is stuck in the area.

Other Symptoms:

  • If a foxtail is embedded under the skin anywhere on the body, you will see a small opening (a draining duct) and draining fluids.  
  • If a foxtail has been inhaled and entered the lungs, your dog may exhibit coughing and labored breathing.

Treatment For Foxtails

Foxtails and the bacteria they carry can cause swelling, pain, abscesses, and even death. As foxtails become embedded and move through your dog’s body, they can eventually reach any number of places -- including the lungs, brain, and spine. The sooner that you identify and remove a foxtail, the better off your dog will be.

Superficial Foxtails: If you see a foxtail and it is not deeply embedded, remove it with tweezers. If the foxtail won’t budge, or if you notice redness or swelling around the area, contact your veterinarian. The foxtail will need to be removed right away before it is able to burrow deeper into your dog’s body.

Embedded Foxtails: The problem with foxtails that you can’t see from the outside is that they are also difficult to see from the inside -- foxtails do not show up on x-rays or ultrasounds. Foxtails within your dog’s body are usually only found if an abscess or infection site is located, and your veterinarian suggests exploratory surgery to try to find the foxtail.

Foxtails that have made their way into your dog’s body but cannot be located may mean a lifetime of antibiotics to treat infections caused by the plant. Catching foxtails early is the best way to avoid this outcome.

How to Protect Your Dog From Foxtails

  • The number one way to protect your dog from foxtails is to avoid them! Stay away from overgrown areas, and learn how to recognize the species of foxtail that are native to your region.
  • After walks and other outings, brush out your dog’s coat and check for foxtails. Also check feet, paw pads, ears, nose, and mouth. Dogs with thick or curly hair and long ears are especially susceptible to picking up these plants.
  • Dogs with long coats can benefit from a shave or close trim during foxtail season, which generally lasts May-December depending on your geographic location.
More on Protecting Your Dog

Do I Really Need Flea and Tick Protections?
All About Vaccinating Your Dog
Heartworm Medication: Comparison Chart

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Foxtails at a glance

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  • 1Foxtails are grass-like weeds that can become easily embedded in your dog’s feet, ears, nose, eyes, or skin.
  • 2Foxtail season is generally May-December, and includes all parts of the US, but especially the West.
  • 3Symptoms will vary depending on the location of the foxtail on your dog’s body.
  • 4The best way to protect your dog from foxtails is to avoid them and to examine your dog after each walk.