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Foxtails

By: Juliette Walters, RVT

Foxtail grasses are a common sight in the open spaces, vacant lots and unlandscaped yards of Southern California.   The “foxtail” name applies to several different grasses all boasting a bushy cluster of spikes resembling the tail of a fox.  As these grasses die off they turn brown and brittle at which point they become a serious threat to our pets, especially dogs.

The spiked clusters of the dried foxtail plant break down into many small, barbed spikelets.  The hardened, barbed tip of the spikelets are designed to penetrate the arid ground, a design which also makes them well-suited to burrowing through a pet’s fur and into the skin.

The barbs of the foxtail make it so that the spikelets can only move in one direction.  As a result, once it enters the hair, movement of the pet will cause the foxtail to continue traveling through the hair towards the skin until it becomes lodged in the tissue.  From there, it can burrow under the skin and wreak havoc.

Foxtails can become embedded in any part of the body that they brush against.  Most common are the pet’s toes, ears, eyes, nose or even the skin of the legs and chest.  The spikelets often become irreversibly lodged, leading to tissue damage and infection. When burrowed in the toe, foot, or skin, an embedded foxtail may present as a dermal infection, a small red lump or a small open wound.  In the ear, a foxtail may cause a severe and painful ear infection or even threaten the ear drum.   In the nose, foxtails can cause significant irritation or infection leading to severe sneezing, bloody discharge or respiratory distress.  Occasionally, we even see foxtails lodged under the gums or in the tonsils of a pet who is fond of chewing the long grasses. Once embedded, foxtails rarely work their way out on their own.  Veterinary intervention is usually required to remove foxtails, treat the resulting wound and cure the infection resulting from a “foreign body” invasion.

Some signs of a potential foxtail infection:

  • Severe sneezing
  • Nasal discharge or bleeding (usually out only one nostril)
  • Pawing at the nose, ears or eyes
  • Sudden squinting of one eye
  • Head tilt
  • Head shaking
  • Obsessive licking between his toes or pads
  • Gagging, retching, coughing or repeated swallowing

The best prevention for a foxtail infection is simply to avoid areas where foxtails are present.  These grasses are common residents of open space areas and vacant lots in the late Spring and throughout the Summer.  They resemble wheat or similar grains and are most easily identified by the bushy cluster of spikes resembling a fox’s tail.  If you see these, it is best to simply keep your pet from walking near them.  Keep your pet leashed on hikes (besides being the law this can also help keep your pet safe from rattlesnakes) and observe any unlandscaped parts of your yard for growth of these common wild grasses.
In the event your pet comes in contact with foxtails, check their feet (between the toes), ears, nose, eyes and coat carefully for hitchhiking spikes.  In long coated dogs, thoroughly comb their coat to pull out any foxtails or other foreign matter.  Keeping the hair on your pet’s feet short can help prevent foxtail invasion too.

If you suspect your pet may have a picked up one of these nasty hitchhikers, contact your veterinarian right away.  The longer these cases wait, the deeper the foxtail can burrow and the more damage can be done.