Foxtails: Tiny but Deadly

They are typically called Foxtails (bushy spikelets or spikelet clusters that resemble a fox’s tail) or Grass Awns (bristle-like fibers). They are present from May through December and abundant after rainy, moist weather (in sidewalk cracks, edges of roads, alongside trails and in pastures).

While found throughout the USA; the types of grasses that produce foxtails are most common in the western United States (west of the Mississippi). Usually, the worst cases are found in California.

Foxtails are also known by other names, including:

  • Wild Barley
  • Cheat Grass
  • Needlegrass
  • Bromegrass
  • Spear Grass

Foxtails are produced once certain types of grasses have gone to seed; and their hardened tip and arrow-shaped barbs pose a real threat to your dog (and cat). To make matters worse, the Whole Dog Journal warns that a single foxtail “is made up of dozens of hard, pointed seeds”  all ready to become easily – and quickly – embedded in your dog.

Foxtails commonly become embedded in the following areas (although they are not limited to just these areas):

  • Ears;
  • Eyes;
  • Mouth;
  • Nose (foxtails can be easily inhaled);
  • Paws and toes; and
  • Genitals and groin area.
  • Long ears and long and/or curly hair are also potential targets for foxtails.
  • But foxtails can also just latch onto your dog’s fur or skin with their barbed seed heads and over time eventually work themselves into your dog’s body; even into vital organs (like the brain, lungs, eardrums and spine) causing irreversible damage and possible death.

Despite their tiny size, the real issue behind foxtails is that the canine body cannot degrade or break down these tough, hard seed heads. Once embedded into the body, they easily travel (burrow) throughout the body (and because of the microscopic barbs, they cannot work themselves back out of the body; they can only travel “forward”).  So what may start out as a simple irritation, an embedded foxtail can lead to a deadly infection that could, if left untreated, lead to death.

Signs Your Dog May Have Embedded Foxtails

  • Body/Skin: Persistent licking or chewing at a specific spot (including the genitals); swelling, abscesses and open sores.
  • Ears/Ear Canals: Incessant scratching or pawing; tilting or shaking of the head.
  • Eyes/Eyelids: Redness, discharge or tears, swelling, inflammation, squinting or pawing.
  • Mouth/Gums/Tongue/Throat: Coughing, retching and/or gagging; difficulty eating and swallowing.
  • Nose: Discharge; bloody nose; excessive, even violent, sneezing; repeated pawing.
  • Paws: Swelling or limping.
  • Unexplained fever, vomiting or difficulty breathing.

Preventing Issues from Foxtails

After being outside (especially in areas where foxtails are common; including open fields, areas of tall grasses and overgrown grassy areas), always check your dog’s:

  • Armpits.
  • Coat/fur.
  • Genital/groin area.
  • Face, ears, mouth and gums.
  • Paws (especially between the toes).

Remove any foxtails you find with tweezers (if it can be easily removed). However, if one is already embedded or the area around the foxtail is red and/or swollen, see your veterinarian immediately for proper medical attention.

If you commonly find foxtails in a certain area of your dog’s body, consider trimming the hair in that area to avoid more foxtails becoming attached. To keep painful and potentially dangerous foxtails out of your dog’s ears, nose and eyes, an OutFox Field Guard is helpful (essentially a mesh bag over the dog’s head that doesn’t affect natural breathing, panting, sniffing and drinking). Protective vests (covering the chest and abdomen) can also help prevent foxtails from attaching to the dog’s body.

To learn more about foxtails:

Leave a Reply