By: Dr. Juli, DVM
Outdoor adventures with your favorite four-legged friend are one of the many joys of summer. Many dog owners take advantage of the time off from work and pleasant weather to explore new parks and trails, which can be a great way to exercise and mentally enrich your pup. However, the great outdoors can all contain dangerous hazards for your dog.
Foxtails are a common summer danger that can lead to illness and pain for your pup. Recognizing foxtail plants and signs of infection will ensure you act swiftly to protect your dog from these bad seeds.
What are foxtails?
Foxtails, or grass awns, describe certain grasses with barbed seed clusters resembling a fox’s tail. Unlike the tail of a fox, though, these plants are soft and fluffy. The projections on the seeds allow for easy attachment and spread throughout the environment. The seeds are arranged in spiked clusters with backward-facing barbs that enable burrowing in the ground and prevent them from exiting or migrating in reverse.
Various grasses contain these problematic seeds, including Canadian wheat rye, timothy, June grass, green foxtail, cheatgrass, giant foxtail, downy brome, and annual summer grass. Although foxtails are found throughout North America, they are primarily problematic in the Western U.S., especially California, during the warmer months. Foxtail season is considered to be active between June and August. Generally, these grasses will die during the colder winter months.
Common locations where you and your pup may encounter foxtails include:
- Hiking trails
- Camping sites
- Open grassy fields
- Overgrown yards
- Wooded areas with tall grasses and thick brush
Where and how do dogs become infected with foxtail?
These spiky seeds can attach to any part of your dog’s body and create wounds, making them prone to infection. The seeds can also burrow into your dog’s skin while dragging dirt and bacteria into your dog’s body. In more severe cases, foxtail can migrate to your dog’s vital organs, which can be fatal without immediate treatment. Because the seeds do not break down, your dog’s immune system will respond by creating an abscess around the foreign object in your pup. The bacteria and dirt can also cause your dog to suffer from a painful infection, which can spread throughout the body.
Although foxtail can invade any part of your dog’s body, commonly affected areas include:
- Inside the eye
- Up the nostrils
- In or around the mouth
- Between the toes or on the paw
- Inside the ears
- In the vagina or prepuce
- On the spine
- On the chest area (high risk for internal migration)
Foxtail infection signs
It may not be immediately apparent that your dog has a foxtail because it can take several days for a painful infection to develop. Signs are variable and depend on where the seed has migrated, including:
- Green/yellow nasal discharge
- Nose bleeds
- Eye squinting, redness, or discharge
- Pawing at the face or ears
- Excess scratching at a particular body area
- Head shaking
- Head tilt
- Recurrent sneezing and coughing
- Foul odor from the infection site
- Excess licking of any part of the body
- Red, swollen skin
- A lump or raised area of skin or paw
- Decreased appetite
- Depression or behavior change
Diagnosing and treating foxtail infections
If a foxtail seed is clearly visible and attached to the surface of your dog’s fur, you can attempt to remove it with tweezers. Ensure to clean the surface area with mild antiseptic following removal. However, if your pup has an embedded foxtail or shows signs of a foxtail infection, bring them for immediate veterinary care. Attempts to remove the seed can result in partial removal, which allows it to migrate further into your dog’s body.
Your DVM will perform a nose-to-tail examination to search for evidence of an infection. In some cases, advanced imaging, like an X-ray or ultrasound, may be required to identify the foxtail location. Blood work may also be recommended to rule out other underlying causes for your dog’s signs or to ensure their organs can safely process anesthetic agents.
Other treatments may include:
- Exploratory surgery to remove the foxtail
- Wound debridement and flushing
- Oral or intravenous (IV) antibiotic medication
- Pain medication
- Bandaging of the paw or affected area
- Topical antiseptic
- Topical antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs or sprays
- Hospitalization with supportive care, including IV fluids, for dogs with severe systemic infections or affected organs
Tips for preventing foxtails on your dog
Foxtail infections are not always preventable, especially if you and your pup frequently take walks in the great outdoors. However, early recognition and treatment will prevent a potentially deadly infection. Long-coated dogs have an increased risk of catching these hitchhiking seeds, so consider giving your pup a summer haircut so that you can more easily identify a foxtail on their coat.
Other prevention tips include:
- Keeping your dog well groomed.
- Checking your dog’s body after any walks outdoors in grassy or wooded areas. Pay close attention to their mouth, paw pads, nose, ear canals and ear drums, and their collar region.
- Leash-walking your dog to prevent them from wandering into areas where foxtail grasses are present.
- Protecting your dog’s chest and abdomen with a properly fitted shirt (use caution during warmer temperatures to prevent overheating).
- Protecting your dog’s face, ears, and mouth with an Outfox hood.
- Protecting your dog’s paws with properly-fitted, lightweight booties.
- Avoiding areas with heavy brush, grasses, or visible foxtail.
- Removing foxtails from your yard.
Foxtail infections are extremely painful to your dog. They can be deadly if they migrate to their vital organs throughout their body. Ensure to bring your pup for a veterinary visit at the first sign of a problem, and regularly brush and inspect your dog after walks if you live in an area where foxtails grow.
For more tips on your pet’s health, check out the Native Pet blog.