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Foxtails – Barbed Seeds That Can Torture Our Pets

Many Bay Area pet owners are not aware that from April until after the first rains of autumn their dogs and cats are exposed to the danger of “foxtails” and the barbed seeds of other wild grasses.  There are several species of Foxtail, a grassy weed usually found only in states west of the Mississippi River. Most people out East have not heard of foxtail and are unaware of the danger they pose to our dogs. If you’re not sure what a foxtail seed looks like, ask a fellow dog owner or your vet to show you. Foxtail grass grows rapidly during the winter/spring rains and then dries out in the summer months.  As foxtail grasses mature, a seed forms at the top of the stalk. The seed resembles a fox’s tail, thus the name given to the grass.  This seed detaches easily and readily sticks to the clothing and fur.

Nature designed foxtails in such a way that they can actually plant themselves by burrowing their way into the earth. But they can also burrow into your pet. Foxtail seeds can enter a dog or cat’s body in a variety of ways and once they enter, are like a fishhook: the seed only wants to move forward, not backward. Clusters of these barbed seeds can penetrate the skin and cause deep wounds and abscesses.  They can work their way into any body opening, especially the ears, and can penetrate the skin, get between the toes and into the armpits. The eyes are very vulnerable. Foxtails can also be inhaled into the nostrils or lodge in the teeth and gums forming abscesses and serious infections.  Foxtail seeds in the ears, nose, and eyes are very serious and can ultimately be life-threatening if they are not treated promptly.  They can move through the body and penetrate the chest cavity and the reproductive organs with serious and sometimes fatal results.

Foxtail seeds are relatively small, so detecting them once they enter a dog’s body can be difficult.  Vets usually rely on telltale symptoms.  If your dog or cat exhibits any of the following symptoms, don’t wait to see if it goes away. It will only get worse. Get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

The best way to handle foxtail problems is prevention. Avoid foxtail-infested areas. Thoroughly brush and inspect your dog’s coat if it has been romping through tall, mature grass. Run your hands over their entire coat and look and feel for foxtails.  Keep long-haired dogs clipped, as they are particularly susceptible to foxtails.  Check between the dog’s toes.  Look into your dog’s ears. If your dog has floppy ears, lift each ear and inspect it.  If you believe your dog has a foxtail seed lodged somewhere in its body, get your dog to a vet IMMEDIATELY. The longer you wait, the deeper the foxtail may travel, the more damage it may do, and the more difficult it may be to treat. If the condition is left untreated, it may necessitate complicated surgery and even result in death.