What are Foxtails and Why Do They Pose a Danger to Pets?
By: The Veterinarians and Staff at Porte Veterinary Hospital in Campbell, CA
What are Foxtails?
Say the word “foxtail” and most people envision something bushy connected to the backend of a cute and clever four-legged creature.
However, when your veterinarians here at Porte talk about foxtails, we are referring to tiny trouble makers that are anything but cute. In fact, they can be downright deadly.
The term foxtail is the somewhat generic term used to describe a variety of different types of seeds, seed awns, or seed packets which tend to grow at the top of tall grass.
Here in the Silicon Valley area, you may have noticed this tall grass growing along the side of the road, at the base of hillsides, etc.
From a distance, this tall grass looks harmless, sometimes beautiful, especially when it is still green and waves effortlessly in soft springtime breezes.
During summer and fall, when the grass dries-out and turns from green to brown, the seed packets break free from the blades of grass and get blown around by the wind until they find a suitable spot to settle-in and put down some roots.
Why Are Foxtails Dangerous for Pets?
If you and your dog live pretty much anywhere in California, you should be concerned about foxtails because foxtails are uniquely designed to propagate by burrowing deeper and deeper into the ground.
When foxtails accidentally end-up attached to your pet’s fur, or get stuck in your pet’s feet, or inhaled and snarfed-up your pet’s nose, these foxtails have no idea they’ve ended-up in something other than dirt. So, they behave as they’ve been designed; to burrow deeper, and deeper, and deeper as they attempt to propagate.
This is a picture of one spikelet of a foxtail which was surgically removed because it was lodged into the gum next to a dog’s tooth which caused a big problem. As you can see, the foxtail is designed to pierce the ground with the sharp pointy end. You can also see the V-shape and long barbs along the sides of the foxtail. This unique shape and design ensures the foxtail moves in only one direction; IN!
Meaning, if it penetrates your pet’s body, the foxtail will start its burrowing behavior and deadly migration IN to your pet’s feet, mouth, eyes, nostrils, ears, etc. Here is a video of a foxtail being extracted from a dog’s ear:
It only takes one tiny foxtail to wreak havoc in your pet. And this year, the foxtails are enjoying a bumper crop!
Prevention is the best medicine. However, with all of the rain we’ve had, it is going to be very difficult to keep your pets completely safe from foxtails because we are seeing them everywhere around the Campbell area.
We’re seeing foxtails in back yards, on hiking trails, along roadways, between the cracks of the sidewalk… Everywhere!
Although it may be difficult to totally prevent a foxtail encounter, what you can do is immediately and thoroughly check your pet for signs of foxtails.
If you think a foxtail may have already penetrated your pet’s skin, paw pads, nostrils, eyes, ears, mouth, gums, teeth, throat, etc., seek immediate veterinary care.
And the sooner the better because foxtails become invisible invaders – not to be seen on x-rays like some other foreign bodies which we can see on xrays. This is another reason foxtails are so dangerous.
Your best chance to catch them is while still visible on the outside of your pet’s body – or if they’ve very recently penetrated your pet and your pet is showing signs or symptoms.
Where to Look?
Arm yourself with a brush, fine-tooth comb, tweezers, and a flashlight. And then check:
Top and Bottom. In between toes and in between paw pads.
Really pull your dog’s arms and legs, all four limbs, apart and thoroughly inspect the areas where their limbs connect to their body.
Lift their lips, check in between teeth, under the tongue, down the throat.
Do the best you can to look up in there. Most pets will have already let you know about nostril invaders by excessive sneezing or pawing at their face, but check there, anyway.
Lift or pull the eye lids up, down, side-to-side in order to really inspect their eyes, eyelids and even down into their tear ducts.
Inside and out!
Especially the underside of tail.
We know! We know! Your dog is going to give you a funny look when you start getting curious back there. Do it anyway! This beats having to later put your pet under anesthesia in order to extract a foxtail that went unnoticed.
Foxtails can easily attach to the fine fur here. And low-rider dogs (Doxies, Corgies, etc) are more susceptible to belly grabbers as compared to long legged dogs.
Yep – gotta check there, too. And pay special attention to those dogs who suddenly seem to be paying extra special attention to themselves with excessive licking down there.
Comb out their fur and pay special attention to the extra fluffy parts like on the backs of their legs and their tails.
Signs a Foxtail May Have Penetrated:
- Violent sneezing – sometimes with blood.
- Pawing at and/or drainage from only one of their two eyes.
- Infection in only one of their two ears.
- Head shaking.
- Head tilting.
- Persistent licking of feet, toes, paw pads, genital area.
- Non-healing draining tract (this will need to be probed by a veterinarian and is done under sedation. Draining tracts can be anywhere on the body but most commonly seen in feet and legs)
If your pet is exhibiting any of the above behaviors or showing other signs of an irritating foreign body, seek veterinary care ASAP.
In many cases, there are no signs or symptoms until it is too late.
There have been cases regarding foxtails which have silently penetrated from the armpit area, and then migrated through the chest cavity until the foxtail was finally found in the lungs or heart. At this point, the damage is already done.
An undetected foxtail snarfed-up through their nose can end-up deep inside the sinus cavity, or eventually migrate to the brain.
We all want to enjoy the outdoors, especially if we have pets who also enjoy the outdoors. Our goal with this blog article about foxtails is to bring awareness to the potential dangers, not to scare you from enjoying special time outside with your pets.
Please feel free to reach out to any of the staff members here at Porte Veterinary Hospital. We all have pets, too. And we all worry about foxtails. We’ve become experts at finding foxtails on our own pets, and we’ve also seen the probe procedures and surgeries required to extract foxtails that went unnoticed by even the most observant pet parents.
Have you heard of foxtails before? Let us know. Do you have any tips to share about how you prevent or remove foxtails?
Have you heard about the “Outfox Field Guard” for dogs. It has become quite popular and was invented by a dog owner right here in our bay area. https://www.outfoxfordogs.com/using-outfox/