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Foxtails and the Serious Risks to Pets


As an ER vet, I officially mark the start of the summer season when I see several patient charts over the course of a 10 hour shift with the presenting complaint: sudden sneezing. By the third one I think, “Another one? What the foxtail!”

Annual grasses releasing foxtails grow quickly throughout the rainy season. As temperatures rise, the foxtail-shaped tip of each grass blade dries out and the individual awns take a ride on any passing object. This plant is engineered by nature to spread its seed, and the foxtail is actually designed to burrow further into an object with each movement, making it a major problem for small animals.

There is no escape. The pesky seeds from these dried out grasses get stuck everywhere, and I mean everywhere, our furry friends included. Many pet owners have heard the warnings about foxtails and know to avoid them as much as possible. What many don’t know, however, is that foxtail migration can cause severe – and potentially deadly – consequences.

Pesky foxtails

While foxtails are often caught in the fur and can be quickly removed, they can also migrate internally if left unfound through several common routes such as the nose, ears, and eyes. They can even penetrate through the skin or through a pet’s genital openings. If these problematic hitch-hiking seeds find their way inside of a pet’s body, they can cause many serious problems. Once internalized, foxtails can wreak havoc on the body, causing internal abscesses and even infections of the bones around the spinal cord. I have also seen cases of foxtails getting lodged in the abdominal organs or lungs.

While foxtails aren’t always easy to spot, their presence can be noticeable through various telltale symptoms, depending on their location in the body. Be mindful of the following symptoms during foxtail season:

• Nose: violently sneezing and pawing at the nose, and sometimes a bloody nose

• Eyes: rubbing the eye, squinting and pain, excessive tearing or discharge, or an eye “glued shut”

• Ears: head tilt or violent shaking of the head from side to side, pain, discharge, or odor

• Mouth/Throat: gagging, loud coughing, difficulty swallowing (you will notice your pet having “exaggerated swallowing” movements, like when you have a sore throat), and possibly increased odor

• Paws: continuous licking of the paw or pad, or the appearance of a swollen “bubble” between the toes, or a small “hole” in the skin which is indicative of a draining tract, which is the path the foxtail is taking under the skin (pictured)

• Under skin: formation of sores or abscesses

Appearance of a typical draining tract caused by a foxtail

If any of these symptoms are noted, you should see your veterinarian immediately for a check-up. If a foxtail is found relatively superficially in the skin or nose, it can be removed rather simply. If a foxtail has moved into the lungs or deeply into the nose or genitals, an endoscope can be used for its location and removal (pictured). An endoscopy involves the use of a high-tech instrument with a specialized video camera and small grabbing tools that can be passed through the mouth, nose, or rectum and is a lot less invasive than traditional surgical methods. However, if the foxtail has entered the belly or lungs, surgery is sometimes the only treatment possible.

While it’s best to avoid areas where foxtails grow, if your pet has been exposed to the grass, make sure to brush its coat well, feel all over the body with your hands, and perform a thorough inspection of the ears, nose, between the toes and paw pads, and underneath the collar after each romp. It’s important to learn about the dangers of this plant, take extra precautions, and remove foxtails immediately. Be overly cautions during foxtail season- dogs and their people deserve to enjoy a drama-free summer outdoors.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. thanks for the timely article. Fortunately we haven’t seen any of the indications you listed on any of our pets. What we do see, and I guess is not as dangerous, are those pesky little balls with spikes all over them (called…?) Those stick to the hair and are often difficult to pull out. Just concerned that they may swallow one if not removed on time. We do check them at least every night to remove them (or earlier if petting reveals them).

    June 7, 2012
    • Oh those! They are called… um… pesky little balls with spikes on them! 🙂 I know exactly the burrs you are talking about but don’t know the real name. And you are right to be concerned- pets can accidentally swallow them during grooming (when they are trying to remove them from their fur). They can cause problems if they get stuck around the tonsils, like the case of our latest Mug Shot Monday, Bently. And I’ve also had to pull some out that were lodged up under the side of a tooth at the gum line… if they are lucky and “just swallow” them, they shouldn’t cause a problem in stomach. Oh, the things we must always watch out for! 🙂

      June 7, 2012

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