Foxtails and Pets

Foreign Body Is an Outdoor Threat

Jennifer Hawkins, DVM

Labrador retrievers

When I was in veterinary school and my apartment and schedule did not permit me to own a dog, I always loved taking care of "Bo,” the handsome, well-behaved Labrador that belonged to a friend.

One night, I was enjoying a lovely walk with Bo when he decided to venture off the paved path and run through the brush. He happily returned to the path with a gentle leash correction, but not before I saw foxtails covering his face— one precariously dangling by a nostril.

Just as I tried to wipe the foxtail from his nose, he took in one deep snort. And it was gone. I hoped that it didn't really go IN his nose and that perhaps by some miracle, he blew it out. But, as he began to snort and sneeze while all four of his feet lifted off the ground, I knew that indeed the foxtail went in his nose.

What Is a Foxtail?

Foxtails are grass awns, or seeds, that are prevalent in the Western United States. These awns look like barley and have tiny spikes on them such that they easily stick to fur and then migrate in one direction only. Thus, once they get caught in the fur of an animal, they often wind their way deeper into the fur coat and penetrate the skin.

Foxtail weed

Once under the skin, foxtails can continue to migrate, causing bacterial infection, inflammation and pain. I've removed foxtails from pets that had entered between the toes and migrated under the skin halfway up the leg.

Prime areas for foxtails to penetrate the skin of an animal are between the toes, in and around the ears, armpits and genitalia (ouch!). Animals with foxtails under the skin are often licking the affected area where a red bump may be seen. If one becomes lodged in an ear, your pet will likely be seen shaking his head due to the irritation caused by the foxtail.

Also, as was Bo's case, foxtails are often inhaled through the nose and can get lodged in the nasal passages or even enter the lungs or penetrate the spine, in severe cases.

Once under the skin, foxtails can continue to migrate, causing bacterial infection, inflammation and pain.

How Are Foxtails in Animals Treated?

If you notice your dog excessively licking a particular area, snorting or sneezing repeatedly or shaking its head, you should schedule an appointment to see your veterinarian to check for foxtails or other causes of these symptoms.

Treatment for foxtails in animals is typically performed under anesthesia. The veterinarian uses a tool appropriately named an "alligator forceps," which is long enough to run the length of the extensive tracts generated by foxtails, and has a small claw-like clamp on the end used to retrieve the foxtail.

Often the veterinarian will prescribe post-operative antibiotics and may place a bandage on the affected area, or recommend an e-collar to allow the affected area to heal free of dog slobber.

How to Avoid Foxtails

Foxtail weed

A few tips that may help prevent a foxtail emergency:

  • Keep your pet’s fur coat short, especially between the toes and around the ears.
  • Long-haired dogs are most prone to having foxtails attach to their fur and embed in the skin. Avoid walking your dog in areas where dry grass is prevalent.
  • When returning home from a walk or hike in an area that might have foxtails, examine your dog between the toes, in and around the ears, armpits and groin and remove any burrs or foxtails you might find before they have a chance to burrow into the skin.

What Happened to Bo?

Shortly after I recognized that Bo had indeed inhaled a foxtail, I presented him to one of the emergency veterinarians at my veterinary school.

Under general anesthesia and using a scope, he was able to visualize and remove the foxtail. If the foxtail had not been removed, Bo would have continued to sneeze and snort and the foxtail may have well continued migrating through his respiratory tract, leading to a potential life-and-death situation.

I certainly kept Bo on a shorter leash after that!

Return to the Pet Health Zone

Dr. Jennifer Hawkins and Ernie

Dr. Hawkins received her veterinary degree from the University of California, Davis, and practices in Orange County, Calif. She also is a faculty member of California State Polytechnic University Pomona where she instructs aspiring veterinary technologists. Dr. Hawkins is an active member of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association where she serves on the Board of Trustees.


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