Foxtails: A dangerous hitchhiker
Foxtails are a grassy weed typically found in states west of the Mississippi. They are invasive plant species and are seen increasingly on the east coast as well. The name “foxtail” refers to a number of grasses that produce bushy spikes that resemble a fox’s tail. Not all of them are hazardous; the wild barley also known as Hordeum murinum is one of the more common species of foxtails that are dangerous. The spikes are designed to attach to wildlife that can help disperse the seed and allow the weed to spread. The spikes have barbs that allow them to move in only one direction, similar to how a fishhook works. As the animal moves, the attached spike burrows deeper into the fur. Since wildlife fur is generally very short, the spike eventually becomes dislodged and falls to the ground resulting in dispersal of the weed. In dogs and other animals with longer fur, the spikes can be trapped and eventually burrow into the skin and migrate through the body. They also commonly enter the eyes, ears and nose where they can cause problems as well.
If your dog enjoys the outdoors and you live in an area known to have foxtails, take the time to learn how to recognize the common species of foxtails that are indigenous to your region. In general, they look like grassy weeds with long stalks that end in a cluster of spikes very similar in appearance to a fox’s tail. They tend to grow rapidly during the late winter and spring rains and become dangerous when they dry out in the summer months, which are when the spike clusters become loose. Avoid known areas with foxtails especially in the dry season. Should your dog be exposed to foxtails, thoroughly comb your dog’s coat to remove them. Be sure to do a thorough check of areas such as between toes, under the collar and in the armpits where the spikes like to hide. Removing them early when they are still attached to the fur is ideal because once they penetrate the skin they are hard to remove. They do not show up on x-rays or ultrasound and are hard to locate since they can migrate anywhere in the body. A dog I saw during my senior year of veterinary school in Minnesota had a chest full of pus caused by a migrating foxtail. He survived, but only after a couple of major surgeries and a lengthy stay in the hospital. If you find a small painful lump on the body or on the paw, see a veterinarian immediately as they can sometimes be removed relatively easily if they are still superficial. Sometimes they will get into the eyes where they can cause tearing, redness of the eye, pain and discomfort signaled by the dog pawing at the eye. If you believe your dog has a foreign body in the eye, see a veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist right away. Occasionally, they can find their way into the ear canal, which causes head shaking and scratching at the ears; or they can be inhaled into the nose where they trigger sneezing and nasal discharge. If your dog develops these symptoms please see your local veterinarian, and do not try to remove the foxtail yourself since they can burrow deeper is treated incorrectly.
The best way to handle foxtails is to prevent them or to catch them early. Your Mother was right, picking up hitchhikers is dangerous!