Foxtails: Tiny Things, Enormous Danger for Dogs

A dog goes for a walk in tall grass that could have foxtails

Introduction to Foxtails and Their Risks to Dogs

The secret to a fishhook is its barb. Once a fish has taken the bait, and the hook sinks in, it won’t go in the other direction easily. Now, while we don’t know what inspired ancient humans to create the first fishhooks, possibly as long as 23,000 years ago, it’s quite possible that they found their inspiration in nature. After all, Velcro was inspired by burrs from the burdock plant because of their ability to stick to things.

Foxtails can also stick to things, but unlike burdock burrs, they can do it in dangerous or deadly ways. They can be particularly hazardous to dogs (and cats) because they can wind up stuck practically anywhere — including but not limited to your dog’s paw, eye, or nose. They can also get stuck in your dog’s mouth or under their skin and work themselves in naturally.
When they get into your dog’s nose or mouth, they can be particularly dangerous because of their burrowing nature. They can easily wind up stuck in your dog’s throat or lungs from either of those positions, and they are not easy to remove.

They also are costly to remove too. As reported by Farmers Insurance in their annual Seasonal Smarts Digest for spring 2017, a foxtail lodged in the tonsil of a Rhodesian ridgeback led to a vet bill of around $550. Now keep in mind that the tonsil is a much more accessible place than down the throat or in the lung, so multiply those costs appropriately, and you can see how quickly the expense can mount.

Finally, if that isn’t bad enough if your dog ingests or inhales a foxtail without you knowing about it, the results can be fatal before you have a chance to do anything.

A dog explores while on a nature walk with his owner. The field is full of dangerous foxtails that can embed beneath the skin and wreak havoc in the body.

What Are Foxtails?

The foxtail plant is a pesky weed that looks like grass. Foxtails aren’t just an annoyance; they can be deadly. These tough seeds don’t break down and can cause an infection if left inside your pup. If that happens, you need to get them to help ASAP – or it could lead to problems much worse than just being a pesky irritant.

Common Symptoms of Foxtails in Dogs

It is essential to watch for the signs and symptoms of a foxtail that has been inhaled or ingested by your pet, as the weed may become embedded in their body and require medical attention. Lethargy and loss of appetite are common signs of infection. However, here are some symptoms to watch for depending on the location of the foxtail burrows.

Foxtail in the Ear

  • Constantly scratching ears
  • Titling head to the side
  • Shaking head

Foxtail Under Skin

  • Visible swelling
  • Painful to touch
  • Pus or discharge

Foxtail in Mouth

  • Gagging
  • Retching
  • Eating grass
  • Stretching neck and repeatedly swallowing
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing

Foxtail in Paw

  • Limping
  • Swelling
  • Constantly licking paw

Foxtail in the Eye

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Discharge
  • Pawing at the eyes

Foxtail in the Nasal Passages

  • Discharge
  • Bleeding
  • Frequent or incense sneezing

Foxtail in Genitals

  • Persistent licking

Protecting Your Dog From Danger

The best protection against the dangers of foxtails is avoiding them entirely, but in certain parts of the country, this cannot be easy. They are all over California but are also known to grow in almost every state west of the Mississippi. Being an invasive species, they tend to grow on roadsides, fields, mountains, and even in vacant lots.

They are also most dangerous when the weather heats up, and they dry out, which makes their barbs even more deadly.

You can make sure that none are growing in your yard and learn how to identify them so you can avoid them on the walk. When removing them, be sure to pull them completely, including the roots. If you mow them, they’ll grow back.

Avoiding them in places you control can be easy, but what if you live in an area with a lot of foxtails or are the type who takes your dog on hikes or walks near the danger?

While on a walk, a dog got a small foxtail stuck between his paws. The pet owner can remove the pesky plant easily with a pair of tweezers. Read here to learn more about this dangerous plant.

Precautions You Can Take to Prevent Foxtails from Hurting Your Dog

Foxtails can be found all around in nature and they can cause harm to your dog if they aren’t removed quickly enough. Because of this, it’s important to take the necessary precautions so you can prevent these hazards from affecting your pet.

Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

Once you’ve learned to identify the plant, keep an eye out for it when you’re with your dog, and keep her away from them whenever possible. It’s also possible to try to use aversion training to teach her to avoid the plants, similar to methods used to train dogs to avoid snakes, although this is best left to a professional.

Avoid Likely Encounters

Stay out of overgrown areas, and tall grass since these can often be loaded with foxtails.

Examine Your Dog

After you’ve been in areas with foxtails, check your dog thoroughly, including in the ears and between the pads on his paws. Run your hands through their fur to check for barbs. It’s also a good idea to give him a complete brushing afterward, as this can locate barbs you might not have felt on your own.

Take Preventative Measures

If your dog has large, erect ears, consider securing them with a bandana or putting a cotton ball in each ear — not forgetting to remove it later, of course! And whether your dog has long or short fur, regular grooming can help keep them safer. You can even ask your groomer for a foxtail cut.

Pay Attention to Your Dog

While you should always be watching for signs of problems with your dog, a few, in particular, maybe giveaways for a foxtail stuck somewhere. If she’s scratching or licking excessively, particularly on her feet or genitals, inspect the area. A dog with a foxtail may also shake or tilt its head, limp, or sneeze a lot. There may also be a discharge from their eyes or nose or swelling of their footpads. If you see any of these signs, check for foxtails and take her to the vet if necessary.

Eliminate the Threat

To protect your furry pal, the best thing you can do is to get rid of any foxtails in your area before they dry out. That way, you can avoid any potential danger.

Steps to Take After Foxtail Exposure

If you know that your dog has been exposed to foxtails, you will need to check them from head to tail for pesky seeds. If they have not penetrated the skin, you can remove them with tweezers. However, if they have burrowed or traveled under the skin’s surface, you will need to seek medical attention. Sometimes, your pup may require anesthesia and surgery to remove the harmful seeds. Be aware that the seed might cause abscesses that will also need draining. And antibiotics may be necessary for any infection as well.

While we can learn many positive things from nature, we also have to learn to respect the dangers it can present, no matter how tiny or harmless-looking they may be. A snake may be an obvious menace — but don’t forget to also beware of the grass that the snake is hiding in, especially if it’s full of foxtails.

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