The secret to a fishhook is its barb. Once a fish has taken the bait and the hook sinks in, it’s not going to easily go in the other direction. 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. From either of those positions, they can easily wind up stuck in your dog’s throat or lungs, and they are not easy to remove.
They also aren’t cheap to remove either. As reported by Farmers Insurance in their annual Seasonal Smarts Digest for spring 2017, a foxtail that was lodged in the tonsil of a Rhodesian ridgeback led to a vet bill of around $550. Now keep in mind that a 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.
Protecting your dog from danger
The best protection against the dangers of foxtails is, of course, avoiding them entirely, but in certain parts of the country this can be difficult. 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 at roadsides, in fields, on 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 just 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? Here are a few precautions you can take:
- 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 you can. 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 around, 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 not a bad idea to give him a complete brushing afterwards, 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 may be giveaways for a foxtail stuck somewhere. If she’s scratching or licking excessively, particularly her feet or genitals, then inspect the area. A dog with a foxtail may also shake or tilt their head a lot, 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.
While we can learn a lot of 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 snake is hiding in, especially if it’s full of foxtails.