Foxtail grasses are easy to overlook and are often disregarded by the average dog owner, but they can be extremely dangerous when ignored. The photo above shows you one of the most common varieties of foxtail grass found in the Seattle area. Foxtail grasses can be identified by their “foxtail,” a bushy group of spiked seeds that resemble the tail of a fox when green, but these bushy-looking awns quickly become hard and almost needle-like when the grass dries. These spiked seeds, or spikelets, are barbed and efficiently adapted for animal dispersal. This means that when an animal brushes past the plant, the spikelets easily disengage from the grass and cling to the fur of the animal.
For the wild animals that inhabit the Western U.S. native ranges of foxtail grasses, foxtails aren’t too much of a problem. Their fur is generally short enough that the foxtails will eventually become dislodged. However, they can be quite dangerous for dogs and other domestic animals. Their movements can cause the spikelets to burrow deeper into their fur, in between their toes, into their reproductive or urinary orifices, under their eyelids, or into their ear and nose canals. Even for humans, these razor-sharp spikelets can work through fabric, particularly shoes and socks, causing discomfort.
As surface lesions, the foxtails can be removed and the wounds easily treated with antiseptic. But, once the foxtail has entered the body, they can continue to burrow through soft tissues and organs – and they will burrow until they can burrow no more! This causes infection, physical disruption, and in extreme cases may cause death.
If the spikelet has not caused and/or is not threatening to cause organ damage, domestic animals are often treated with antibiotics and the spikelet is either allowed to encyst or degrade. If organ damage is indeed imminent, surgery is required. Even then, surgical removal can be problematic, since foxtails are difficult to locate with an x-ray or ultrasound.
So what is best way to avoid surgery and protect your pets? First, keep clear of all tall, grassy areas (even near sidewalks). And, second, check your animals! Always give your animals a full search after they’ve been outside during the spring and summer months. Remember to check their:
- Coat: When left in the coat, foxtails can migrate to other parts of the body, be ingested by the animal, or become embedded in the skin.
- Feet: Spikelets can easily get embedded in between toes and pads.
- Ears: Once in the ear canal, they can puncture the eardrum and enter the middle ear, causing hearing loss.
- Eyes: Foxtails can cause redness, discharge, swelling, and squinting. They can even lodge in the mucous membrane under the eyelid.
- Nose: When they are embedded in the nostrils, they can cause intense distress by migrating into the nasal cavity, the lungs, and, in rare cases, the brain.
- Genitals: Even their reproductive and urinary orifices are at risk, especially if you have larger dogs who like to walk through or go to the bathroom in tall grasses.
In all cases, keep an eye out for any swelling, pus discharge, and/or are limping, repeatedly licking a specific area, shaking their head, pawing at their nose or eyes, sneezing excessively, and displaying signs of infection like lethargy and loss of appetite.
If your animal shows any of the symptoms associated with the health problems foxtails can cause, take them to a vet immediately. Often, owners cannot see the spikelets themselves and special instruments are required to retrieve them from the animal’s ears, throat, and nose.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to keep your pets near you and away from foxtail grasses, our very own Wesley Hawkins can offer some pointers. Keep tuned to our blog for more training tips or check out our page on Private Training today!