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Foxtails: How They Can Be Extremely Dangerous For Dogs


Last Updated: August 29, 2023 | 8 min read | Leave a Comment

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Memories are created when we play outside with our pups. We are always on alert for the apparent hazards like ticks and fleas, but more dangers lurk among the tall grass.

The key to keeping your dog safe outside is understanding and knowing as much about potential dangers as possible.

Reading and learning more is the first step in keeping you and your canine companion safe when playing outside.

What Are Foxtails?

A foxtail is a cluster of grass that disperses seeds together as a unit. This plant falls into the diaspore category, which are plants that spray seeds. Foxtails are also known as speargrass due to their sharp barbs.

The problem with foxtails is they become irreversibly lodged into the skin upon contact due to their barb-like shape. Once that plant starts to disarticulate, the barbs end up on the soil, and when your pup steps on them, they begin the process of moving through the skin and underneath with each step.

Foxtails that remain on the surface of the skin are not as much of an issue because they can get removed using a tweezer, and you can treat the area with an antiseptic wash, but once they make their way under the skin, they become more dangerous.

How To Identify A Foxtail

Common weed green foxtail close-up. Setaria viridis, green bristlegrass, and wild foxtail millet
The key to keeping your dog safe outside is knowing how to identify potential hazards before they become a problem.

We often keep our pups away from areas that we think may have ticks and fleas because we understand the danger and we know how to avoid it. You cannot always control where your dog goes every second, especially in your yard.

It’s important to know what foxtails look like so you can get rid of them or keep your pup away from a particular place or area. Foxtails are gold brown, green, or yellow, and they vary in size, so it’s difficult to identify one before it’s too late. They look similar to a wheat or barley plant, but they are much more coarse, with sharp barbs at the top. The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health maintains a vast database of information on these plants so you can look at pictures to help identify them.

This plant is most common on the Western Coast of the United States, but they have spread across the country. They grow in grassy areas in flatlands and along populated areas like trails and roads. They are reported to thrive in all but seven states in the U.S.: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Foxtails grow quickly with Spring rains, and when they grow to full maturity, a seed grows at the top of the plant with a bunch of threadlike stems that stick out. As the plant dries in the summer months, this is when the awns break off and fall onto the ground below. They are light and airy, so they can blow around, which is part of what makes them so dangerous.

If you look at a foxtail under a microscope, you can see a ton of small little barbs that run along with the larger barbs. These act in a way that continues to move the plant through whatever it penetrates until it hits a rock-hard obstruction.

Why Are They Dangerous?

It’s the barbs on the plant that make it so dangerous. These are designed to burrow to the point where there is no turning back. Any time the barbs make their way onto your pup, they are designed to continue moving in until they puncture something.

Realistically, any plant awn is an issue, but foxtails have their sights set continuously on vital organs once they latch on. If you find a foxtail, pick it up and run your fingers through it, and you’ll discover why the plant is so dangerous for dogs. The barbs point in one direction, and it’s impossible to move them in the opposite direction, making it difficult to remove them.

When your pup picks one of these up between their toes, the motion of your dog’s feet and the separation of their toes keeps pushing the foxtail deeper into their skin until it eventually makes its way inside your pup’s feet.

Paws are not even the worst location because your dog can pick up foxtails in their nose, eyes, and ears as they sniff around the grass. When foxtails are lodged in your dog’s nose or ears, the constant airflow in and out allows the foxtail to quickly make its way into your pup’s body, causing infection and even death if left untreated.

When Your Dog Gets A Foxtail

The worst-case scenario with foxtails is they get into your dog’s body cavity and puncture a vital organ. Autopsies on dogs have shown foxtails in the glands, hearts, lungs, brains, and other organs. They can get into your dog’s body through other orifices like the anus and vagina as well.

When a foxtail is in your dog’s body, it cannot break down or be absorbed, so it stays there forever and continues to move around until it hits something that forces it to stop. They can cause infections and abscesses that require surgery if they penetrate the skin because they leave a hollow tract everywhere they go. These wounds remain open until treated.

If it happens to your pup’s back legs, you can find yourself in a pickle if you require surgery.  This can add additional stress and attention on your part as you’ll likely be taking your dog outside with a harness designed to take the pressure off the back legs.  You’ll basically be at your dog’s mercy every time they need to go outside.

Protecting Your Pup From Foxtails

Unfortunately, saying that you can get rid of all the foxtails in your yard and in public places is unrealistic. They will pop up when you do not expect them, and your dog might come in contact with them. It’s best to stay away from areas where foxtails are likely to show up and offer protection to your pup if they stumble upon some.

Here are a few steps you can take to protect your dog from foxtails:

  • During the heat of summer in June and July is when foxtails are most active. They love tall grassy areas that are dry, so you want to avoid these types of areas. As much as your pup loves jumping through the tall grass, you are setting them up for severe problems by letting them go.
  • If you know you are passing through an area that has foxtails, make sure you keep your dog on a leash. Having them leashed allows you to quickly get them away from a foxtail area if you see them making their way over there.
  • If you locate foxtails in your yard, it’s best to mow them early in the season when they are still green, so they do not have a chance to seed. Once they seed, mowing them will not prevent your pup from getting them lodged in their skin. The seed spawn will be present all over your yard, and you can do nothing about it at that point.
  • Pay close attention if your dog is long-haired because the longer hair helps the foxtails move towards the skin. If possible, trim the hair on your dog’s paws and legs to lessen the chances of foxtails latching on.
  • Consider every grassy area a foxtail zone so you are always prepared. If you are taking your pup on a walk to a place you have never been before, consider fitting your canine with walking boots. Although they might seem uncomfortable for them at first, they’ll make a significant impact in the long run.
  • Thoroughly check your dog after every walk or trip outside and pay attention to lumps, bumps, or swelling around the feet, legs, belly, ears, eyes, or mouth. If you see your pup excessively licking or biting, consider calling a veterinarian or taking them to the vet’s emergency room.

Identifying If Your Dog Has A Foxtail

Danger of Dry Foxtails for Your Dog
If your dog has an embedded foxtail, it’s better to look for warning signs rather than trying to find the awn itself.

Since they are so small and undetectable, they can burrow anywhere and make it impossible for you to locate them. Here are some of the signs that your dog might have a foxtail in their skin.

In the Ear

Ears are a common entry point for foxtails because they are large openings that are close to the ground when your pup is sniffing around the grass. If you see your dog shaking their head excessively and pawing at their ear a lot, they may have a foxtail lodged in their ear. Also, pay attention to redness, swelling, and discharge coming from the ear.

In the Paw

Another common area for foxtails is the paws. Having them at this location is incredibly painful for your pup, and they show no warning signs, so it helps to pay close attention if you think your dog might have this issue. Look out for limping or excessive licking of the paws. Also, look for swelling and discharge of the paw.

In the Nose

When your dog is rooting around the yard hot on a scent, they are leaving themselves wide open for a foxtail to enter through their nose. When you find your dog sneezing frequently or coughing and gagging like they are choking, they might have a foxtail lodged in their nose. Do not waste time and immediately take them to the emergency room.

In the Eye

A foxtail generally moves to the rear of the eye when it gets lodged in this location. They are almost impossible to detect until they start to cause painful irritation in your pup. If you notice your dog pawing at their eye or dragging it along furniture, you might want to get them checked out.

What To Do If You Find A Foxtail On Your Dog

If your dog frequently goes outside, you always want to check and groom them as much as possible to remove any foxtails before they burrow too far in. Keep a close eye on all the common problem areas we talked about above and give them extra attention during the grooming process.

If you find foxtails in your dog’s coat, it’s important to limit their movement and make sure you do not ignore it. Take a fine-toothed comb and run it through your dog’s fur until the foxtail comes out. If you notice that the foxtail has already made its way into your dog’s skin, you might still be able to remove it using tweezers.

If your pup is showing signs of discomfort and pain when you are attempting to remove it, then it is best to take your dog to a veterinarian to prevent any piece of the awn from breaking off and lodging itself under your dog’s skin. Your vet has the experience and technology to be able to remove the foxtail while managing your dog’s pain along the way.

Final Thoughts

Truthfully, every animal is at risk of getting foxtails, but dogs with long hair are most susceptible to picking up foxtails because their fur gives them an easier entry point for the awns. That said, dogs with short hair can easily pick them up in their ears, eyes, and nose. If your pup spends a lot of time outside, you want to make sure you check them as much as possible during the summer months.

Playing outside with your dog should never be a bad experience. We should be out throwing a ball around or taking a nice walk through the park without having to worry about causing harm to our canine companions.

As long as you know and understand the potential hazards that foxtails present, you have already done your job as a dog owner. Keep your eyes peeled for these pesky plants, and be sure to check your dog’s coat and skin frequently.

White dog licking paw (Caption: Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?)

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