Care 

Foxtails: How They Can Be Extremely Dangerous to Dogs

Memories come from playing outside with our pups. We are always wary of the obvious dangers like ticks and fleas, but there are other dangers lurking in the tall grass.

Foxtails are grassy plants that can be found anywhere there is grass. These can be in parks, courtyards, fields, or even on busy sidewalks. They don’t appear dangerous, sharp, or harmful when you look at them, but they are not only dangerous but also fatal to your pups.

The key to protecting your dog outdoors is to understand and be aware of potential hazards as much as possible. Reading and learning more is the first step in protecting you and your canine companion while playing outdoors.

What are you?

A Foxtail is a group of grass that distributes seeds as a unit. This plant falls into the diaspores category, which are plants that spray seeds. Foxtails are also known as spear grass because of their sharp barbs.

The problem with foxtails is that on contact, due to their spiky shape, they become irreversibly lodged in the skin. Once this plant begins to disarticulate the barbs, they land on the ground, and when your puppy steps on it, he will begin moving through the skin and below with each step.

Foxtails that remain on the surface of the skin are less of a problem as they can be removed with tweezers and you can treat the area with an antiseptic detergent. However, once they get under the skin, they become more dangerous.

How to identify them

The key to protecting your dog outdoors is to identify potential hazards before they become a problem. We often keep our pups away from areas we believe have ticks and fleas because we understand the danger and know how to avoid them. You can’t always control where your dog is going every second, especially in your yard.

Knowing what foxtails look like is important so that you can remove them or keep your pup out of a certain place or area.

Foxtails are golden brown, green, or yellow and vary in size. Hence, it’s difficult to identify one before it’s too late. They look similar to a wheat or barley plant but are much coarser with sharp barbs on the tip. The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health Maintains an extensive database of information about these plants so you can look at pictures to identify them.

This plant is most common on the west coast of the United States but has spread across the country in states such as Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. They grow in grassy areas in the lowlands and together with populated areas such as paths and roads.

Foxtails grow quickly with spring rains, and when they reach full maturity a seed grows at the top of the plant with a bunch of thread-like stems protruding. As the plant dries in the summer months, the awns break off and fall to the ground. They’re 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 lot of small barbs running together with the larger barbs. These work in such a way that everything that penetrates the plant continues to move until it hits a rock-hard obstacle.

Why are they dangerous?

It’s the barbs on the plant that make it so dangerous. These are designed to dig to a point where there is no going back. Every time the barbs get on your pup they are designed to keep moving until they pierce something.

Realistically, any plant awn is a problem, but foxtails are constantly targeting important organs as soon as they become established. If you find a foxtail, pick it up and run your fingers through it. You will find out why the plant is so dangerous to dogs. The barbs point in one direction and it is impossible to move them in the opposite direction, making them difficult to remove.

If your puppy picks one of these between its toes, the movement of your dog’s feet and the parting of the toes will push the foxtail deeper into the skin until it eventually gets into your pup’s feet.

Paws aren’t even the worst place to be as your dog can pick up foxtails in the nose, eyes, and ears when sniffing around in the grass. If there are foxtails in your dog’s nose or ears, the constant flow of air can make the foxtail get into your pup’s body quickly and cause infection and even death if left untreated.

When your dog gets one

The Worst case scenario They get into your dog’s body cavity with foxtails and stab a vital organ. Autopsies on dogs have shown foxtails in the glands, hearts, lungs, brains, and other organs. They can also enter your dog’s body through other openings such as the anus and vagina.

When a foxtail is in your dog’s body it cannot collapse or be absorbed, so it will stay there forever and keep moving until it encounters something that forces it to stop. They can cause infections and abscesses that will need surgery if they penetrate the skin as they leave a cavity everywhere. These wounds remain open until treatment.

If it happens to your puppy’s hind legs, you may find yourself in a pickle if you need surgery. This can add extra stress and attention to you as you will likely be taking your dog outside with a harness that will take the pressure off its hind legs. Basically, you are at the mercy of your dog every time he has to go outside.

Protect your pup

Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to say that you can get rid of all of the foxtails in your yard and public places. They appear when you aren’t expecting them and your dog could come into contact with them. It’s best to stay away from areas where foxtails may appear and offer shelter for your pup if he comes across some.

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

  • Foxtails are most active during the summer heat of June and July. They love high grass areas that are dry, so avoid these types of areas. As much as your puppy loves jumping through the tall grass, prepare him for serious problems by letting him go.
  • If you know you are driving through an area with foxtails, make sure you keep your dog on a leash. Having them on a leash is a quick way to remove them from a foxtail area when you see them making their way there.
  • If you find foxtails in your garden, it is best to mow them at the beginning of the season, when they are still green, so they don’t have a chance to sow. Once they are sown, mowing them won’t stop your pup from holding them in their skin. The seed spawn will be all over your garden and there is nothing you can do about it at this point.
  • Pay close attention if your dog is long-haired as the longer hair will help the foxtails move towards the skin. If possible, trim the hair on your dog’s paws and legs to reduce the chance of foxtails getting stuck.
  • Think of each lawn as a foxtail zone so you are always prepared. If you’re taking your puppy for a walk to a place you’ve never been before, equip your dog with walking shoes. Although they may seem uncomfortable at first, they will have a significant impact in the long run.
  • After every walk or outing, check your dog thoroughly and look for lumps, bumps, or swelling on its feet, legs, abdomen, ears, eyes, or mouth. If you see your puppy licking or biting excessively, you should call a veterinarian or take him to the veterinarian’s emergency room.

Identify if your dog has one

Because they are so small and undetectable, they can bury themselves in anywhere, making it impossible for you to find them. If your dog has an embedded foxtail it is better to look for warning signs than trying to find the awn on your own. Here are some signs that your dog has a foxtail in its skin.

In the ear

Ears are a common entry point for foxtails because they are large openings that are near the ground when your pup is sniffing the grass. If you see your dog shaking his head excessively and scratching his ear a lot, he may have a foxtail in his ear. Also, look for redness, swelling, and discharge from the ear.

In the paw

Another common area for foxtails is the paws. Having them in this place is incredibly painful for your pup, and they show many warning signs. Therefore, it is helpful to pay close attention if you think your dog may have this problem. Watch for limping or excessive paw licking. Also, look for any swelling and discharge from the paw.

In the nose

If your dog is rummaging around the yard hot in the smell, it will open wide for a foxtail to penetrate through its nose. If your dog sneezes or coughs and chokes frequently, as if choking, they may have a foxtail up their nose. Don’t waste your time and get her to the emergency room right away.

In the eye

A foxtail generally moves to the back of the eye when it attaches itself to that spot. They are almost impossible to spot until they cause painful irritation in your pup. If you notice your dog scratching their eyes or dragging them along furniture, you may want to have them checked out.

After finding one

If your dog goes outside frequently, you should always check and groom him as much as possible to remove any foxtails before they dig in too far. Keep an eye on all of the above problem areas and pay special attention to the grooming process.

If you find foxtails in your dog’s fur, it’s important to limit its movement and make sure you don’t ignore them. Take a fine-toothed comb and run it through your dog’s fur until the foxtail comes out. If you find that the foxtail has already entered your dog’s skin, you may still be able to remove it with tweezers.

If your puppy shows signs of discomfort and pain trying to remove it, it is best to take your dog to a veterinarian to prevent a piece of the awn from breaking off and becoming lodged under your dog’s skin. Your vet has the experience and technology to remove the foxtail while relieving your dog’s pain.

Is your dog at risk?

In all honesty, any animal is at risk, but dogs with long hair are most susceptible to picking up foxtails as their fur provides them with an easier entry point for the awns. That said, dogs with short hair can easily pick them up in the ears, eyes, and nose.

If your pup spends a lot of time outside of you, be sure to check him out as often as possible during the summer months.

Final thoughts

Playing outside with your dog should never be a bad experience. We should throw a ball around outside or take a nice walk around the park without having to worry about harming our canine companions.

As long as you know and understand the potential dangers posed by foxtails, you are already done your job as a dog owner. Keep an eye out for these pesky plants and check your dog’s coat and skin regularly.

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