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Dog Health: Why Foxtails Are a Threat to Your Dog

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

It's good to understand how foxtails pose a serious danger to dogs.

It's good to understand how foxtails pose a serious danger to dogs.

What Are Foxtails?

Are you aware of the dangers that foxtails pose to your dog? Most dog owners are aware of the dangers of heatstroke, bee stings, and other hazards that their dogs are exposed to when the late spring and summer months are in full swing.

However, not many are aware of the risks derived from foxtails. What exactly are foxtails? What makes them such a big threat to dogs? And, most of all, what can be done to protect dogs from this threatening seasonal malady?

What Exactly Is a Foxtail?

Country boys know quite well what a foxtail is as they have probably engaged in countless seasonal battles using these units of seed heads as ammunition. A foxtail basically consists of a basic unit of seeds resembling the tail of a fox or a spear.

From a reproductive standpoint, the main purpose of this unit of seeds is to effectively penetrate the soil, but attachment to the coat of passing animals has also proven beneficial for seed dispersal purposes.

While the short coats of wild animals cause the foxtail to temporarily cling and then eventually dislodge, in domesticated animals, things can become much more troublesome. Problems start when the foxtail attaches to the dog's coat or ends up lodging in the most inappropriate places with unpleasant and even dangerous consequences.

When foxtails are still green, there is little concern. Problems begin when the plant dries up in the spring and summer, allowing the seeds to be dispatched and allowed to travel to troublesome places. Foxtails can be found in abundance in the Western United States and California.

Why Are Foxtails a Problem for Dogs?

According to veterinarian Greg Perrault in Long Beach, California, foxtails tend to commonly lodge between the dog's toes and inside the dog's ears, nose, throat, and, in some cases, eyes. The problem with these bristly plant awns is the fact that they tend to burrow deep because the barbs allow them to only go in one direction.

While in some cases the presence of a foxtail may go undetected for some time, in many cases signs of trouble will arise.

  • A foxtail in the ear would cause a dog to keep its head tilted while shaking the affected ear, scratching at it, and pawing at it.
  • A foxtail lodged in the throat will most likely cause a dog to panic, swallow repeatedly, gag, cough, and eat grass in attempt to rid itself of this foreign item stuck in the throat.
  • With a foxtail in the eye, you will see tearing, squinting, and the presence of a mucous discharge.
  • On the other hand, with a foxtail up the dog's nose, the dog may sneeze repeatedly, paw at the nose, and bleed from the affected nostril. The problem is that once the foxtail travels up the nose and towards the sinuses, the dog may stop exhibiting troublesome behaviors, which may cause the owner to believe the dog got better. Instead, the foxtail in reality is embedding more and more, ready to cause a severe and unexpected infection!
  • Foxtails also get stuck in between paw pads, causing at times a bubbly swelling and pain.

Note: There are also horror stories of foxtails traveling and ending up in a dog's brain, anal glands, lungs, and reproductive tracts!

Treating and Preventing Foxtail Issues

If you notice your dog is having problems and believe a foxtail is the culprit, seek immediate veterinarian help. The earlier the issue is dealt with, the better. If the vet determines a foxtail is present, he will remove it carefully using tweezers or forceps. Sedation/anesthesia may be required, depending on the location of the foxtail. If the foxtail was allowed to embed, an infection may be taking place and surgery may be required.

Strategies for Prevention

Knowledge is ultimately power. Now that you know foxtails are dangerous, try to keep your dog away from fields full of this grass.

  • If your dog does walk in an area full of foxtails, make sure you brush him and inspect him carefully from nose to tail-tip, and don't forget to look between his toes!
  • If your dog has a tendency to get foxtails in its ears and you must head for the fields, consider putting a cotton ball in each ear to play it safe (just remember to remove them once you're home).

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 16, 2019:

Carmen, you should see your vet for this as your dog may need medications. I am assuming since you are on this page, you likely have ruled out the possibility of your dog having a foxtail stuck in the nose or throat. However sometimes dogs may inhale them without us knowing.

Carmen on October 04, 2018:

My dog is coughing, gagging and spitting a white stuff and saliva. I think itis kennel cough, probably contracted at the park where I take him everyday...what should I do help him out?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 20, 2012:

Thank you, scary things foxtails and dogs!

Vicky C. from New England on July 20, 2012:

Never heard of this being a problem for dogs. Good hub.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 20, 2012:

That is great! When I visited family in Italy with my dogs I never let them play in the fields while my in-laws always lefts their dogs have fun in there. When I told them why, they were not aware of the problem.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 20, 2012:

That is so sad! I don't think many owners are aware of this problem. Running through fields of tall grass seems so much fun and you would not imagine the dangers involved with doing something as innocent as such! Thanks for sharing your stories as it adds to how dangerous these pesky plants can be

wetnosedogs from Alabama on July 20, 2012:

This is good to know. Glad we are not around foxtails. What a worrisome thing!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 19, 2012:

While I no longer have a dog, we used to, and we checked her daily for these pesky invaders. When I was a child, the dog we had needed to be put down due to an advanced infection from a foxtail in her ear. I was only 5 at the time, and was not told the truth until many years later.

A friend of mine had a dog die from a foxtail up its nose, and as you say, it went undiscovered, and worked to his brain and killed him.

These are nasty plants. Voted up, useful, interesting and shared. This is important information for people to know.