There’s nothing quite like escaping a hectic schedule and taking a long walk with your dog. Communing with nature, smelling the grass and leaves, seeing the look of joy on your dog’s face – these are the moments we most look forward to. But outdoors in that serene environment may lurk a seemingly harmless weed that can literally wreak havoc on your dog’s health: the foxtail plant.
What Is A Foxtail?
Foxtail plant is a grass-like weed that’s prevalent throughout much of the Western United States. It grows in meadows and along roadsides, and is particularly troublesome in drier climates.
Once the grass dries, the barbed seeds of this plant, called awns (or “foxtails”), become brittle and easily snap off, sticking to whatever unfortunate creature happens to be walking by. Dogs are most frequently affected (especially those with long ears and curly hair, where the awns stick more easily), but cats can be affected also.
These foxtails can become embedded in your pet’s ears, eyes, nose, mouth, toes, or in sensitive areas around the genitals. Foxtails can also be inhaled through the nose or become lodged in your pet’s throat. Not only are they extremely painful, foxtails can work their way under the skin and deep into tissue, causing infection, draining abscesses, and swelling. They will continue to cause irritation until they’re removed.
But it doesn’t end there. Like an entity out of some bad horror movie, once underneath the skin, foxtails are able to migrate, and can wind up in the eardrum, heart, brain, spine, lungs, or other internal organs. Left untreated, foxtails can even cause death.
Symptoms of an Embedded Foxtail
If your pet has an embedded foxtail, symptoms will depend on the foxtail’s location.
- Skin: This is the most common site for foxtails in pets. Areas most frequently affected include the feet (especially between the toes), chest, shoulders, and armpits. Symptoms of foxtails in the skin can include swelling, pain, drainage from the site, redness, and hair loss (from the animal licking the affected area). Pets with a foxtail in the foot will often limp.
- Eye: A foxtail in the eye will cause severe swelling, pain, and discharge. Pets will squint, paw at the eye, and attempt to hold the eye tightly closed.
- Ear: If a foxtail becomes embedded in the ear, the pet will often continuously shake his head, scratch or paw at the ear, or hold his head low and tilted at an angle. An infection may develop, causing discharge from the ear.
- Nose: A foxtail in the nose can cause violent sneezing, and blood or mucous may drain from one nostril.
- Throat: If a foxtail becomes lodged in the throat, it will usually stick behind the tonsils and cause a dry, hacking cough, gagging, and/or frequent hard swallowing. The pet may also continuously stretch his neck forward as he gags.
- Genitals: If the genital area is affected, pets will consistently lick this area, causing redness and irritation.
- Internal organs: Foxtails that migrate deep into the body and lodge in internal organs may cause loss of appetite (leading to weight loss), coughing, difficulty breathing, and lethargy.
Diagnosis is usually done based on symptoms and exposure history. Unfortunately, foxtails can be notoriously difficult to find, leading to significant frustration for both the veterinarian and the pet guardian! Foxtails quickly become deeply entangled in fur, and once they’ve migrated, do not show up on x-rays. However, the inflammation and swelling associated with embedded foxtails may be detectable with a CT scan, if necessary.
If you suspect your dog or cat may have picked up a foxtail, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian immediately.
Once the foxtail is located, the only treatment is to physically remove it. Depending on the location, sedation or anesthesia may be required.
Once it’s been removed, most symptoms will resolve rapidly over the following 24-48 hours. Your veterinarian will most likely prescribe antibiotics, and, once at home, you may need to clean and flush the area where the foxtail was removed for several days. Pain medication may also be prescribed if appropriate.
Additionally, depending upon where on your pet’s body the foxtail was found, the veterinarian may recommend that your pet go home with an E-collar or “cone” to prevent them from licking the affected area.
Preventing Foxtail Problems
No matter how careful you are, you and your pet may still encounter foxtails. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk:
- Keep your dog on a leash at all times, and away from tall, dry grass.
- Examine your dog’s coat after each walk, especially during foxtail season (May through December). Brush him or her, and look carefully for any awns in the fur, especially around the armpits and groin.
- Carefully check your pet’s feet, particularly the webbed areas between the toes.
- Look closely at your pet’s face, ears, and mouth. Run your fingers along the gum line to ensure no foxtails found their way into the mouth.
- Pets who squat to urinate are at increased risk for foxtails lodging in their genitalia, so don’t forget to examine this area as well.
- Consider trimming your dog’s hair (especially around the toes and ears) during the spring and summer months to make foxtails easier to see.
- Remember, foxtails can occur in cats too! If your cat goes outside, be sure to check him or her periodically as well.
Foxtails are more than just a nuisance – if left untreated, they can be life-threatening. If you find a foxtail on your pet that has not burrowed into the skin, you can use tweezers to safely remove it.
However, if it’s embedded, or if the area is red and swollen, contact your veterinarian immediately. Remember, foxtails won’t come out on their own, so never hesitate to seek treatment for your pet if he or she is ever unlucky enough to pick up one of these dangerous little hitchhikers.
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Has your pet ever been affected by foxtails? Please share your stories with us in the comments below!