What Are Foxtails in Dogs?

Foxtails are long, willowy stalks that contain seed-like clusters called plant awns, found in different types of grasses. They don’t always look the same, which can make them difficult to spot. Foxtails can range in color from green, to yellow and white, to dark brown and even almost black.

Typically, however, they are golden brown in color. They can also range in size, both in length and width, which can complicate identifying them even further. They are most bothersome during the months of spring and summer, and especially in dry climates.

This is when the seeds become detached from their plant and begin to look for new places to root themselves. Foxtails are most common in the Western United States but can be found almost anywhere the conditions are right. They are much more common than you might think!

When looking for foxtail clusters, they can be identified by the sharp points of the plant awns. The plant awns are sticky and barbed which allow them to latch onto their target and refuse to let go. These sharp, barbed points also help them penetrate the ground as soon as they fall from their parent plant, allowing the seed to take root and begin to grow.

These seed-like clusters are barbed by design so that once they penetrate a surface, they can only move in one direction. This helps to ensure they become deeply rooted and it makes it difficult for them to come loose once they enter a surface. It doesn’t matter whether that surface is the ground, or the soft skin of your canine, once they make contact and begin to dig its way inward, there is no stopping the forward trajectory.

Additionally, the outside of a foxtail cluster contains bacteria made of enzymes that help it break down cell matter and bury itself even more, helping to penetrate deeper than all the other plants that may be surrounding it.

Foxtails in Dogs Are Dangerous

Unfortunately, foxtails can be very detrimental to a dog’s health. When a dog goes outside and comes into contact with a foxtail, their seed clusters can attach to their fur and slowly begin to make their way further in the skin. Once a foxtail becomes attached to a dog’s fur, the barbs help the cluster stay attached, while the bacterial enzymes cause the tissue and hair to begin to break down, clearing the way for the foxtail to burrow.

The very same process foxtails use to burrow themselves into the ground, they also use to burrow themselves into your dog’s body. Because of how they are designed, foxtails can’t be easily retracted or withdrawn from the point of entry, and your dog’s body can’t break them down or remove them on its own.

The only way they will stop is if they encounter a bone barrier, or if they exit the skin on their own. A foxtail can do an incredible amount to a dog’s body depending on how it enters the body, how early it is found, and how much damage has already been done.

Foxtails are so dangerous because they constantly travel, and they only move forward, never backward. This means that if your dog picks up a foxtail through the nose, it must be found and removed immediately. Otherwise, in time, the foxtail could make its way to your dog’s brain. Or your dog picks up a foxtail by sniffing and inhaling it, if it isn’t found and removed, it will inch its way forward. Eventually, left unchecked, this could lead to your dog’s lung being perforated.

The most common points of entry for foxtails on a dog are through the tender orifices like their nose, eyes, ears, and genitals. Foxtails can also enter a dog’s body through the mouth and lungs if inhaled. Sometimes, they may also embed themselves along a dog’s backbone or between the tender skin of their toes.

Signs Your Dog May Have a Foxtail

Signs of a foxtail in your dog can vary widely depending on where your dog came into contact with the grass lawns in the first place. Additionally, once your dog has picked up a foxtail and the awns have entered his body, it can become very difficult to find.

Foxtails are not always seen with the naked eye, and they can’t be seen internally with an x-ray, either. In some cases, exploratory surgery may be required to find the foxtail. If a foxtail is found,  multiple surgeries may be necessary to extract the barbed invader in extreme cases.

Common Points of Entry for Foxtails in Dogs

Mouth

Sometimes a dog may pick up a foxtail through the mouth and then get lodged in their throat. If you notice your dog swallowing repeatedly, stretching out his neck, coughing, retching, eating grass, and/or gagging, there may be cause for concern.

Dogs love to roam around sniffing and investigating tastes and smells, but if foxtails are present, this can be dangerous. Dogs can even accidentally inhale them and end up with a foxtail in their lungs.

Eyes

A dog’s eyes are very soft and tender. If a dog gets a foxtail in the eye, it can affect their vision and even cause canine blindness.

If you notice your dog pawing at his eye or squinting, or if you notice any discharge, swelling, or redness, it’s important to see your vet as soon as possible. A foxtail in a dog’s eye can continue to travel and ultimately reach their brain.

Nose

Another common point of entry for foxtails is through the nose. If you notice he appears to have discharge, or if your dog is sneezing intensely and frequently, a foxtail could be the culprit. You may also notice bleeding from the nose or repetitive pawing at their snout in an attempt to alleviate pain and irritation.

Ears

If you notice your dog shaking his head a lot, scratching one ear frequently, or tilting his head to one side or the other, it could be a warning sign he’s picked up a foxtail in the ear cavity. Dogs like to play outside and roll around in the grass, making this a common place for foxtails to gain entry.

Your dog’s eardrum could even be ruptured, which could affect his sense of balance and how he walks. If your dog cries or seems to walk with a stiff gait, take the signs seriously and see your vet. Unfortunately, foxtails can become lodged so deeply you wouldn’t be able to see it with your own eyes.

Your vet would have to examine your dog with a special scope to get a visual. Also, note that dogs with long ears as well as dogs with curly hair seemed to be more susceptible to foxtails than their short-haired, pointy-eared cousins.

Feet

Your dog’s feet is another place he can pick up a foxtail. Most frequently, you’ll find them embedded in between your dog’s toes where the skin is tender. As your dog’s foot flexes when he walks, the foxtail embeds itself deeper and deeper. If you notice your dog constantly licking his paw, or if you notice swelling, limping, or lameness, a foxtail could be responsible.

Genitals

Speaking of tender, the genitals are another area that is susceptible to foxtails. If you notice that your dog seems to be licking his genitals more than usual, it may be wise to get him checked, just to be safe.

Other Signs and Symptoms of Foxtails in Dogs

Dogs that have a foxtail embedded somewhere may also develop painful lumps on the skin. These areas may leak discharge from the point of entry. Visible abscesses in dogs can also occur, and these pets can develop a bacterial infection, exhibit lethargy, and experience a lack of appetite from a foxtail injury.

Risks of Foxtails in Dogs

The dangers of a dog with a foxtail are two-fold. Not only can they have a reaction to the foxtail because it’s a foreign body, they can also develop an infection from it. The resulting reaction can range from mild irritation to a life and death medical emergency should the foxtail penetrate a vital organ, a lung, the chest or abdominal walls.

Dogs could also:

  • Have canine seizures if the foxtail enters through the nose or eye and makes its way to the brain
  • Experience necrosis of tissue
  • Rupture an eardrum and develop chronic ear infections
  • Experience spinal vertebrae and intervertebral disc infections if a foxtail migrates to the spine
  • Suffer from conjunctivitis and even wind up blind from a foxtail in the eye
  • Suffer from lung perforations, lung infections and pneumonia in dogs that inhale a foxtail
  • Suffer from secondary infections related to the presence of a foxtail in your dog

Treating a Foxtail Injury in Dogs

In some cases, a foxtail may be removed using either forceps or tweezers. But if it has buried itself too deeply, surgery may be required for complete removal. If the foxtail can’t be easily found, exploratory surgery may be necessary.

Because the seed is like a long porcupine quill that burrows through skin and muscle, it leaves behind a small tunnel. This tunnel inevitably leads to infection. Pus may form and need to be drained. Your dog may also need a round of antibiotics if the infection continues to progress.

Provided the seed hasn’t caused any serious damage, your dog should recover fairly quickly. If your vet finds severe damage, other treatments may be necessary. Additionally, your dog will need to be observed closely for a couple of days, and if he doesn’t appear to be improving, you should take him in for further evaluation. Sometimes a dog can pick up more than one foxtail seed, and if one is left behind, they will continue to experience discomfort and other symptoms related to a foxtail injury.

Prevention of Foxtails in Dogs

Preventing your dog from picking up a foxtail in the first place is the best line of defense. The first step in prevention is learning to properly identify them so that you know what to look for and how to avoid them.

Steer clear of areas where foxtails are found, and if possible, remove them entirely. Avoid areas with very dry grass or dead patches of brush since these are common places foxtails like to sprout.

If you know your dog has been in a location where foxtails have been found in the past, it’s important to give him a thorough exam when he comes inside and brush him down. If possible, walk him on a leash and supervise where he goes. That way, if you know there’s an area where foxtails are growing, you can keep him away from it at all costs.

You should also try to avoid areas like fields, parks, unfamiliar yards, and parking lots. These are all places foxtails could sprout, and in some cases, they can even surface through pavement. You can also try clothing your dog in protective gear like booties or a head guard made of mesh to protect his paws and face. Some dogs may not like wearing protective gear though, so if that’s your dog, you’ll need to fall back on other ways to avoiding foxtail injuries.

Finally, remember that the seeds of foxtails are notoriously difficult to find. If you suspect one has found its way into your dog’s body, don’t delay in taking your canine to the vet for an expert analysis. Otherwise, serious health complications and even death can result.

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