Foxtails are grass-like weeds which resemble the tails of foxes and are usually found only in states west of the Mississippi. These annual grasses are often found in weedy areas along paths and roads. It grows 1 to 3 feet tall; with branching and some spreading at ground level Leaf blades are 4 to 15 inches long. Flower heads are dense spikes with yellow to reddish, green or purplish bristles. From January until about March or early April, they are soft and green. In late spring, however, the seed heads begin to dry and the danger begins, lasting throughout the summer until fall rains. As foxtail matures, seeds are formed at the top of the stalk. Superficially they are often compared to a wheat grass appearance.
When mature, the seeds detach easily from the plant. The seeds easily cling to clothing, fur and hair. The seeds always move forward thus penetrating the skin. These structures have sharp points at one end, and microscopic barbs, so that they easily move in the direction of the point, but not the other way. They “work in”, but they don’t “work out”.
The most common locations for foxtail entrapment include the webbing between the toes, the ear canal, and the nose. Their presence causes extreme discomfort. They affect pets, livestock, and wild animals. Cats that spend time outside are also at risk (though usually less so, due to feline grooming habits).
Signs of foxtail problems include a red, moist seeping wound between the toes, a head tilt or ear irritation, excessive sneezing often with blood, or acute eye squinting and redness. A foxtail seed can cause an inflamed, painful, infected lump anywhere on an animal’s body.
If the seed is in the ear, the animal shakes its head violently from side to side. Sometimes the dog paws the eyes or ear, shaking the head and squinting.
In the mouth, foxtail seeds can cause gagging or difficulty swallowing. If the seed gets caught between the teeth, in the gums, back of throat or tongue, problems can result.
If the seed lodges in the paw or under the coat, a lump will form that is painful to the touch. Depending on the location of the seed or seeds, other symptoms are compulsive licking and biting at a paw or around the groin or rectal area or whining and crying with no obvious or acute injury.
Depending on where a foxtail seed has traveled to inside an animal, it can even be life threatening and will require prompt surgical removal.
Get the dog to a veterinarian immediately.
If you live in an area where foxtails grow, remove weeds from your yard. Keep your dog away from grassy weeds when walking, hiking or hunting. Discourage your dogs from chewing on grasses.
Examine your pet daily. Carefully brush its hair, while feeling for any raised areas on its skin. Check inside and under its ears; check between the toes, under the armpits and in the groin area. Keep long haired and thick coated breeds especially well-groomed. If you see a foxtail seed sticking in the dog’s skin, carefully pull it straight out, making sure not to break it off in the process. If you think a seed might already embedded in the skin, in a paw, in an eye or an ear, or if a pet that has been eating grass seems to have a throat problem, get the dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible! Waiting can only make it harder to find, allow it to migrate and become more dangerous, and make treatment more difficult.