Foxtail Plants: How to Find Them on Dogs and Why They're So Dangerous

Katy Nelson, DVM
Jun 30, 2020
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Foxtail plants are a weed-type grass that can cause serious problems for dogs.

Flourishing in the summer months, these annoying weeds are designed to burrow, which can lead to pain, infection, and sometimes more serious issues. They can attach to your dog’s coat and burrow into your dog’s ears, nose, and paw pads.

Luckily, there are things you can do to try to keep your dog safe from the dangers of foxtails. Here’s a breakdown of what the foxtail plant is and why it’s dangerous for your dog.

What Is a Foxtail? What Do Foxtails Look Like?

Foxtails—also called grass seed awns—are an annual summer grass. They start growing in spring and are in full bloom by summer. They will then die during the winter.

Shaped like the tail of a fox, the tip has seeds arranged in spikey clusters with backward-facing barbs.1 The spikes and barbs allow for one-way burrowing, which is great news for the foxtail but bad news for dogs.

Here are some pictures of a foxtail plant:

Foxtail plants
iStock.com/ma-no

Foxtail plants
iStock.com/baona

Where Are Foxtails Found?

Foxtails can be found anywhere in the United States but are most common in the West. They are most often found in these places:

  • Hiking trails
  • Parks
  • Flatlands
  • Meadows
  • Open grassy fields

When the weather is warm, the foxtail dries out and hitches a ride on anything passing by, including dogs. This hitchhiking behavior is important for foxtail seed dispersal.1

Why Are Foxtails Dangerous for Dogs?

Foxtails can attach to any part of your dog’s body and start the burrowing process. This commonly includes:2

  • Eyes
  • Eyelids
  • Ears
  • Nostrils
  • Mouth
  • Spaces between the toes (in the paw pads)

In some cases, foxtails can burrow through the skin, finding their way into the spine or chest and belly cavities. Once inside, the foxtail continues to burrow, bringing bacteria and dirt along with it.

This can lead to much more serious conditions because internal organs may be affected. The foxtail will continue to cause problems until it is removed.

In some cases, advanced diagnostic tests and procedures may be required to identify and remove the foxtail.

What Are the Signs That a Dog Has Foxtails on Them?

If you live in an area where foxtails are abundant, here are some signs you can look for:

  • Head shaking
  • Limping
  • Pawing at the face
  • Snorting
  • Sneezing
  • Bloody nose
  • Excessive licking of an area on the body

Other signs can show up one to several days later. These may include:

  • Lumps
  • Bumps
  • Draining tracts
  • Areas of redness or tenderness

How to Remove Foxtails From a Dog

Early removal of the foxtail is important. If you live in a foxtail-prone area, ALWAYS check your dog after being outside.

If you see a foxtail on your dog’s fur or skin, you can attempt to remove it with tweezers.

If you are seeing any of the signs listed above or signs that a foxtail has penetrated the skin or entered an opening on your dog’s body, bring your dog to the vet.

How to Prevent Foxtails From Injuring Your Dog

There are a few ways you can avoid foxtails and keep your dog safe.

  • Dogs with long coats are more likely to pick up these annoying hitchhikers. Consider a trim for the summer to reduce the likelihood of attachment.
  • Avoid foxtail-prone areas to prevent injury to your dog.
  • If foxtails grow in your yard, make plans to remove them or call a landscaper for assistance. 
  • Check for foxtails frequently and after periods of outdoor play, especially if you hike or spend time in foxtail-prone areas.

References:

  1. Foxtail (diaspore). (2019, June 2). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxtail_(diaspore)
  2. Brennan KE, Ihrke PJ. Grass awn migration in dogs and cats: A retrospective study of 182 cases. Am Vet Med Assoc. 1983.182(11):1201-1204

Featured Image: iStock.com/MaximFesenko

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