Why Are Foxtails So Dangerous to Dogs?

From bloodthirsty fleas to disease-carrying ticks to run-ins with porcupines and skunks, our dogs face plenty of potential hazards in the great outdoors. But did you know, dogs also need to steer clear of a number of common weeds that are either toxic when ingested, puncture their skin, get stuck in their coat, or in the case of the dried up seeds of foxtails, lodge in their throats, nose, eyes, and ears, and burrow into their flesh?

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Let's explore why foxtails, also known as grass awns, are so dangerous to dogs and how you can prevent the potential discomfort and even severe illness that can accompany exposure.

What makes foxtails so dangerous to dogs?

Foxtails are grassy, seed-bearing plants. In the summer and early fall, they dry up, break apart, and produce microscopic, barb-like bristles that can get lodged in your dog's throat, nasal passages, ears and eyes, and can burrow into their skin. Each foxtail bristle has a sharp point at one end with lots of rear-pointing hooks. Once it gets headed on a forward trajectory, it never backs up.

This allows foxtail bristles to easily burrow into skin, ears, noses, or whichever body part it contacts. If left untreated, infection occurs, which can result in severe illness or even death. For example, a bristle can migrate from between the toes up to the shoulder or from an eye out the side of the head. If the bristle or awn enters the chest from under a leg or down the throat, it can cause death.

How to identify foxtails

Knowing how to identify foxtails is key to avoiding a run-in that could leave your dog the worse for wear. After all, if you avoid foxtail-infested landscapes, you'll be able to keep your dog out of harm's way, which is easily accomplished if he's on-leash. However, if your dog roams freely on his own, he may have an unpleasant encounter with foxtails.

Often described as a pretty grass, foxtails bear a bushy resemblance to a fox's tail, hence their name. In the early spring, look for tall, grass-like structures with a full plume of green, fuzzy bristles at the top. However, in the summer and early fall, when the grasses and seeds dry out they are brown, and their pointy seeds are a hazard to dogs and all pets.

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How you can prevent your dog's exposure to foxtails

Prevention is your best defense against foxtail exposure. If you know an area has foxtails, avoid it in summer and early fall. If you do travel through foxtail territory, keep your dog on-leash.

And for free-roaming dogs, if you know foxtails are in the area of your dog's solo travels, keep him close to home or on-leash; typically a small concession to make when you consider the potential outcome of exposure.

Also, if you have foxtails in your area, it's important to be a meticulous groomer, especially if your dog is long-haired. Foxtails get stuck in your dog's coat, then burrow into the skin, from which they then burrow into the body.

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Symptoms of foxtail exposure and when to seek veterinary care

If you suspect your dog may have foxtails lodged anywhere in her body, seek veterinary care if you observe the following signs of exposure which may diminish after several hours, but become intermittent for several days following exposure:

  • Nose: Constant, excessive sneezing, pawing at the nose, and bleeding from the nose.
  • Ear: Pawing at the ear, crying, tilting and/or shaking the head, and erratic movement which is a result of compromised balance.
  • Eye: Sudden squinting, swelling, tearing, and mucous discharge.
  • Throat: Retching cough, gagging, stretching neck and swallowing, and compulsively eating grass.
  • Skin: Swollen paw. Check between her toes or under her arms for small sores with swelling or lumps.