The Ugly Hitchhikers
We’re not talking about people on the side of the road looking for a free ride; that might make a little more sense, but what we’re talking about is foxtail grass.
These seemingly innocent seeds will catch a ride on anything passing by – a mechanism that has helped them become a highly successful invasive species. You have probably felt one of these pesky weeds in your sock while hiking, and they sure are annoying.
But for our dogs, they can be pretty bad news.
“The potential to cause serious damage is low, but when it does, it can be catastrophic,” said Dr. Sonni Gilbert, DVM in Heron, Montana.
That’s why we talked to two foxtail-fighting superheroes (aka veterinarians) who live in Montana and Wyoming, where many adventurous dogs often run into foxtail injuries. We’re sharing their expert advice on everything you need to know about foxtails, so you can keep your dog safe on your next outdoor adventure and avoid a potentially pricey vet bill.
What are Foxtails?
Foxtails are grass-like weeds that have spiny seeds and, during dry months, attach to a dog's fur like magnets. These hitchhikers like to travel — and can even pierce through your pup's skin.
Dr. Jessica Blake, DVM and Lander Valley Animal Hospital owner, says you can easily identify these weeds, “If you look at a grass awn (foxtails), everything angles back from the point of the seed. So once the point penetrates the fur, every time that grass awn is shuffled or moves, it drives the point deeper, eventually penetrating the skin and continuing to penetrate until it burrows or migrates through soft tissue.”
Foxtails are a type of grass awn, and according to Dr. Gilbert, “Any awn with a wire-like seed has the potential to cause damage to your dog.” Here are just a few common grass awn names to look out for:
- June Grass
- Mean Seeds
- Bristle Grass
Where do Foxtails Grow?
Dr. Blake can attest these weeds around the mountain town of Lander, Wyoming, keep vets very busy, “It was a couple of summers ago when we had multiple dogs in a day because that's when things get dry and hot,” said Blake, “We had forty dogs come in the month of July that had grass awn injuries.”
Foxtails grow throughout the U.S., although they are more common in the West than out East. The season for foxtails can be anytime from the hot days of summer into the fall when seeds get dry and flaky.
Foxtails can be found around:
- Hiking Trails
- Open Grassy Fields
In Dr. Blake’s case, most of the dogs she saw during that busy month were “off-leash during hikes.” That’s why it's always a good idea to take a look at what plant species are growing off the trail in addition to trail requirements before letting your dog run wild.
The Dangers of Foxtails to Dogs
So why are these little pieces of grass so dangerous for our four-legged friends? Foxtails can cause dogs pain, swelling, abscesses, and in major cases, death. According to Dr. Blake, the most common places she sees foxtails are “between the toes, in the ear canal and it sounds miserable, and it is, but behind the eyelids including behind the third eyelid.”
Things can get serious once the foxtail makes its way inside the body. Foxtails can cause an infection that leads to death. When inhaled through the nose, there is the potential to pierce a lung, or when ingested can cause a hole through the bowel leading to peritonitis, a deadly bacterial infection.
In some cases foxtails require surgery, “If its completely under the skin, you have to sedate the dog, numb the area up and use a scalpel blade to open the abscess and reach in with a pair of tweezers or forceps and pull the grass awn out,” said Dr. Blake. So, it's important to notice the symptoms of foxtails as soon as possible to avoid surgery.
Foxtail Dog Symptoms:
According to Dr. Blake and Dr. Gilbert, here are some common foxtail dog symptoms:
- Feet: Swelling, limping, and excessive licking can be symptoms of a foxtail immersed between the webbing of a dog's feet and toes.
- Ear Canals: Head shaking, scratching, and pain when petting around the ears could be a sign of a foxtail.
- Eyelids: Red eyes, refusing to open eyes, and eyes watering are common symptoms of a foxtail under the eyelids. Nose: Excessive sneezing or drainage from the nose might indicate a foxtail in the nasal passage.
- Skin: Sore or abscess could be a symptom of a foxtail that has migrated under the skin.
Remember, you may not always see a foxtail, so it's not a bad idea to get your best friend checked out if they are displaying any of these symptoms, and the sooner the better.
How Long Does it Take for Foxtails to Kill a Dog?
Unfortunately, in extreme cases, foxtails can cause death in dogs, and many wonder what the timeline looks like.
“There is not a set timeline. Sometimes a piece goes in and is dormant and then starts to move. Sometimes you can have a piece go in, and the body walls it off, and it never causes a problem,” explains Dr. Gilbert, “If your dog is showing any discomfort, shaking their head, licking between their toes, sneezing, coughing, and doesn’t feel good, it’s time to go see the vet.”
How to Remove Foxtails in Dogs?
According to Dr. Blake, if the foxtail hasn’t migrated too far into the skin, you can remove it using clean tweezers. However, if you are not comfortable and would prefer a second opinion, it's never a bad idea to have your vet check out the affected area.
How to Prevent Dogs from Getting Foxtails
According to both vets, the number one rule of thumb for preventing foxtail injuries is to avoid grassy areas where they commonly grow and to keep your dog on a leash around these areas. If grassy areas are a preferred place for you and your canine to recreate, Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Blake recommend these steps to prevent foxtail injuries.
After a hike with your pup, take a couple of minutes to:
Check your dog's fur; it's not a bad idea to brush out furrier breeds. Check your dog's paws and make sure a foxtail hasn’t embedded between the toes. Check inside your dog's ears to see if a foxtail is present.
If you want to level up your protection Dr. Blake recommends a couple more options, “Sport booties for dogs to wear to protect their feet from the trauma of rough terrain would also do a great job of preventing these grass awns from penetrating between the toes. Dog backpacks can also help but always check for grass awns after every hike.”
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