Beware of Foxtails: How to Protect Your Dog

| Christy Caplan CVT

Outdoor summer fun is a great way to bond and exercise with your pet, but beware of hazards like foxtails. Here's where you'll find foxtails and how to remove them.

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Warm weather hazards like ticks are on every pet owner’s radar, but are you keeping your eyes peeled for foxtails? Foxtails (also known as grass seed awns or stickers) are a common cause of ear and paw infections for dogs and are prevalent in the summer months. Some vets even categorize them as one of the most dangerous environmental hazards for pets, capable of causing severe pain or even death in extreme cases.

What Are Foxtails?

Foxtails are the dried seed heads of certain types of grasses. These seeds can break off and work their way into your dog’s ears or nostrils, as well as under the eyelids and between the toes. If there was a rainy spring, grass seeds are going to be sprouting up by the dozens… and they should be avoided.

Do They Really Look Like a Fox Tail?

Yes! Looks can be deceiving. The foxtail looks soft in the spring, but when the temperatures rise, they dry out, turn yellow, and their plume-like tail develops a sharp seed.

How Do They Become Attached to Your Dog?

The seeds are sharp with a dangerous front tip so small that it can easily enter through an orifice. They also have a hooked barb that punctures the flesh and stops it from being removed easily.

Luckily, foxtails can’t migrate to the brain, but they can enter the body wall and puncture a lung.

What Regions Are Foxtail-Free?

Foxtails are less prevalent in the southeast, but are found everywhere else in the U.S. ThePreventive Vet says that, “Foxtails are reported to thrive in all but seven states in the U.S. In western states like California; they can exist all year long.”

States that don’t have foxtails include:

  • Florida

  • Georgia

  • Hawaii

  • Louisiana

  • North Carolina

  • South Carolina

  • Virginia

Foxtail Types

What these grasses all have in common are barbed seeds.

The various types of dangerous grasses found across the U.S. include:

  • Canadian wheat rye

  • Timothy

  • June Grass

  • Green Foxtail

  • Cheatgrass

  • Giant Foxtail

Ears, Nostrils, and Paws: Common Foxtail Symptoms

Injuries from foxtails may resemble other health conditions, so if you suspect a grass seed and see any of these signs, make a vet appointment immediately. Foxtails can migrate into the body wall and puncture the lungs! This is a true emergency.

Here are some common symptoms:

Ears

  • Scratching

  • Shaking the head

  • A head tilt

  • Ears are sensitive to the touch

  • Redness

  • Offensive odor

Paws

  • Licking paws excessively

  • Swelling between the digits  

  • Skin around the digits is red and patches of hair are missing

Nostrils

  • Intense and violent sneezing

  • Nosebleed

Removal Tips: Examine the Ears or Paws ASAP

If you think you see a foxtail in an ear or between the paws, try the following before heading to the vet, as these need to be promptly removed! After you remove the seed, make a vet appointment to ensure it’s completely gone. Carefully follow these steps:

Ears

  • Examine the ears and see if the seed is visible.

  • If you spot a seed within reach, try to remove it before it travels further into the ear canal.

  • Don’t reach deeper into the canal than you can see.

  • After removing the seed, see your vet for a follow-up to ensure no more seeds are stuck deeper in the ear canal.

Paws

  • Cleanse the area with warm water.

  • Clip hair short with blunt-nosed scissors.

  • Grab the seed with a tweezer if it can be easily removed.

  • After removing the seed, see your vet for a follow-up to ensure no more seeds are stuck deeper in the paw pads.

If a foxtail made its way under an eyelid or up the nostril, head to your vet immediately. Don’t try and remove it on your own.

Prevention Is Possible

Consider these tips before a hike, walk, or fetch in the backyard to help prevent a foxtail emergency.

  • Trim the long hair around your dog’s ears and between their toes.

  • Get boots for your dog.

  • Use OutFox Field Guard, which shields your dog’s eyes, ears, and mouth from seeds.

  • Don’t go off-trail during a hike.

  • Check paws and fur after every hike.

  • Do a head-to-toe exam at home to examine fur.

Getting Rid of Foxtails in Your Yard

Some experts recommend taking a blow torch to your yard to get rid of foxtails! Based on vet horror stories, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Here’s are ways to solve the foxtail problem:

  • Try a propane torch weed burner.

  • Pop out the entire plant at the root when the plumes arrive in spring.

  • When mowing, use a grass-catcher.

  • Use a weed wacker without the string trimmers.

Foxtails = A Trip to The Vet

If you live in a region with foxtails, you need pet insurance. Even if you use a blow torch to reduce the number of foxtails in your yard, you’ll end up at the vet. These nasty grass seeds can make their way up your dog’s nose, get stuck in an eyelid, or end up in your dog’s paw. In most cases, you’ll end up needing a vet to remove them. With inflation causing rising costs and foxtails causing multiple summer trips to the vet, it’s crucial to have pet insurance.

AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) offers Accident and Illness coverage, which can help you focus more on the health of your pet and less on costly veterinary bills. Policies also include the industry’s best pre-existing condition coverage after 365 days*.

*Not available in all states.

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Christy Caplan CVT

Christy is a writer, editor, blogger, chicken keeper, and storyteller. She uses her knowledge as a certified veterinary technician to inform animal lovers on health and wellness topics. Christy's Standard Dachshund and Beagle mix are the inspiration behind her writing portfolio and essays.

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