Dangers of Foxtails for Dogs (and How to Remove Them)
A dog happily running through an open field, without a care in the world, is the perfect image of pure canine bliss.
But foxtails could be lurking in that open field, spelling danger for dogs. Foxtails are found just about everywhere and can be troubling for unlucky dogs that pass by them.
What Is a Foxtail?
A foxtail is a weed that grows at the top of grasses and resembles the bushy tail of a fox.
Foxtail goes by many names, including:
- Grass awn
- June grass
- Giant foxtail
This weed has seeds arranged in spiky clusters. The seeds have backward-facing barbs that allow foxtail to burrow into a dog’s skin and other body parts. Without veterinary intervention, burrowed foxtails are impossible to remove entirely.
Foxtails are most prominent in the western United States but can be found throughout most of the country. They make their home along open roadways, hiking trails, meadows, and open fields – all of the places where dogs love to run and play.
Foxtails begin growing in early spring, are in full bloom in early summer, and die in the winter.
Dangers of Foxtails for Dogs
Foxtails and dogs are a bad combination. If a foxtail happens to land on your dog, it won’t be long before the weed starts to burrow, carrying infection-causing environmental debris and bacteria. The burrowing is aided by movement: the more a dog moves, the more deeply the foxtail will burrow.
Because of a foxtail’s shape, the weed will continue burrowing until it can’t burrow any further.
Foxtails will cause problems wherever they land on a dog’s body. For example, a foxtail that burrows into the skin can cause skin infections and abscesses (pockets of bacterial infection). Foxtails that burrow into internal organs can wreak havoc, causing such damage as internal abscesses and intestinal perforation.
Foxtails do not break down in the body. If they are not removed, they will continue to cause problems and put your dog at risk of severe infection.
Can Foxtails Kill a Dog?
Although rare, foxtails can cause life-threatening internal damage. For example, a perforated intestine can put a dog’s life at risk if not treated early and aggressively.
Foxtails that are inhaled and get lodged in the lungs can cause a respiratory infection that requires immediate life-saving emergency care.
Where You’ll Find Foxtails on a Dog
Foxtails can land anywhere on a dog’s body, but here are the most common body parts where foxtails will land:
Dogs love to explore the environment with their nose, so it is no surprise that foxtails can easily attach to the nose and other parts of the face. In addition, a dog’s paw pads are an easy target for foxtails’ sharp tips.
If you take your dog to an area with lots of foxtails, check the body parts listed above for this weed. Generally, checking your dog from head to toe for foxtails is a good idea.
Signs Your Dog Has a Foxtail
Foxtails will cause symptoms according to the part of the body into which they’ve burrowed.
- Head shaking
- Pawing at nose
- Violent sneezing
- Pawing at eye
- Eyes are swollen shut
- Head tilt
- Head shaking
- Refusal to eat
- Difficulty eating
- Excessive licking or nipping of affected paw
Because foxtails carry debris and bacteria, they cause infection wherever they land and burrow. Here are common signs of infection:
- Bad odor
- Draining tracts
- Abscesses (pockets of bacterial infection)
- Signs of inflammation, including redness and swelling
- Discharge that may be discolored (yellow, green) or bloody
Once infection has set in, a dog will have symptoms of systemic illness, including:
- Reduced appetite
Foxtails that have burrowed into an internal organ can cause enough damage to warrant emergency veterinary care. Symptoms of internal organ damage will vary according to which organ is affected. For example, lung damage can result in severe respiratory distress. Intestinal perforation can cause severe abdominal pain.
What to Do if You Find a Foxtail on Your Dog
Foxtails must be immediately removed from a dog’s body to avoid damage and infection caused by the weed’s burrowing.
Foxtails can be removed at home if they have not yet become embedded or burrowed through the skin. Foxtails in the fur can be removed with a fine-toothed comb or brush. Tweezers help remove foxtails from the skin.
If you can remove the foxtail, gently clean the affected area with mild soap and rinse with water.
If the foxtails have already started burrowing, take your dog to your veterinarian for treatment as soon as possible. Do not try to remove embedded foxtails on your own.
Your veterinarian will have the tools and techniques to remove embedded foxtails. For example, an endoscope (a video camera with small pincers attached) can identify and remove foxtails embedded in the nose. Surgery is recommended for foxtails that have burrowed into an internal organ.
If your veterinarian performs the removal, they will prescribe medications to treat (or prevent) infection and reduce pain and inflammation.
Take your dog to your veterinarian even if you removed foxtails on your own. Your veterinarian will determine if the entire foxtail was removed and complete the removal, if necessary.
How to Prevent Foxtails on Dogs
Because foxtails are just about everywhere, preventing them from landing on your dog can be tricky. Here are a few prevention strategies you can try:
Check your dog after outdoor excursions. Always check your dog’s body for foxtails after being outside, paying close attention to the body parts where foxtails are most likely to attach.
Stay away from foxtail-prone areas. Avoid outdoor areas where foxtails are prevalent, particularly from the spring to early fall.
Keep your yard clean. Mow your lawn and remove weeds regularly.
Trim your dog’s fur in the summer. Keeping your dog’s fury shorter can help you see foxtails more easily.
Shorten your dog’s leash. Keep your dog on a short leash when walking outside. Do not let your dog go off-leash.
Try protective gear. Put protective gear (e.g., vests, paw covers) on your dog before going to foxtail-prevalent areas.