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What are Foxtails?

Foxtails are pesky, bristly grass lawns that grow in abundance throughout San Jose, California and the western half of the US. They are not a singular plant species, but rather a set of several grass-like weed species characterized by pokey seed clusters (or "tails") at their tips. The foxtail plants' barbed seed heads can work their way into your dog or cat by burrowing in their fur, skin, or in the openings of nose, ears, and eyes. The burs of the foxtail cause it to embed and relentlessly move forward (never back) allowing it to migrate deep into your pet's body. Because the seeds don't break down inside the body, if left untreated, an embedded foxtail can lead to pain, swelling, abscesses, and death. foxtails

With this winter’s rains, we expect there to be a “bumper crop” of foxtails! These are wild grass/weed seeds that are common here in California. They start to bloom in spring, then dry out. They can be a serious problem for your pets! There are several types, but they all can get caught in the pets’ coat/hair, into just about any opening or fold in the body. Foxtails have tiny barbs that only allow travel in one direction, and enable them to cling tightly to the hair.

How do you know if your pet has a foxtail?

If your dog is displaying any of the following symptoms, check for foxtails or contact us at (408) 293-3448:

  • Feet - Foxtails love to embed themselves into your pet's feet and can easily migrate between tender toes. Check for foxtails if you notice swelling or limping or if your dog is constantly licking the area.
  • Ears - Your pet may have a foxtail if they are shaking their head, tilting it to the side, or scratching incessantly at an ear. One may be so deep inside the ear canal you can't see it. If you suspect that your pet has a foxtail in their ear, we have a special scope that can look deep inside.
  • Eyes - Redness, discharge, swelling, squinting, and pawing all may be signs your pet has a foxtail lodged in its eye. If you think this may be the case, seek veterinary care immediately. Prolonged exposure to a foxtail can cause serious damage to the cornea.
  • Nose - If you see discharge from the nose, or if your pet is sneezing frequently, suddenly, and intensely, there may be a foxtail lodged in a nasal passage. Usually, foxtails in the nose need to be removed while under sedation.
  • Mouth - Excessive gagging, hacking, licking the air or excessive swallowing are signs that your pet may have a foxtail in their mouth or throat.
  • Any area of the skin - The burs of a foxtail can burrow in any area of the skin. If you see redness, swelling or your pet is constantly licking an area, they may have a foxtail.

How do I prevent my pet from getting a foxtail issue?

The easiest way to prevent foxtail problems is to keep your pets out of overgrown, grassy areas. You should also pull out any foxtail plants you find in your yard. After a hike check over your pet's entire body to ensure they did not pick up a foxtail. If your pet has long hair; shaving the fur of the paws short (poodle cut) in the spring and summer months can also help. If you live in or take your pet on walks in an area that is high risk for foxtail exposure, the Outfox Field Guard is a face mask you can purchase online that will prevent foxtails from getting in your pet's eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. If you suspect a foxtail has embedded itself into your pet, seek out veterinary care so that it does not become a life threatening issue.

How do I know if my pet has a foxtail allergies?

They can get into ears where they can suddenly cause severe head shaking and pain. This is common in dogs and uncommon in cats. If they get into the eyes, there is severe pain, squinting and blinking, and watery and/or pus like discharge. They can cause corneal ulcers. Cats seem prone to foxtails in the eyes. Foxtails can get caught in the hairs between toes, where they can tunnel through the skin, creating an abscess (a bright red swelling between the toes), and limping and licking of the swelling. This is most common in dogs. They can cause similar abscesses in the skin if caught anywhere in the coat of a dog.

Dogs can inhale them up their noses, causing immediate and severe sneezing fits, where they can hit their nose on the ground as they sneeze. They can cause nose bleeds and nasal discharge. Generally, only one nostril is affected, so if you see your dog wrinkle up one side of its muzzle before sneezing, there is a very good chance something is up that side.

Foxtails have been known to end up in bladders, after going up the urethra!! They have been found in the vaginal tract and inside the sheath of male dogs. They have been inhaled into the lungs, causing severe pneumonia, localized abscesses requiring surgery and sometimes partial lung removal. From there, some foxtails have migrated through the diaphragm into the muscles along the spinal column, creating at best a deep abscess, and at worse, an infection in the bones of the spinal column, which could ultimately paralyze the patient.

If you suspect your pet has a foxtail, call your San Jose veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment at (408) 293-3448. This might require sedation or general anesthesia for safe removal of the foxtail, even major surgery. It might require several attempts, as it can be like looking for the needle in a haystack.

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