By Dr. Becker
If you've never heard of foxtails, you may hear about them soon enough, and regardless of where you live, I urge you to be on the lookout for them. These treacherous little plant awns are ubiquitous in California, reported in almost every state west of the Mississippi, and have recently spread to the east coast as well.
Foxtails and Barbed Grasses
There are many varieties of foxtails, both native and non-native, but only some have harmful spurs. Among them is foxtail barley, which is found throughout the U.S. except in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, and also grows throughout Canada and in parts of Mexico.
In an interview with The Bark, botanist William Lauenroth of the University of Wyoming warned that Midwestern states have seen a sharp increase in foxtail-related infection rates in field dogs. Sporting dogs often run through thick brush where they can inhale or swallow foxtails.
Lauenroth is working with the AKC and sporting dog groups to combat grass awn disease, also known as grass awn migration disease. They suspect that barbed grasses, in particular Canada wildrye, planted on land where field dogs train, may have caused the spike in cases of the disease.
Lauenroth discovered that not only has Canada wildrye been planted in the Midwest, it is also common along the east coast.
Why Foxtails Are So Dangerous to Pets
In late spring and early summer, foxtail plant heads turn brown and dry, and scatter across the landscape. The tiny spikes on the plant heads allow them to burrow into soil, and wildlife also helps spread them around.
The foxtails eventually and inevitably make their way into the noses, eyes, ears, mouths, and just about every other opening of dogs' bodies, including the vulva and penis. They can get deep into your dog's nostril or ear canal or under the skin in no time, and often too fast for you to notice them.
These deadly little plant heads can burrow into your dog's fur and pierce the skin, often between the toes. They can end up virtually anywhere in your pet's body, and symptoms depend on where the foxtail is located. For example, if your dog is shaking her head, there could be a foxtail in an ear canal. If she's suddenly sneezing uncontrollably, she could have one in her nose. Foxtails in the lungs can cause coughing and difficulty breathing.
A dog's body isn't capable of processing foxtails, either degrading or decomposing them. To make matters worse, foxtails carry bacteria and can only move in one direction (forward). Unless they are found early, they can continue to travel throughout a dog's body, creating abscesses, damaging tissue, and causing grass awn disease.
A grass awn infection can be very difficult to diagnose, in part because the infection occurs behind the migrating foxtail. In addition, foxtails are hard to see using traditional imaging techniques, because they are small, covered with infection and scar tissue, and are invisible on x-rays.
As you can probably imagine, once a foxtail is roaming around inside your dog's body, it can be incredibly difficult to find. It's not uncommon for veterinarians to perform multiple surgeries before a foxtail is finally located and removed.
Protecting Your Pet from Foxtails and Grass Awn Disease
If you suspect your dog has been exposed to foxtails or is exhibiting suspicious symptoms, I recommend you consult your veterinarian or an emergency animal clinic immediately to find out how to proceed.
Obviously, avoiding foxtail exposure altogether should be the goal, but that's not always possible. If your dog does encounter foxtails, it's important to carefully comb through his coat – and also check his ears, mouth, and between his toes – a few times each day to remove any that you find before they have an opportunity to wreak havoc on your pet's health.
You might also want to investigate these safety devices other dog owners have created to keep their canine companions free of foxtails: