Reminder: How to Protect Your Dog from Foxtails



Neighbor Hugh of Precitaville writes:

With the beautiful weather we’ve been having, the foxtails are out in full force on the hill.  I’m now pulling at least one out of my dog’s paws after each walk.

You ran a great article in 2013 about the dangers of foxtails.  I remember reading it and then literally the next day having a foxtail go up our dog’s nose. When he got home and started sneezing blood, I knew exactly what was going on and was able to get him to the vet quickly. I’m quite sure that without your post I would have been a lot more freaked out. Since they’re back in force and a lot earlier this season perhaps you could run this post again?

Great idea. Foxtails are showing up early this year because of the droughtpocalypse, so let’s reprise the foxtail wisdom shared by Bernal neighbor and veterinarian Nicolette Zarday for Bernal canines (and the humans who love them):

If you own a dog, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. If you have a dog and you don’t know about foxtails, keep reading.

Foxtails are small plant awns or seed-bearing structures, usually of the genus Hordeum. Starting in the Spring and continuing through the Summer, plants shed them indiscriminately. We started to see a steady flow of foxtail cases in our veterinary practice mid-April, right after several days of heavy winds which helped yank the awns from their plants and spread them far and wide.

Foxtails are shaped like a badminton birdie, but with a pointy instead of a round end. They also have tiny barbs along their shafts. All this adds up to a unidirectional migration pattern; they go in but they don’t come out. The most common problems we see with foxtails are wounds in the paws. Often the owner will just notice a swelling between the toes and think it is a growth or a tumor. After piercing the skin and entering the body, foxtails can actually migrate up the leg, if left untreated. We also see foxtails in noses, ears, and eyes very often.

The most dangerous exposure occurs when dogs inhale them. This typically happens if a dog is porpoising through a field of foxtail plants and inhales one, mouth wide open. As the dog takes a deep breath, the foxtail bypasses all the normal barriers, so they can end up in the lower airways of the lungs. These can be difficult to find, require extensive and expensive treatment and surgery, and are often fatal. Other places foxtails have been found, in many cases post-mortem, include the brain, spinal cord, urinary tract, and abdomen.

Fortunately for dog owners, foxtails usually represent a minor health hazard, although the expense of having the foxtail removed by a veterinarian (usually under sedation or anesthesia) can be considerable. For us vets in northern California, foxtails are simultaneously the bane of our existence and a significant source of income during the spring and summer. I even heard about one veterinarian who owned a boat named “Foxtail.”

So, what can you do to protect your dog?

  • If it is a long-haired dog, keep the coat short during the Summer, especially the feet. There are groomers who will do a “foxtail cut” if requested.
  • After each walk, check your pet thoroughly and remove any plant material.
  • If your dog suddenly starts sneezing uncontrollably, squinting, or shaking its head during or immediately after a walk, there is an excellent chance a foxtail is involved. Call your veterinarian’s office.
  • Do not allow your dog to run through fields of tall grass that contain these plant awns. (This is what I worry about most.)
  • Check your backyard for plants that shed foxtails, and remove the plants completely.

There are plenty of these nasty little dudes on Bernal Hill, so keep an eye out!

Related/unrelated PS: Last week, Neighbor Nicolette sent Bernalwood this urgent personal appeal:

Geoff and I are looking to buy a house (we’re currently renting) in Bernal. Our timing is terrible. If you hear of any of your neighbors who plan to put their place on the market, we’d love it if you would put us in touch.

PHOTOS: Tabletop samples, Nicole Zarday. Wild foxtail from UCSC


9 thoughts on “Reminder: How to Protect Your Dog from Foxtails

  1. Also be aware of filaree (“stork’s bill) grass or something very similar looking -the seed has a thin, sharp pointed barb with a corkscrew body and are also designed to burrow. I find these are much harder to spot and have to carefully examine the fur around my puppy’s paws to find them.

  2. How common are foxtail patches? Is there anything practical and even remotely effective that can be done to eradicate the plant? Or is prevention of that sort hopeless?

    I don’t have a dog, but it gives me the willies just thinking about having one of those in an airway, especially the nose. Yikes.

    • Foxtails are part of the natural landscape, so removing them is certain to arouse conservationists who prefer the hill be returned to the condition it was in when the Spanish discovered the golden gate.

      • HA.

        Park and Rec’s N.A.P. is a foolish program with influence far beyond its merits and popularity.

  3. Years ago, members of our Bernal large dog play group would take old pantyhose, cut off the legs and slip the tops over our dogs heads to keep their ears flat against their heads, and block the foxtails from getting in their ears. The dogs looked like they wore babushkas, but it worked. As the foxtail season got worse, we’d meet at other parks.

  4. I wish there was somewhere I could contribute to pay for mowing the foxtails around Bernal Hill Park.

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