Foxtails are grasses with seed awns that are extremely dangerous to dogs. Foxtail awns are barbed, razor-sharp needles, designed to burrown into the ground with the seed. However, they can also burrow through a dog's skin and enter soft tissue where they can cause serious injury, infection and death.
Foxtails are found most often on wild barley grasses and grow to be 2 to 5 feet in height and have a top with hairlike needles that ressemble a fox's tail. In some varieties the spikelets (top) look like common barley or rye grass.
Not all foxtails have lethal awns, but grasses such as foxtail barley and foxtail grass have particularly nasty awns. Other kinds of grass, such as Ripgut brome and Canada wild rye, also have potentially dangerous awns.
Like a bullet, a foxtail's torpedo-shaped awns can penetrate any part of a dog's body. The awns most commonly lodge in a dog's nose, ears, underbelly, rear end and paws. Long-haired dogs are particularly susceptible, as the barbed foxtail stays attached to the dog's fur and are difficult to spot in long fur.
Once the foxtail awn begins traveling through an animal, they do not break down. A foxtail in a dog's ear can perforate an ear drum. In a paw, it can lacerate the pad and move into the limb. In the nose and mouth, foxtails can eventually migrate towards the lungs.
Muscular movements (or air flow, in the case of nostrils) can cause the foxtails to continue to burrow through soft tissues and organs, causing abscesses and infection that can lead to physical disruption and death.
Geographical Areas Affected
Foxtail grasses can be found throughout the world. The grass is not native to North America and is most commonly found in the Western United States, with the greatest foxtail problem occurring in California. Foxtails can be found in southern US states as well.
The grass most often invade disturbed sites. Like a weed, they grow at roadsides, landfills, fence rows, open fields, mountain trails, vacant lots and sometimes lawns.
Foxtails are at their most deadly when they become dry and brittle, and the grass heads begin to separate. They cease to be a danger when the spikelets are mechanically abraded (say by farm tractors) or break down in the ground. In some habitats, foxtail can break down in a matter of weeks, but in others it can take months.
The best precaution to protect your dog is staying out of areas with foxtails. As there are many kinds of bromes and barleys it is best to ask your local veterinarian if any foxtail is found in your area and familiarize yourself with what foxtail looks like.
If you discover you have them in your yard it is best to get rid of them completely. Once mowed, the spikelets (which contain the foxtail) need to be raked and thrown away.
If you take a dog to areas where foxtail grass is, make sure you thoroughly check him/her over after being outdoors. Pay especially close attention between the toes, around the ears, eyes and nose and underbelly.
If a dog has a foxtail lodged in between toes, in nostrils or ear canals they may start sneezing vigorously and pawing at the affected area. Sometimes the foxtail is not easily visible (if ingested or inhaled), other times there will be visible wounds.
Should the awns move into the chest cavity of a dog, they can cause Pleural empyema (Pyothorax), which is an accumulation of pus in the pleural cavity, likely caused by the bacteria carried by an awn.
Wherever the foxtail is located, once it's through the skin of a dog it should be examined by a vet in order to make sure the entire awn is removed.
Once a foxtail has penetrated the skin and entered into muscular tissue or organs, removing it almost always requires an anesthetic and surgical procedure by a veterinarian. Abscesses may form, and may require draining and antibiotics will be prescribed for infection.
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