Foxtail plants are spiny-headed weeds, notorious for burrowing under skin and potentially killing pets. Foxtails are prevalent in drier western states—particularly California—but can be found almost anywhere in North America. These prickly weeds thrive in overgrown parks, open fields, and along hiking trails and roadsides, and easily burrow into their next adventurous victim. Foxtails, also known as grass seed awns, are exceptionally hardy plants that dig deep into the soil and lodge in place when their barb-like spines trap them underground. This burrowing ability is also hazardous to pets, since the spiny-headed plant can work its way into any part of your pet, such as the eyes, ears, or paws, or even a patch of skin. Foxtail injuries are common during spring and summer when the seeds are growing and the grass is dry.

What are the signs of a foxtail injury in pets?

Foxtails are most commonly found in a pet’s ears, but can embed anywhere due to their small size and burrowing ability. After a trip outdoors, check your pet for foxtails in these areas:

  • Eyes — You may notice your pet has red, swollen, and irritated eyes, or is squinting, rubbing her face on the carpet, or pawing at her eye if a foxtail is embedded in this sensitive area.
  • Ears — When embedded in your pet’s ears—the most commonly affected body part—foxtails cause head shaking, pawing at ears, a head tilt, ear inflammation, or ear drainage.
  • Paws — The second most common point of entry for foxtails, affected paws can lead to limping, excessive licking, swelling, or lumps between the toes that may ooze or rupture.
  • Nose — A pet may get a foxtail stuck in her nose, which can burrow its way into the lungs or the brain. Signs of a foxtail in a nasal passage include sneezing, difficulty breathing, and nasal discharge, which may be bloody.
  • Genitals — Foxtails can dig into any spot on your pet, even genitals. Excessive licking and bloody urine are two signs of foxtail injuries in these areas.

Embedded foxtails can cause infections, abscesses, swelling, pain, and even death, and prompt detection and removal is critical to prevent serious illness.

How to remove foxtails from pets

Screen your pet after each outdoor adventure by running a fine-tooth comb through her fur to pick out any prickly foxtails, which are small and can be difficult to see, especially in longhaired pets. Check each of the entry points listed above. Remove foxtails from your pet with a comb, tweezers, or your fingers. You may need veterinary help to remove a foxtail that has dug deep into your pet and is causing pain and inflammation. Pets often need sedation to remove embedded or inhaled foxtails, and early intervention is crucial to prevent the injury from becoming worse. Please call our clinic as soon as you notice your pet has a foxtail issue.

How you can prevent your pet from getting foxtails

Since keeping your pet in a bubble isn’t a viable option, you need to take other measures to protect your furry friend, including the following:

  • Avoid foxtail habitats — Unfortunately, California’s climate is ideal for foxtail growth. Our wet fall and winter months pass into a dry summer, causing seed pods to dry out, break away, and find somewhere to dig into. Stay away from overgrown, grassy parks that don’t appear to be landscaped, and stick to the middle of hiking trails.
  • Invest in paw protection — California has other dangers besides foxtails, so protective booties may be a good idea for many reasons. Check out Ruffwear and Muttluks for various options based on your dog’s hiking level, breed, and size.
  • Invest in face protection — Remember that foxtails enjoy digging into ears most of all, so look for protective gear that will keep your pet’s ears, eyes, nose, and mouth safe from this prickly plant. Most pets will need time to get used to the unusual gear, so train your pet to wear her new hiking attire at home and ensure she’s accustomed to it before hitting the trails.
  • Groom your pet frequently — Similar to checking for ticks, a thorough grooming session helps prevent pesky tagalongs from harming your pet. Check her often for entwined foxtails and pull them out before they become embedded.

Foxtails are nasty weeds that can cause your furry friend serious harm. Keep an eye out for potential foxtail-growth areas, and quickly remove any of the spiky seeds before they have a chance to burrow into your pet.

Give us a call if you notice signs of a foxtail injury—limping, licking, sneezing, or squinting—so we can help get your pup back to enjoying the outdoors again.