Avoid foxtails – but also recognize these signs of exposure

Micki McCabeCONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (Apr. 30, 2024) — With springtime comes foxtails in our region.

They are all around us – just waiting to dry out enough to go up a dog’s nose, in its eyes, ears, mouth or myriad other orifices. Female dogs can have foxtails climb into their vaginal area, and male dogs get them inside the prepuce (the fleshy coating over the penis).

We see them much less commonly in cats, because dogs are more likely to have their feet, faces and bodies in dry grasses. Pastured horses and other livestock who graze on dried grasses can get them under the eyelids as well as buried along their gumline.

Foxtails, also known as plant awns, are the seed head of different grasses one finds in dry environments like we have. Several of these seeds look like a fox’s tail. Others grow more like a single section of that foxtail.

When foxtails dry out, each individual section separates. Usually, a single piece enters an animal’s body.

Signs of a problem

Occasionally, owners get lucky and catch it before the foxtail gets in too far, but more often you don’t even realize your pet has one until they are sneezing violently, licking a foot, shaking an ear or coughing because the foxtail got inhaled into the lung. Sometimes, foxtails even make their own hole by burrowing in between the toes or in matted fur, etc.

Foxtails can be quite a problem in California, causing anything from a big, uncomfortable nuisance to a deadly source of abscesses, pneumonia and other infections.

Since they are shaped like an arrow with extra barbs, they can only travel one direction: deeper into the opening or burrowing through soft tissue.

But what to do to prevent foxtails from causing these problems? Keeping dogs out of dry grassy fields with foxtails is the most logical option.

If this is not possible, placing a mask over the dog’s face, such as an “Outfox” mask, is a great way to help prevent a dog from sniffing one up the nose, inhaling it through the mouth, or getting one in an ear or eye. You will still need to check between the toes, as well as in their fur in general.

Visit to the vet

If you suspect that your pet might have a foxtail, you are likely destined for a veterinary visit. Your pet may need sedation or anesthesia so the vet can look for the foxtail, as well as simple yet specialized (and sterile) equipment to find and remove foxtails.

It is ideal to have a vet see your pet right away to maximize the opportunity to find a foxtail in an expedient manner. If you wait, the foxtail may travel deeper into the body. Sometimes this can lead to serious damage and the need for much more specialized equipment and potentially surgery to locate and remove the foreign material.

Foxtails can travel a great distance inside the body, making them hard to find and remove. They do not break down on their own, unfortunately.

They also tend to cause growth of a specific bacteria called Actinomyces. Sometimes owners are unaware that a foxtail is traveling in the pet, but a vet will find abscessed/diseased tissue. This clues us in to keep looking for the offending foxtail, following a culture that shows this specific bacteria.

The pet will typically receive an appropriate antibiotic, but the foxtail will ultimately need to be located and removed for full healing.

As you can see, avoidance would be much easier than dealing with the aftermath of these little pesky plants, but in California, easier said than done.

Email questions and comments to drmccabevet@gmail.com.

Micki McCabe

Micki McCabe, DVM, DACVIM, FAAVA, is a long-time Clayton resident. The recently retired local veterinarian has an interest in internal and integrative medicine.