So just what are “foxtails” and why are they hazards? A foxtail refers to a type of plant awn, or seed, from the foxtail weed, Hordeum jubatum. During the spring they sprout up, often in vacant lots, along the edges of grass lawns or wild fields. Superficially they are often compared to a wheat grass appearance. Closer inspection reveals a slender stalk topped with a floret. As the weather warms, the plants dry and turn a golden brown. The floret is a group of arrow-shaped seeds that are released and easily become embedded in passing fur or clothing.
Because foxtail seeds have microscopic barbules along their surface, once caught in an animal’s coat (or a hiker’s sock), they are passively propelled forward — usually because of the movement of the victim — and prevented from exiting. If not noticed and removed, foxtails can work their way into a pet’s skin and enter it.The most common locations for foxtail entrapment include the webbing between the toes, the ear canal, and the nose. Their presence causes extreme discomfort. These plant awn invaders often lead to bleeding, infection, and in the case of ear canal migration, ruptured ear drums. Foxtail foreign bodies are also found lodged in the pharynx, lungs, behind eyelids, stomach, small intestine, trachea, and have even migrated into the brain. They affect pets, livestock, and wild animals.
You can take steps to prevent a foxtail plant seed from harming your pet. Removal of the plants from your yard, especially early in the green phase before they seed, reduces their numbers and eliminates exposure. Weed-killer can be applied, or the plants can be incinerated with a hand burner.
If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of foxtails or you hike frequently with your dog, it is prudent to check his coat daily, especially between the toes and under the ear flaps. Cats who spend time outside are also at risk (though usually less so, due to feline grooming habits). Signs of foxtail problems include a red, moist seeping wound between the toes, a head tilt or ear irritation, excessive sneezing often with blood, or acute eye squinting and redness. A veterinarian’s advice should be sought as soon as possible in any of these cases.
– Dr. Don Beebe