Foxtails, or grass awns, are innocuous grass-like weeds that are far more dangerous than they appear. Your dog frolicking in an open meadow is actually a hazardousrather than idyllicscene, as foxtails can infiltrate your pet’s body through their skin. When you explore the great outdoors with your four-legged friend, you should be aware of the perils that foxtails pose and know how to protect your pet from these dangerous weeds.

What is a foxtail?

You may be unsure about a foxtail’s appearance, but you’ve likely walked past them without realizing. Foxtails are aptly named, because they look like a fox’s tail at the top of grassy stalks. They are seed-like structures with sharp, pointy tips designed to burrow in and take root, which makes removal exceptionally difficult.

Where are foxtails found?

Foxtails can be found almost everywhere throughout North America, and thrive in all but seven states. Typically, foxtails are seen in late spring, summer, and early fall, but they can thrive all year long in California. When walking outdoors with your pet, you most likely will see foxtails next to roadways, in open fields, and along hiking paths. You may also find foxtails in your yard, as these weeds do not discriminate on where they spread.

Why are foxtails dangerous for pets?

Foxtails are more dangerous than a simple weed, because they will embed in your pet’s skin and can cause a serious, painful infection. Without complete removal, the foxtail can work its way through your pet’s skin, nose, ears, eyes, mouth, or paws, and harm internal tissues and organs. Foxtails can travel to your pet’s brain, perforate lungs, or penetrate intestinal walls, causing pain, systemic infection, respiratory distress, or death.

What are signs of embedded foxtails in pets?

Since foxtails can “infect” any area in your pet, the clinical signs vary depending on where they penetrate. Common areas and the signs you may see include:

  • Feet — One of the most common places you’ll find foxtails is between your pet’s toes. If your pet is limping, oozing discharge from a small puncture in their paw, constantly licking their paws, or is swollen between their toes, they may have an embedded foxtail. 
  • Ears — Whether your pet has floppy, hound-like, or erect ears, they can suffer from foxtails, with one or both ears affected. Signs may include head shaking, a head tilt, or incessant scratching at the injured ear. While you may initially spot a foxtail in the outer ear, the seed will quickly work its way deep in the ear canal and cause redness, irritation, and swelling.
  • Eyes — A foxtail can become embedded in the eyelid, work its way under the lid, or penetrate the eye itself, and cause significant pain and inflammation. If your pet is pawing or rubbing at their eye, or you notice redness, swelling, squinting, or discharge, seek immediate veterinary help to remove the foreign object.
  • Nose — Nasal discharge, coughing, gagging, difficulty breathing, and excessive, intense sneezing can indicate your pet inhaled a foxtail. They may also paw at their nose or rub their face along the ground. 

How can I remove foxtails from my pet?

Thoroughly examining your pet immediately after returning indoors, before the weed has a chance to embed in the skin, is key for foxtail removal. Comb through your pet’s fur with a fine-toothed comb or brush, and check for foxtails in their ears, between their toes, and under their tail.

If a foxtail has already begun penetrating your pet’s skin, try to carefully remove the weed with tweezers. Wash the area with an antiseptic cleanser and rinse thoroughly to prevent infection.

If the foxtail is too deeply embedded, or your pet shows signs that they may have a grass awn, head to Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital, so we can help remove the foxtail before the seed travels further into your pet’s body.

How can I prevent foxtail problems in my pet?

Since getting rid of foxtails in your environment is almost impossible, you should take the following steps to prevent a foxtail injury in your pet:

  • Keep your pet on a leash — When walking outdoors with your pet, keep them leashed and close to your side. Foxtails are prevalent in tall grass that borders walkways and fills open fields, so do not let your pet wander through these areas.
  • Use protective gear — A mesh face mask that covers your pet’s head completely and attaches to their collar can prevent foxtails from penetrating the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and booties can protect paws and pads.
  • Take care of your lawn — Mow your yard regularly to keep grass short and kill foxtail-bearing weeds with weed-control products.

If you can’t fully remove a foxtail from your pet, contact our Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital team immediately for help extracting the dangerous weed.