Dr. Reneé: Foxtails

[July 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage] By Renee Rumrill, DVM

YOU SEE THEM EVERYWHERE this time of year—foxtails. Foxtail grasses are ubiquitous, low-growing grasses with wheat-like heads. They thrive during wet springs like the one we’ve had this year. As the grasses dry out, the individual seeds, known as foxtails, fall to the ground. Foxtails have a hardened, woody tip and long barbs pointing away from the tip.

When our pets encounter the seed-heads, those barbs cause them to become irreversibly lodged and will penetrate just about anywhere. It is common during the summer season for a client to call with a concern that a dog came in from an outdoor romp and is sneezing violently, or for a cat who suddenly has a closed, weeping eye.

Foxtails find their way into nostrils, ear canals, eyes, and between toes where painful abscesses will form. While anesthetizing a dog for a spay surgery, my technician noticed an infected molar tooth with numerous foxtails embedded in the gum tissue. The tooth could not be saved and had to be extracted, but the dog was spared a lot of pain and other ill health effects from a diseased tooth.

Foxtails embedded in the mouth can work their way into the deeper tissues of the head and neck. Dogs may present with a mysterious deep abscess around the throat area. Treatment requires opening the abscess and a search for the offending object, followed by a course of antibiotic and pain relief.

In the worst cases, foxtails will travel, causing life-threatening infections within the brain, spinal column, chest and abdomen. To reduce your pet’s exposure, eliminate all foxtail grasses in your yard in the spring before they dry. These grasses thrive in disturbed soils, so overplant these areas with desirable species or use bark mulch to discourage regrowth. When away from home with your dog, avoid areas with foxtails and inspect their coat, including the foot pads and ears, for seeds. Sudden onset of violent head shaking, sneezing, closed eye, foot licking or signs of oral discomfort is a reason to have your pet seen by your veterinarian.

Dr. Reneé Rumrill owns Alta Vista Animal Hospital in Montrose, CO. She practices medicine with the philosophy that every animal matters and with the understanding that there is no other bond like the one that we share with our pets.