Foxtails, the Plant

Foxtails are also called wild barley, cheat grass, needlegrass, bromegrass, and spear grass. A foxtail is a spikelet or spikelet cluster of a grass that serves to disperse its seeds as a unit. The spikelets or spikelet clusters of foxtails are adapted for animal dispersal and so can become a health hazard for dogs and other domestic animals. Grasses with this feature can be found all around the country but are most common in the western United States, with the greatest foxtail problem occurring in California.

All foxtails have a hardened tip and barbs pointing backwards from the tip. Foxtails separate easily and the barbs allow the foxtail to cling to fur. Movement of the animal causes the foxtail to burrow deeper into the fur. Foxtails can also enter the nostrils and ear canals of many mammals. In all these cases, the foxtail can physically enter the body. Muscular movements (or air flow, in the case of nostrils) can cause the foxtails to continue to burrow through soft tissues and organs, causing infection and physical disruption, which in some cases can result in death.

Foxtails become a problem when the grass heads begin to separate. The danger ends only when the spikelets or spikelet clusters are mechanically abraded or incorporated into the soil, turf, or leaf litter. In some habitats, this can be a matter of weeks, but in others it may require months, especially if different species flower and fruit at different times during the season.

Foxtails, the Danger to Dogs

For dogs, the potentially most dangerous foxtails are found in areas easily missed: the armpit, between the toes, and in nostrils and ear canals. The first two should be routinely examined in long-haired dogs. Occasionally they can even lodge in the conjunctiva under the eyelid. In the latter three cases, dogs may exhibit symptomatic behavior, such as sneezing or pawing. Discharge from a secondary bacterial infection should be investigated as well.

Foxtails imbedded in the nostrils can migrate into the nasal turbinates and in rare cases into the brain. Foxtails in the ear canal can puncture the eardrum and enter the middle ear, causing hearing loss. In both cases, detection and early removal is the best treatment.

How do you know if your dog has a foxtail? Signs include the following: excessive sneezing (foxtail in the nose), lump on the skin that is painful to touch (paw or undercoat), violent shaking of the head (foxtail in ear), or pawing at eye. Wherever the foxtail is located, once it’s in the dog it should be examined by a vet in order to make sure the entire object is removed.