For most people, the word “foxtail” doesn’t conjure up images of horror. But ask any unfortunate pet owner whose pet has had a run in with these pesky plants, and you’ll most likely hear at least a few horror stories. They may look innocent enough, but foxtails can present some very real dangers to pets.
A foxtail is, basically, a dried spikelet of grass that surrounds the seeds of some types of grass. They are said to resemble the tail of a fox, hence the name. They are sometimes also referred to as “spear grass”. What can make foxtails so hazardous is that they have tiny barbs that can easily catch onto clothing, hair, skin, and fur.
Because of the way the barbs are designed, if not caught quickly enough foxtails can migrate deeper into the skin of animals. They are sharp enough to penetrate tissue, and the barbs (much like a fish hook) are shaped so that the grass can easily be pushed forwards but cannot easily move backwards.
Foxtail injuries are most common in dogs, but they can harm other species (including humans) as well. In dogs, foxtails commonly get caught in ears, noses, and eyes. They can embed themselves into the membranes of pet’s ear drums, nasal passages, and eyes. Foxtails embedded in the skin can cause abscesses. They are notorious for getting stuck between toes, and have even been found inside dogs’ lungs! They can get caught inside dogs’ genitals, anal glands and colon. They are often sharp enough to be able to penetrate through the abdominal and/or chest cavities and organs. Foxtails can lodge inside pets’ gums, lips, tonsils, throats, and digestive tracts. If not found and removed promptly, foxtails can cause serious injury, infection, and sometimes even death.
Here are some general tips for preventing injury and dealing with foxtails…
- If foxtails grow in your yard, mowing them down is not enough. If your lawn mower doesn’t collect grass clippings for easy disposal, it’s important to rake or otherwise remove cut foxtails from your yard. They don’t have to be attached to the living grass to get stuck to your pet.
- Keep your pet well groomed. If their coat is tangled and dirty, it can make it harder to spot foxtails stuck to the fur or skin. Foxtails can get caught in matted fur and migrate to the skin. If possible, trim the fur on the bottom of your dog’s feet and around his/her genitals and butt.
- Thoroughly check over your pet after he/she spends time indoors. Pay close attention to between the toes, the anal and genital areas, inside ears and around the face, and the armpits.
- Keep an eye on the general health of your pet. Look out for any swelling, draining wounds, eye, nose, or ear discomfort, or any other unusual symptoms. Foxtails between the toes or stuck to paw pads or legs may cause limping. Take your pet to the vet if he/she has been exposed to foxtails and is displaying any unusual behavior. Your pets’ symptoms or injuries may not seem that bad, but foxtails can be deadly and the sooner they are removed the better.
- If your dog is displaying any unusual symptoms, make sure to mention to your vet that he/she has had contact with foxtails. Depending on where the plant is lodged, symptoms can vary and may resemble symptoms of other conditions.
In New Jersey, we can find yellow (S. lutescens), giant (S. faberii), and sometimes green foxtail species. Most of the more dangerous species fall into the genus Hordeum, and are commonly referred to as “wild barley”. These species are found most commonly in states west of the Mississippi. Although the more dangerous species of foxtail grasses may not be native to NJ, it never hurts to be aware of potential dangers. Especially in the hot summer months, foxtail seeds can sometimes hitch rides on clothing or the fur/feathers of animals and grow in areas it is not native too. Also, this is the time of year when many New Jerseyians are planning summer vacations. For pet owners who enjoy taking their pet along for the fun, the best way to avoid dangers in new locations is to know about them!