Foxtail Grass: Protecting Your Pets From a Potentially Deadly Summer Plant

Foxtail Grass: Protecting Your Pets From a Potentially Deadly Summer Plant

Just what we needed, something else to worry about when it comes to our dogs: foxtail season!

The new season brings outdoor activities and off-leash exploring, but before you venture out it’s essential to read up on the harmful connection between foxtails and dogs.

Throughout the rainy season, annual grasses releasing foxtails grow quickly. As temperatures rise, the foxtail-shaped tip of each grass blade dries out and the individual barbed awns take a ride on any passing object, including dogs. The pesky seeds from these dried grasses get stuck everywhere, and I mean everywhere — especially in a pup’s fur.  This plant is engineered to spread its seed by burrowing — they burrow further into an object with movement, making it a major problem for small animals passing by, including dogs. The foxtail seeds, which carry bacteria, may then keep tunneling into a tissue, carving the dangerous path of infection that marks grass awn disease.

white puppy running in Foxtail Grass, Foxtail Grass
There are three "problematic" species of foxtail that grow particularly here in New York state, and not only can they cause serious medical issues in domestic pets and farm animals, but many interfere with crop growth as well. Foxtails are no joke and can get caught in any part of your dog’s body from its paw pads to its eardrum. Before you hit the open trails, take action to prevent this pesky plant from hurting your pup! Here's what to watch out for the next time you take a stroll in the long grass with your furry friend.

What Are Foxtail Plants?

Foxtail plants can be risky for your dog. The barbed seed heads of the foxtail plant can work their way into any part of your dog or cat, from the nose to between the toes and inside the ears, eyes, and mouth. They can even simply dig themselves directly into a patch of skin.

The foxtail plant is a grass-like weed. It is mostly found in the Western half of the U.S. The danger of foxtails goes beyond simple irritation. Because these tough seeds don't break down inside the body, an embedded foxtail can lead to serious infection for your dog. It can even lead to death if left untreated. The seeds can be hard to find in your dog's fur.

Foxtail Grass

The thing is, a foxtail can’t make the distinction between soil and a dog, so once they hook onto something, they’re going to do their job: burrow. This means bad news if one gets stuck in a dog’s ear, nasal passages, or anywhere else on their body.

So how can you tell if your pooch has a foxtail that’s causing problems? If you find a foxtail should you extract it? And when is it time to call a vet?

Foxtails get their name for a very clear reason (just check out the shape of their seed heads), but their danger is less obvious. The secret lies in their bristled seeds (below), which can find their way into the most unwelcome places, causing everything from discomfort to death.

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Why Are Foxtails Dangerous?

“Mean seeds” is another name that refers to foxtails or any number of plants, including Canada wild rye and cheatgrass, that have barbed grass awns or seed heads. Dogs may pick up a grass awn on an ear, eye, mouth, nose, or between their toes – and an awn can even burrow directly into their skin.

These plants and seeds can be particularly dangerous, causing pneumonia if the dog inhales them. The shape of the barbs allows the seed to continuously move forward, traveling inside the dog from the nose to the brain or into a lung, and spreading bacteria that cause infections.

Here’s a thought that will make your hair stand up: when grass awns get inside part of your dog, they don’t just settle. They keep moving … towards vital organs like their lungs, intestines, the brain — anything goes.

The grass-awn disease is a growing problem among hunting dogs, but any dog can come in contact with these plants when running or walking through the tall grass because they are quite widespread throughout North America, especially from May through December. Dogs with long ears and coats may be more likely to pick up the barbs.

Foxtail Grass in sunset, Foxtail Grass

Where Do Foxtail Plants Grow?

Foxtails, a longtime scourge on the West Coast, can now be found in many parts of the United States. Of the many kinds of foxtails, only some have harmful barbs. Among them: foxtail barley, found nationwide except in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, according to the U.S. Forest Service; Canada wild rye, bristlegrass, cheatgrass; giant foxtail; and rip gut brome (Bromus diandrus), named for its effects on livestock. Canada wild rye — which has been planted in the Midwest and is also common along the east coast — has a sharp awn making it dangerous for dogs.

Sporting dog parents may know the foxtail best since field dogs routinely charge into thick brush and spend hours in grassy hotspots, where they easily inhale or swallow foxtails. But dogs playing in the park or yard, hiking, at a roadside stop, or wherever foxtails live, can find themselves with these bristly foxtail plants stuck between their paws.

Foxtail Plants' Danger to Animals in New York

There are three problematic species of the foxtail (Setaria) specifically in the state of New York. These species are yellow (S. glauca), green (S. viridis), and giant (S. faberi) foxtail. All can be problems in small fruit (berries), vegetables, and field crops (especially in late sweet corn as a harvest impediment). All three are summer annual grasses that are widespread in the US and in New York and are non-native to the US (yellow foxtail is native to Eurasia, green foxtail to China and giant foxtail to East Asia).

In farm animals, the spiky seeds of foxtail plants and foxtail grasses often can cause "serious" mouth ulcers when they get stuck in the gums or on the tongues of cows or horses. Veterinarians caution that for smaller animals like cats and dogs, these seeds can wreak havoc internally as well.

The danger of foxtails goes beyond simple irritation. Because these tough seeds don't break down inside the body, an embedded foxtail can lead to serious infection for your dog. It can even lead to death if left untreated.

A dog in Foxtail Grass field

How To Identify a Foxtail Plant

To identify a foxtail plant, look for cylindrical spiky seed heads, which differentiate them from other types of grasses. Because there are many species of grasses that produce foxtail seeds with backward-facing barbs, it can be challenging to identify the plant before the seed develops. One of the most distinguishing features of the foxtails is the color and size of the fuzzy foxtail seed heads.

Symptoms of Embedded Foxtails

Your dog may have an embedded foxtail or similar barbed awn if you see these symptoms:

  • Swelling between the toes, limping, or licking one area of the foot
  • Scratching at an ear and/or head shaking and head tilting
  • Pawing at an eye that is red, swollen, or has a discharge
  • Frequent sneezing and nasal discharge, as well as repetitive coughing
  • Persistent licking of the genitals

Preventing Problems From the Foxtail Seed and Other Barbed Awns

  • Keep your yard clear of foxtails and other high grasses.
  • Trim your dog’s hair during foxtail season.
  • Avoid taking your dog to areas or hiking trails where you see foxtail infestation or any overgrown fields of tall grasses.
  • If you do walk through any area where the foxtail is growing, check your dog for possible foxtail visible seed head, especially between the dog's toes and paw pads. Run a fine-toothed comb through their coat and look for awns in their fur. Also check your dog's nose, ears, face, and mouth. Remove any barbed awns before they start to burrow with a brush or tweezers.
  • If the awn is embedded and surrounded by red and swollen skin, take the dog to your veterinarian.
  • If your dog starts to exhibit strange symptoms of illness, especially sneezing or breathing problems, see your veterinarian right away. Mention that you’ve been in a place where foxtails were growing.
  • If there’s a strong chance you won’t be able to avoid locations where foxtails grow when you’re out hiking or hunting with your dog, consider covering their paws with dog booties.

Foxtail Barley Grass

How To Treat a Foxtail Injury

A foxtail injury in dogs can be serious and often requires the attention of a veterinarian for appropriate treatment. If a foxtail is found relatively superficially in the skin or nose, it can be removed by your veterinarian rather simply. Once the foxtail is removed, keep the area clean as recommended by your vet. If a foxtail has moved into the lungs or is deeply embedded into the nose or genitals, an endoscope can be used for its location and removal.

An endoscopy involves the use of a high-tech instrument with a specialized video camera and small grabbing tools that can be passed through the mouth, nose, ear canal or rectum and is a lot less invasive than traditional surgical methods. However, if the foxtail has entered the belly or lungs, surgery is sometimes the only treatment possible.

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When to Take Your Dog to Seek Veterinary Medicine

If you suspect your dog has a foxtail-related issue, contact your veterinarian immediately to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to remove the foxtail seed and treat any complications.

Foxtails are small but vicious and a force to be reckoned with. Pet parents: be sure to check your dog's body, paws, and ears after every walk or outdoor trip can really help you catch foxtails before they become problematic.