Protecting Your Pet From Foxtails

If you regularly take your dog out hiking, you've probably encountered foxtails at one point or another.

While they might just seem like a nuisance, the truth is that they're a lot more than that. In fact, the configuration of foxtails, which resemble little arrows, makes it possible for them to them travel forward, deeper into the body and body cavities, says Dr. Tiffany Margolin DVM, ABVP. "They do not generally back out on their own and left untreated, can get from the skin all the way into the lungs, abdomen or middle ear, leading to serious disease and even death," Margolin explains.

How Foxtails Can Cause Trouble

Although foxtails can bury into the skin anywhere, the easiest way for them to get into the body is through the eyes, nose or ears. "Often dogs will inadvertently sniff a foxtail up their nose in pursuit of another scent," says Margolin. "Once in the nasal cavity, they usually cause severe sneezing and bleeding from the one side." Foxtails that find their way into the nose rarely make it out on their own and usually have to be extracted under anesthesia. If caught under the third eyelid or near the eye foxtails can disappear and cause severe corneal ulcers and even rupture of the eye. "I had a case in which the cat had been to another veterinarian and not seen the buried foxtail, so her eye was full of pus and painful," says Margolin. "Fortunately, we were able to remove the little bugger and save her eye; she will, however, have a permanent scar." Foxtails are particularly hard to see in the ears. If left untreated, a foxtail inside the ear will usually rupture the eardrum, causing severe pain, a head tilt to the direction of the affected ear, and can cause damage to the nerves to the face and eyelids. "One owner noted their dog just seemed to have a minor ear infection," says Margolin. "When I looked deep into the canal with the otoscope, there were actually two foxtails in the canal, one on top of the other!" Caught early, it's usually possible to remove them safely, although anesthesia might be necessary if they're too deep or if your dog is in pain. If you see or suspect a foxtail, a visit to the vet is better than waiting. Once foxtails are inside the body, can they reach organs or cause serious issues very quickly. "They have been known to cause life-threatening lung abscesses from entering the side of the chest," says Margolin.
foxtail dog ©istockphoto/gdmoonkiller

What You Can Do About It

Above all, be aware of signs that might indicate a foxtail is causing trouble. For example, common signs of a foxtail in the ear include shaking the head, tilting the head in one direction more than the other, rubbing one ear on the ground or on furniture, or scratching at the affected ear. Obsessive licking in one area, especially between the toes, could also indicate the presence of a foxtail. Margolin also recommends being thorough about checking over your whole pet after walks, and considering a "summer cut" or at least shaving the feathers on toes and feet, during foxtail season (usually spring/summer/fall, depending on where you live).

When is it Time to Head to the Vet?

Foxtails are very difficult to extract once they have started to bury into the skin. Plus, it's very easy to remove a piece thinking you got it all but actually leaving a tiny piece behind that will continue to burrow and create more problems. "Only very superficial foxtails that haven't become buried can be grasped with your fingers (best) to remove and feel for any remaining plant," according to Margolin. In most cases, though, the removal of a foxtail is better left to the professionals. "It's best to bring your pet if they're showing any signs of the distress mentioned above if they have a history of foxtail exposure, if they're licking between toes, sneezing in bursts, or if you feel any lumps, even if there's no drainage," says Margolin.

Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at
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