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There’s something so joyful about watching your dog romp happily through a field or down a trail. It’s a beautiful sight—until he comes hobbling back with a foxtail seed lodged in his foot, or worse, somewhere you can’t see.

Foxtails are those annoying, prickly seeds that get impossibly stuck to your socks and shoelaces in weedy areas. The seed’s shape is great for digging into the soil but poses potentially dangerous consequences for dogs. Here’s what all dog lovers need to know about foxtails.

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The seed is on a one-way trip to the inside of your animal. It won’t dissolve on its own.

Foxtail seeds have a sharp front tip that penetrates the skin or enters through an orifice, while the hooked barb prevents it from working its way back out. The seed is on a one-way trip to the inside of your animal. It won’t dissolve on its own.

Removal is the only option. Because foxtails are not your ordinary stickers, it can be a tricky proposition for a dog owner without medical training. A trip to your vet is the best course of action.  If left untreated a seed can cause infections, abscesses, or worse. A foxtail seed can migrate through a dog’s body to the lungs or other vital organs, resulting in severe complications—or even death.

Joey is one extreme case. The playful German shepherd mix from California developed swelling in his hip the day after a run-in with a tree stump. His regular veterinarian diagnosed and treated him for a bacterial infection, but the swelling returned.

After many months of unsuccessful treatment, Joey was taken to the University of California at Davis Veterinary Hospital. Imaging specialists there performed an ultrasound revealing a track running from the initial wound area toward his abdomen. At the end of the track, they saw a large foreign object. Surgery removed the foxtail, which had entered at the hip and migrated to within an eighth of an inch of his aorta. After a few days in the hospital, Joey went home, where he recuperated successfully.

How to identify a foxtail

Foxtails are so named because—you guessed it—they resemble a fox’s tail. Look for the hairy, bristle-like spines that grow upward from the stalk. There are many species of grasses in this group of weeds, and they can be found in most areas of the U.S., Canada, and the UK (though they’re less prevalent in the southeastern U.S.)

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources
Jack Kelly Clark/University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

Foxtails spread very quickly after a wet spring. They are harmless in the winter months, but a real pest from mid-April through autumn, when the seeds dry and snag on fur. These grasses thrive in a variety of environments and especially in open areas such as roadsides, parks, trails, and fields.

They can also be found in your very own yard. Remove any you find. Pull them out or spray the plants with vinegar on a hot day.

Foxtail types

These weedy grasses have many names! These include:

  1. Bristlegrass
  2. Yellow or green foxtail
  3. Giant foxtail
  4. Cheatgrass
  5. June grass
  6. Downy Brome
  7. Timothy
  8. Awns/grass awns/grass seed
field of foxtails or cheatgrass

Cheatgrass grows in overgrown fields

bristlegrass growing closeup

Bristlegrass is one type of foxtail. Via Flickr.

Signs your dog has a foxtail issue

If you suspect your dog has been around foxtail grass, look for signs like these. And even if you’re not sure whether they’ve been exposed, these symptoms warrant a trip to the vet. Source: the California Veterinary Medical Association.

  • An eye that has swollen shut or is squinting and leaking sticky discharge
  • Bloody discharge from the nose
  • Sneezing
  • A tough time chewing or swallowing
  • Refusing to eat
  • Bad odor coming from the mouth, ears or nose
  • Continuous licking or nipping at the paws or other areas
  • Abscesses
  • Open sores, which may be the remains of a burst abscess, but can still have the foxtail inside

Keeping your dog foxtail-free

Prevention is key! This includes removing foxtails you find in your yard (see above), as well as avoiding foxtail-prone areas like open fields or overgrown paths and parks.

  • Stick to beaten-down paths when walking, and don’t let your dogs run through high grass or weeds.
  • Check your pet thoroughly after any potential exposure. Make sure you look between the toes, in the ears, armpits, and groin areas. Check any folded areas and do a thorough combing.
  • If you attempt to remove a seed yourself, make sure you have the whole seed, or it can migrate through the dog’s body. See your veterinarian if there’s a chance any seed parts were not removed.
  • If you have a long-haired dog, your comb-check will have to be more thorough.

Preventative gear is also available. This is most useful for hunting dogs and other dogs who are routinely off leash in grassland areas. To protect the feet, there are many good brands of dog shoes. These include Muttluks and Ruffwear, as well as Kurgo and PAWZ.

Lastly, the OutFox Field Guard is a specialty item designed specifically to prevent foxtail exposure to the nose, ears, and mouth. You can find more information on their website. 

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