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Foxtails – Here’s Why They’re Dangerous for Your Pets

Foxtail plants can be risky for your pets. 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.  We see so many cases of Foxtail injuries – here’s what you need to know and ask your Vet.



What makes foxtails so dangerous?
The configuration of foxtails, that of little “arrows,” makes them travel forward, deeper into the body and body cavities. They do not generally back out on their own but left untreated, can get from the skin all the way into the lungs, abdomen, and middle ear, leading to very serious disease and even in some cases, death.

Can foxtails get inside the nose, ears, etc.? What kind of issues can they cause if they do (for example, ear infections, nose bleeds, eye infections)?

Often dogs will inadvertently sniff a foxtail up their nose in pursuit of another scent. Once in the nasal cavity, they usually cause severe sneezing and bleeding from the one side. Most cannot come out on their own and can continue to burrow deeper into the nasal cavity. Due to the sensitive nasal cavity, they must be removed under anesthesia, by a veterinary professional.

If caught under the third eyelid or a part of either lid, they can disappear from sight 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. Her eye was full of pus and painful. Fortunately, we were able to remove the little bugger and save her eye. She will, however, have a permanent scar.
In the ears, foxtails can sometimes be difficult for owners to recognize. One owner noted their dog just seemed to have a minor ear infection. When I looked deep into the canal with the otoscope, there were actually TWO foxtails in the canal, one on top of the other! This golden retriever was lucky. If left untreated, the foxtail 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.

Once foxtails are inside the body, can they reach organs or cause serious issues?

As mentioned above, they can travel in tortuous, nonlinear paths anywhere. They have been known to cause life-threatening lung abscesses from entering the side of the chest.

If you suspect your dog might have a foxtail stuck in his ear or skin but you can’t see it, any particular symptoms/signs to look for that would indicate it might be there?

Shaking head, tilting head in one direction more than the other, rubbing one ear on the ground or on furniture, scratching at the affected ear.

Unless your dog is licking an area of the skin such as one between his toes, you may overlook a buried foxtail. Be thorough about checking over your whole pet after walks, and consider a “summer cut”, or at least shaving the feathers on toes and feet, during foxtail season (usually spring/summer/fall).

Can you extract a foxtail on your own, at home? How?

It is very difficult to remove a partially buried foxtail. You can easily leave a section behind which 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.

When is it time to head to the vet? 

It is best to bring your pet if they are showing any signs of the distress mentioned above if they have a history of foxtail exposure, if they are licking between toes, sneezing in bursts, or if you feel any lumps, even if there is no drainage. I recently had a border collie in whose owner was very observant. There was a small, closed lump over the skin on her side. We anesthetized and explored, and there was a foxtail in it, on its way deep into her chest. Thank goodness this owner paid attention!

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