Usually known as foxtails or spikelets, these grass seed heads give many pet parents considerable anxiety. But what exactly are they, why do they pose a threat to our fur friends, and what can pet parents do to help avoid them? Let's take a look here.

It's not uncommon to hear of, or experience first-hand, the effects of foxtails on our pets.

While easy enough to remove in most cases when detected immediately, it's those that go undetected, or are inhaled into our pets' lungs and sinuses that pose the greatest threat.

Let's take a closer look at these common occurring seeds and the dangers they pose to our pets.

What are foxtails?

Despite their namesake, foxtails do not belong to an animal. In fact, foxtails (or spikelets) are clusters of barbed seeds that are found at the heads of various types of longer grasses; they are are the means by which the grass disperses its seeds.

These pointed seed heads grow from common grasses throughout the world and flourish during the warmer summer months. They are usually found along roadsides, pathways, walking trails, grassland areas, prairies, and meadows.

Once released and carried through the wind, these heads break up into numerous dried barbs that disperse for germination. The drier they become, the more brittle and therefore dangerous to our pets due their abundance, tiny size, and ability to latch on.

Green foxtail heads do not pose the same threat as those that have dried (see image below).

The dangers of foxtails to our fur friends

Apart from being a fast spreading grass, the biggest concern to pet owners is these tiny seeds getting stuck and imbedding themselves in the fur, skin and worse still, nose, mouth or lungs of the animal.

These razor-sharp seeds are aerodynamic in shape, designed to move in one direction through the wind. This means they often burrow forward into the skin with each movement. This can then lead to infections, discharge, abscesses, swelling, severe pain, major surgery, and even death.

The most common places for foxtails to end up in our four-legged friends are in their paws, nose, mouth and ears. Animals with longer coats are also more likely to pick them up.

However, it is the foxtails that get inhaled into the mouth or nose that pose the greatest danger to our pets.

An inhaled foxtail can result in hours of exploratory surgery and removal of a lung, or even migration to the brain via the nostril. In more severe cases the animal may need to be put down.

Foxtails are also undetectable via X-ray, which makes identifying their location within the body that much more difficult. Additionally, they cannot be broken down by the body or digested.

And it's not just dogs that are at risk - cats, horses, rodents and other pets can all suffer from a loose foxtail. Simply put, foxtails are neither friends to pets nor their humans! However, there are some precautions that can be taken to help keep them at arm's length.

Courtesy of Red and Howling

How to avoid coming into contact with foxtails

Foxtails are common in many areas so it's important to keep an eye out for any signs of them growing. It's also worth having a chat your neighbours so you can all keep watch for each other. Also be sure to remove any clusters that are growing around your home.

If you do have foxtail grass in your neighbourhood, ensure that you thoroughly inspect your animal after they have been outside, whether for a walk or play.

After a thorough brushing, comb through the fur with your hands, feeling all over the skin for any signs of the seeds. Pull apart the toes as foxtails can easily disappear between the pads. Also thoroughly check in and around the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, neck, tail, and even the private parts. It's important not to miss any spot!

If you have a long or curly haired animal, keep them well groomed at all times.

Foxtail symptoms

Depending on where a foxtail has imbedded itself, symptoms can be identifiable although not always obviously.

Common symptoms to look out for include incessant and violent sneezing, pawing at and scratching the nose, eyes and/or ears, licking an infected area, limping, shaking or tilting of the head, the development of sores or abscesses, swelling, discharge, and coughing.

If you notice any of these symptoms, conduct a thorough examination of your pet. It is likely at this stage of penetration you may be unable to see or identify a foxtail specifically. Even through identification, others may have also lodged themselves so it's important to take your animal to the vet as quickly as possible to avoid further complications.

Further reading: Why is my dog scratching its ears incessantly?

Has your pet ever experienced a lodged foxtail?

Source: Red and Howling

Photo credits: John Tann (dried foxtail), Red and Howling (infographic)

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