Foxtails: What You Need To Know To Protect Your Pets

In much of the United States there is a hidden and unheard of danger lying in overgrown backyards, fields, parks, and trails — Foxtails.  Foxtails can be a potentially life threatening danger to your pet’s well being.  Some grasses choose to disperse their seeds by forming a “foxtail” looking spike.   These spikes contain barbs allowing for easy attachment to anything walking by, whether it’s the coat of an animal, tires on a bike, or the socks of a hiker.  The grasses intent is for the spike to be picked up,  carried off, and dropped at a further location,  allowing for the spread and growth of new foxtail grasses.  Once the foxtail is snagged on an animal’s fur the movement of the animal forces the barbed spear to get deeper and deeper into the coat eventually coming in contact with the skin.  Once it starts working its way into the skin, the animal is then susceptible to infections, abscesses, and in rare instances even death.

ljguitar / Foter / CC BY


As a groomer, I am removing foxtails from the skin and or fur almost on a daily basis.  It is very easy for a dog or cat to walk through a patch of foxtails and wind up with one snagged on their fur or skin.  I notice foxtails more often on pets with longer, thicker coats.  It is very easy for a foxtail to become buried deep into the coat and get left unnoticed.  Oftentimes owners will become aware of it when they notice their pet licking or chewing at the site of the embedded foxtail.  The foxtail may or may not be visible.  The only thing that might  be visible is a red raised bump or an oozing open sore.   Antibiotics and exploratory surgery may be needed to find and remove the embedded foxtail; which is a much better option than what could result if it is left untreated.  Once inside the skin, without medical attention, there is no stopping the further embedding of the foxtail.  It can move through layers of skin, reaching major blood vessels, arteries, and organs.  This can result in death.

Foxtail Paw

Source: Southwest Veterinary Hospital ~

Aside from embedding into the skin, foxtails can also be found in a pet’s ear, nose, and paw pad.  Once in the pet’s nose or ear, it may not be visible to the pet owner.  If your pet seems to be shaking its head constantly, scratching at its ear, rubbing its head on the ground and/or whimpering, or sneezing it may be a sign that a foxtail is present.  Immediate vet attention is required; a foxtail left in the ear or nose can lead to much more dangerous complications.  Foxtails can work their way through many membranes including the ear drum or nasal and sinus passages then work their way into the lungs or brain.

What can be done to avoid foxtails?

 The best method to avoid the dangers of foxtails is to simply try to avoid the foxtails.  Keeping a well maintained yard and controlling weeds, avoiding off trail paths while on walks, and thoroughly combing your pets hair out after any outdoor adventure to remove any foxtails they may have picked up along the way.  Pay special attention between the toes and inside the paw pad as these are common areas to find them and also a common area that goes unnoticed.  If you notice a foxtail that is slightly stuck in the skin it is best to remove it.  Use tweezers and grab at the base of the foxtail closest to the skin to slowly pull out.  If the foxtail is embedded more than the superficial layers of the skin then a visit to the vet would be the best option for the removal to avoid or treat an already occurring infection.

Lulu Hoeller / Foter / CC BY

Too often I find myself removing foxtails from the fur and skin of the pets I groom, and too often I find the pet owners unaware of the dangers it poses to their pet’s health.  Knowledge is power and if this information can help avoid one pet’s avoidable surgery I will be incredibly happy!


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