Whole Dog Journal's Blog May 16, 2013

Foxtail season is in full swing

Posted at 03:41PM - Comments: (8)

Just a reminder to immediately investigate any time you notice your dog licking any body part more than usual – and of course, any unexplained wound, bleeding, or lump.

The other day, I took a walk with my two dogs, and a friend and her two dogs (one of whom is Chaco, a Kelpie, one of my former fosters from my local shelter). We hiked on a trail next to the Feather River, which flows through my town. It’s hot here already, and the dogs jumped in the river and drank and swam frequently as we walked. About a mile from the trailhead, I, too, took the opportunity to clamber down an embankment and take a quick swim (the water is like ice). And from the low vantage of the water’s edge, I was able to see something that neither my friend nor I had seen as we had walked along: Chaco was bleeding a bit, in a most private area. Just a bit, and from above, the blood was hidden by her tail; I was able to see it only because she climbed out of the water and up the bank ahead of me; I was below and right behind her! If she had been an intact female, I would have figured she was in heat. But she’s spayed.

We cajoled Chaco into lying down, and Chris rubbed Chaco’s tummy while I looked for a wound. I couldn’t find a wound but blood was all over her vulva. We immediately turned back for the car, calling a veterinarian as we walked as fast as we could. We were lucky: Chris had gotten off of work early, so it was only about 5 pm, and the vet was open until 6.

Long story short, Chaco had a foxtail in her vagina. Yikes! It was corroded enough that the vet thought it was likely that it had been in the dog for a few days. Chris had last walked her dogs on a trail three days before, so it was likely on that trip (not ours that day) when Chaco picked up one of the nefarious awns. Chris had noticed Chaco licking herself, but not much more than usual. And she hadn’t had any other symptoms – yet.

Foxtails (and many other grasses) have seed heads with barbed tails; the barbs are aligned so that the seed head will attach to anything it touches and “travel” in one direction. Each little piece of the awn – every little thread of tail – can travel in a wound and cause infection everywhere it goes.

Foxtails are most notorious for getting between dogs’ toes, up their noses, and in their ears. But they can embed themselves in any place. The veterinarian we saw said that Chaco’s was the second he had removed this season (so far) from a female dog’s private anatomy, and that he had removed one  (so far this season) from a dog’s penis. Dogs with matted or thick coats can get them in any fold of skin or particularly thick bit of hair.

A dog’s skin is its only protection against foxtails, but it is all-too-easily breached. Once the foxtail gets past the skin (whether into an orifice or by stabbing into a thin-skinned spot, like between the toes), the awn can travel all over the body, causing infection, pain, and trauma. Generally, if you notice a dog worrying at himself early enough, a veterinarian can find the point of entry, follow the tract of infection, and remove the awn. But if the wound goes unnoticed and unexplored, the awn may travel far enough and cause enough trauma and infection to necessitate a major exploratory surgery to find and remove it. 

At this time of year, when the grasses are turning brown and dry, and the seedheads are starting to blow about, be sure you check your dog carefully for stickers (and ticks!) after walking outside. Stay alert to any signs that your dog is grooming himself more than he usually does. And if he shows any sign of swelling, pain, head-shaking, bleeding, or limping, take him to see your veterinarian right away.

Comments (8)

I live in the panhandle of Fl and have never heard of this weed at all. It is horrible for the dogs and feel sorry for them. Good parents are the key to keeping up with our babies. Mine are in the house most of the time. And they never get out of the fenced yard.
Thanks for this info, may come in handy someday.

Posted by: Jean W | June 7, 2013 4:41 PM    Report this comment

Wash DC area - On several occasions a fast trip to the Vet was necessary to remove a foxtail lodged in the eye socket under the inner 'nictating' eyelid. In only a few seconds the seed can hide from view. Irritation and swelling and were apparent in a matter of minutes. Flushing with saline solution wasn't effective, the seed barbs are very aggressive! In this area the grasses are bright green and knee high with seed heads on a taller stalk and early to seed. See also: WDJ Aug 2003 Beware of Foxtail Seeds This Summer

Posted by: Y | May 23, 2013 7:24 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the reminder. My spaniel got one down his ear--I noticed the head shaking and got him to the vet to have it removed under sedation--I could see the tail of it, but the head was already burrowing in down at the bottom of his ear canal. About a week later, I was bathing him and felt something on his toe. Sure enough, there was a hole that went parallel to the bone. I let him soak the foot for a few minutes and was able to work the foxtail out completely, lucky for us. I am obsessive about grubbing foxtails out of our yard, but here in California, they are everywhere, even in unmowed "parking strips" between the sidewalk and street. I just groomed him into a shorter coat to make foxtail spotting easier in his brown curly fur. I feel for those whose dogs have yellow, golden, or buff coats where the foxtails can hide even more effectively. Word to those who travel the I-5--many of the "pet areas" in rest stops are rife with star thistles, too. Your dog will let you know that they have stepped on one or more. Mine simply stops cold and won't walk further until I removed it.

Posted by: MARTHA S | May 21, 2013 4:43 PM    Report this comment

We live in central WA - sagebrush country. Cheatgrass - its invasive and, with our weather this spring, its everywhere. We have 3 fenced acres, native plants and the cursed cheatgrass, for our whippets to run. Ears are our biggest problems and the resulting vet bills. Had never thought about the other sensitive body parts. Wow. Just ordered head hoods for our hounds (Sylmar Head Hoods for Dogs). Made some out of panty hose past years but this year I can't get them to stay in place. Good luck to all and think evil thoughts about foxtails and cheatgrass, who knows, maybe it will help ;-))!!! Narrowdog.

Posted by: Barbara H | May 21, 2013 3:14 PM    Report this comment

I live in the Pacific NW (Oregon) and we have them everywhere. It is just a part of spring and summer here. I check my dogs each and every walk all over and have found them between their toes already borrowing into their skin after only a hour walk! I was unlucky enough to have one fly into my eye when I was 8yrs old and by the time we were at the hospital it had gone behind my eye. The doctor started flushing my eye and told my Mom if this didn't work they would have to take my eyeball out. Luckily it worked. I guess every part of the country has there demons this is ours.

Posted by: Nordean P | May 21, 2013 2:11 PM    Report this comment

I have lived in Florida my entire life with dogs. I have never heard of any of foxtails in Florida. I have heard about the horrible things they do to dogs so I was aware of their existence. From what I have read they are primarily a western state plant but they can grow anywhere. With changing weather and a more mobile lifestyle, they will probably come to Florida.

Posted by: Susan T | May 21, 2013 11:56 AM    Report this comment

I never knew about this ! I have 3 mini-dachshunds who are rather low to the ground as you well know ! I to live in Florida, southeast at that, and wonder if we have this problem ?

Posted by: Unknown | May 21, 2013 11:48 AM    Report this comment

Very Interesting article. I live in Fla. do we have the same problem? I see many different grasses around. Also have sea grasses at the beach.

Posted by: Unknown | May 21, 2013 11:23 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In