Whole Dog Journal's Blog June 24, 2012

Foxtails are a West Coast Danger to Dogs

Posted at 12:01PM - Comments: (9)

A friend called one day to complain about his dog’s latest vet bill: $300 to remove a foxtail that the dog sniffed up his nose on that morning’s walk.

Otto models the Outfox Field Guard. The dog can see, pant, and breathe normally, and some dogs figure out that they can drink through it, too, although our test dog, Bucky, hasn't learned that trick yet.

If you live on the west coast, you are likely cringing with recognition of the problem. If you live on the east coast, chances are you have no idea of what I’m talking about.

Hordeum jubatum (informally called “foxtail barley” but infamous as “foxtail grass”) is a perennial plant species in the grass family Poaceae. It grows like, well, a pestilent, abundant weed all over California. When the grass is green in the spring, it’s pretty; it produces these lush heads that resemble a finer version or wheat or barley. But the moment the plants start to dry in the later part of the spring, the heads start to fall apart – and each tiny segment of the luxuriant heads becomes a danger to any dog who goes near it.

If you dissect just one of those heads, it falls apart into hundreds of individual arrows, each tipped with a hard seed and trailed by several long tails. Each thread of those tails are constructed like a file; they are covered with tiny fibers are aligned in one direction. If you run your fingers along the fiber one way, it’s smooth, but you can’t run your finger (or anything else) along the fiber in the other direction; it snags. These microscopic, one-way fibers make the awns practically walk on their own, always in one direction. A breeze and the slightest contact with anything makes them move in the direction of the seed head.

A clump of foxtail grass. The plant is lovely when green, but dries up in late spring and summer, turning those luxuriant seed heads into dog-harming missiles.

So when your dog snuffles in the dirt or grass that is loaded with foxtails (or mown foxtail grass), and one foxtail seed (known simply as a foxtail) makes contact with his nose, it’s like to get sniffed into his nasal cavity, where its irritating barbs cause him to sneeze and rub his face on the grown and paw at his nose. He may cough, vomit, gag, and sneeze some more. All of those actions simply make the foxtail move farther and farther into the dog’s body – into his sinuses, throat, brain, or stomach (if you’ve lucky). Dogs also get them lodged between their toes, in their ears, in their genitalia, or, if they are unlucky enough to have a thick or curly coat, anywhere on their body. It can cause an infection anywhere it lodges. I’d bet that a full quarter of veterinary visits in Northern California in the summer are related to foxtails. Practically every stray and neglected dog and cat who comes to the shelter in the summer has foxtails embedded in some parts of their bodies. Owners like me, who have foxtails in their yards and trails, check their dogs daily for the horrid stickers. And we dread the sound of our dogs sneezing.

When green, the seeds are not a problem. But as they dry, they fall apart, and each seed head and each tail on each seed can work its way into your dog's body.

If you have foxtails on your property, you doubtlessly try to eradicate them. Good luck. If you mow your yard or use a weed-whipper, you are doing foxtails a huge favor, busting up the seed heads and helping them break up and disperse themselves. Pretty much the only thing that works to eradicate foxtails is pulling up the entire plant before they produce the seed heads, or, if you’re too late, pulling them up while carefully holding the seed heads in your hands (to keep them from falling apart) and transporting them straight into your green recycling bin or compost pile. I lived in the same house in the Bay Area for 12 years, and by the 7th year of doing this to the entire overgrown backyard annually, I finally eradicated the pest. Now I have a new backyard, one where the foxtails have a several-decade head start on me. I feel like taking a flamethrower to the whole lot.

And of course, they are all over the wild outdoors. There are several trails I just don’t take with my dogs for several months in the summer, until the rains come and the foxtails aren’t a threat.

One company has come up with a partial solution – which is better than anyone else has done. It’s a California-based company, of course. The Outfox Field Guard is sort of like a beekeeper’s bonnet for dogs who are going to work or walk outside in a foxtail-rich environment. It protects the dog’s nose and ears (and mouth – often dogs swallow the stickers). Of course, it does nothing for the dog’s paws, which still have to be checked after each walk around the infamous stickers. I bought one for my friend to try on his dog, after his $300 vet visit (removing a foxtail from a dog’s nose or ears almost always requires full anesthesia). He reported that Bucky didn’t seem to mind the bonnet much, although he thought it made Bucky pant more on their morning walks on warmer days; whether because the mesh is black or restricts the flow of air every so slightly, he imagined it might be hotter inside the bonnet than out of it. The Field Guard should not be left on an unattended dog; it’s just for walking or working with the dog outdoors with supervision. Bucky hasn’t gotten another foxtail yet, and he walks frequently on the trails I’ve given up for the summer. Check it out: www.outfoxfieldguard.com.

Comments (8)

Foxtails are awful - I will check into the Outfox Field Guard.

Just heard this today and wonder if you have any comment...if/when a dog starts the rapid sneezing and you're among foxtails, pour a carbonated beverage into the dog's nose. Not only does the volume of liquid help expel the foxtail, it makes the foxtail collapse so the barbs don't hook into the nasal tissue. Makes sense to me. Pouring carbonated water into my dog's nose won't be her (or my) favorite thing, but that's better than having to wait several hours to hike out and get to a veterinarian. Your thoughts?

Posted by: Ellen in San Diego | March 13, 2016 6:57 PM    Report this comment

While I think that the product is of commendible intention, it may cause less concern for the penetration by foxtails throughout the rest of the body. My mother told me that her vet mentioned an instance of having removed a fox tail from a female internal organ of a dog which had worked its way all the way her passageway, which must have been just awful for the poor dog. And it didn't stop at that, once facing solid tissues it penetrates them, onward and onward and onward. We need to recognize them and keep our pets away from them entirely, and cut our the grass before they go to seed. And Veronica, who posted above my post, the foxtails are all over the place. Cutting before going to seed or turning the soil over entirely and reseeding is the only real option, and hope they are crowded out. But as soon as a seed blows in on the wind or on the back of another animal, you will have the whole growth process started all over again.

Posted by: HappyQuails | December 4, 2015 11:37 PM    Report this comment

In Maryland there is a similar common field grass with a large and very aggressive barbed seed. At least twice my dogs went to the vet and Removing required sedation to remove a seed trapped beneath a nictating (3rd) eyelid. Although the seed is large it was hidden`from sight and the barbs held it in place despite flushing with saline solution. Symptoms began withing an hour and included discomfort, pawing at the eye, squinting, swelling, redness & discharge. Urgent vet treatment is required if unable flush out the offending seed at home.. don't wait more than a few hours.

The seeds can affect eyes, ears, feet, mouth, nose, and easily become trapped beneath thick coats to penetrate the skin.

The vets here call it a foxtail too although when I hear foxtail I think of the long soft & luxurious grass see heads that cause no harm. This knee-high grass has individual or clusters of hard seeds, arrow-head shape, flat on the sides, about 3/4 inch length plus trailing strands. The seed matures early-mid summer, the grass is easy to notice and with the large seed. The seed 'shell' crates the barb effect and encourages the seed to bury itself in the ground.

Posted by: Y | September 5, 2012 10:29 AM    Report this comment

$300 seems like a small price compared to what we have paid.

Over the years we have had several incidents with foxtails.

The latest incident was with some foxtails the dog swallowed and they were stuck in his throat. Our vet sent us to a specialist since a endoscope would be needed. The final bill was.............$1735.37. That's not counting the initial vet visit at our local vet.
Sometimes the foxtails travel and you never know or find them.

The first dog we had upon moving here must have gotten a fox tail that traveled to his lungs. There it became encapsulated and formed a cyst. We went from vet to vet and no one could find his problem. Then one nite the cyst ruptured. At the E R he fainted, his lung had collapsed and he couldn't breath. Peritonitis set in and we lost the dog. He was 3 1/2.
Now our yard is fenced but we still struggle every year with foxtails. The dogs often still try to eat grass. GRRRR
Yes we do cringe at every sneeze. I have managed to remove a foxtail from one dogs nose. It was still sticking out where I could see it. My husband held the dog while I ran for the tweezers. Fortunately the dog was very calm and I got it out but each sneeze would have just make it go in further.
Another dog was sneezing so violently that she sprayed the car with blood from her nose on the way to the vet. I had to put her on the front seat with me while I drove with one hand and tried to calm her with the other hand. She did calm down but but at the vets office they couldn't find it and could only flush the nose.
Thankfully she never had any problems from that incident. Very frustrating.

Anne in Southern California

Posted by: ANNE K | June 26, 2012 11:14 AM    Report this comment

Please, as Elaine K says, DO NOT ADD the seed heads to the compost pile! You'll just be replanting the grass seeds if you do that.

Posted by: Alice B | June 26, 2012 11:01 AM    Report this comment

I have seen dogs wearing this in my area. The dogs seem oblivious to having it on, just happy to be out hiking. Dogs can even pick up tennis balls and ChuckIt balls while wearing it.

Alas, this would not work for my dog. He is an anxious excitable crazy mess. This hood does not allow for feeding the constant supply of treats he needs to keep him calm and out of trouble. Some day we'll get there...

Posted by: LINDA F | June 26, 2012 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Though I am on the East Coast, we do have some grasses that can act like Foxtails. I strongly suggest NOT composting any of this type of grass that you pull up. Any stray seedheads that make it through the composting will contribute to the problem.

Posted by: Elaine K | June 26, 2012 10:52 AM    Report this comment

I live in Wisconsin; although we don't have Foxtails here, I was wondering (for backyards) if an herbicide like "Round-Up" can be sprayed onto the plant to kill it. I know it wouldn't help with already seeded foxtails...we use it to kill dandelions in our yards...,.

Posted by: Veronica S | June 26, 2012 10:46 AM    Report this comment

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