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.
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.
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.
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.