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Protecting Your Dog Against Foxtails

 Tonight my littlest dog Nellie came in the house sneezing. Any other time of year and I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail-in-the-nose alarm bell.” I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing or bloody nose, and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning.

If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings! These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in most every state west of the Mississippi. Once the plant heads dry, they become hell-bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths and just about every other orifice. They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal (beyond sight) in the blink of an eye. And a foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin (a favorite hiding place is between toes). Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body, and associated symptoms vary based on location. For example, a foxtail within the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung, labored breathing and coughing. Not only is the dog’s body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a “forward” direction. Unless caught early, they, and the bacteria they carry, either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage. Once foxtails have moved internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack—notoriously difficult to find and remove.

Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a “foxtail magnet,” having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years. I was asked to help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound, I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere. The question was, would we be able to find it?

As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the “god of foxtails.” I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nailbiting and a barrage of expletives originating in the O.R., I heard a shout of, “Got it!” The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery. Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail-induced infection.

If you suspect your dog has a foxtail-related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material. Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. If your dog does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat—checking ears and toes, too —a couple of times daily to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc!

This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 60: Jun/Jul/Aug 2010

Nancy Kay, DVM, Dipl., American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is a 2009 recipient of AAHA's Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award and author of Speaking for Spot.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by msbirk@astound.net | February 7 2011 |

There is a solution for foxtails; the outfox fieldguard. This innovative hood will protect your dog's eyes, ears and nose from foxtails. Check out www.outfoxfieldguard.com. It reaaly works, we've been using it for 2 seasons now.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 5 2011 |

I've used the out fox net too and it works.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 6 2011 |

The first indication that my Standard Poodle had a problem was licking between his toes. I immediately took him to the vet who suspected a foxtail. Three separate times, he went in via surgery, hoping to find it but never could. We went through 3 months of Henri limping, being on antibiotics, etc. It was so frustrating. Finally, a soft lump formed on the back of his leg and miraculously, I was inspecting it and found a pointy thing, just breaking through the skin. With tweezers, I pulled it out and it was that horrible foxtail, completely in tact. I do everything possible to make sure my dog goes no where near them. Poodle fur is like a magnet. I don't take those foxtails lightly!

Submitted by Greg Long | January 21 2012 |

I invented a simple, but important way to protect your dog's ears from foxtails. Check out my web site www.Foxtaildogprotector.com
greg long

Submitted by Krista | July 28 2013 |

Have had to have our labradoodle sedated twice in three weeks for foxtail in his right ear. One punctured eardrum (tiny thankfully). He is recuperating from latest escapade. Am seriously looking at your ear protectors!! Do your dogs ever mess with them? The full face net would last all of 2 seconds on Arlo... But I'm thinking this would work like a scarf?

Submitted by LeftyS7 | October 18 2013 |

Ears are only one major problem. Mouths are more of one. I like your competitor's product better as it protects both areas, but thanks for trying to address the problem.

Submitted by Anonymous | May 7 2012 |

i just got home from the vet my baby girl havanese got one right above her vulva. it is so horrable,she has 2 abcesses. i dont wish this on any dog, please watch your dogs and keep them far away from those damn things

Submitted by Lisa | May 23 2013 |

Can you tell me more about your experience? How did the vet know it was a foxtail? My female has what looks like puncture wounds right above her vulva. The vet doesn't know what it is. Flushed the wound and started her on Clavomox. Worried it was a foxtail.

Submitted by Claudia Kawczynska | May 26 2013 |

Lisa, what part of the country do you live in? Most vets in foxtail prevalent areas (like California) should be aware that foxtails can enter a dog anywhere, including the vulva, in her/his body. A couple days after writing this post, Charlie, our little Terrier, got one up his nose. I knew immediately that had happened because he couldn't stop sneezing. In other areas of the body it is much harder to detect. Here is another good piece about foxtails from Gun Dog magazine. When I first read this I was able to suggest to a friend that her German Shorthair Pointer might have one—he was coughing a lot, and had a "bump" on the side of his chest. After six operations, they finally got it out. But what is also important about the observations from the Gun Dog article is that foxtails are spreading to other areas of the country.

Submitted by Elizabeth | July 3 2013 |

My Boykin had one next to her vulva -- the first thought was the little pimple was and abscess from licking or something related to hooded vulva. IT just wouldn't heal. The next vet thought "foxtail," which in retrospect seems obvious (!) He found the little trail and retrieved it. Have your vet look for a trail -- call a vet in CA for reference - good luck!

Submitted by Anonymous | May 23 2012 |

What about shoes to prevent them from getting between their toes? i've pulled several infected foxtails from between my dog's toes and am considering this as a solution.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 1 2012 |

My Chihuahua is spending the night at the vet today. They did surgery on him to remove a foxtail that got in throw his penis, I imagine while he was pooping in a dry areas infested with foxtails. It all started when I noticed drops of blood coming out whenever he got excited for food, walks or barking at other dogs, not necessary the penis but more towards the back. He is coming home tomorrow and no more walks in dry areas. Be careful, this things are horrible to dogs. A girl that I know her dog got one in the nose.

Submitted by Sophie | November 24 2012 |

My Basset just had 2 abcessed teeth rmoved due to a foxtail. We don't even know where it came from, since we do not hike. The only thing we can think of is that foxtails grow in the common areas of our condo units. I'm sure the HOA and landscapers will do nothing about this issue to see it doesn't happen to other dogs!
But at least he is home and much more comfortable now, and we will have to watch him carefully, since he likes to eat pretty much anything outside, and that has to be how this got stuck in his teeth!

Submitted by Gail | June 18 2013 |

I am concerned reading this - one week ago my dog rolled in mowed grass at the park something he always does after being in the river but this time he started sneezing intensely. After a bit he calmed down and we continued on our walk. The sneezing continued thru the week however off and on mostly when he would get excited so I took him to the vet yesterday. A friend posted that it could be a foxtail. This thing is I live in Vermont and my vet did not mention this specifically. now I am worried. He has been on antibiotics over night. One of the articles says if the sneezing stops it could mean the foxtail has gone deeper in.

Submitted by jordan | July 16 2013 |

Hi Gail, I'm wondering if you ended up having the surgery? My little Pom mix is 17 years old, in great health, but has been having the sneezing attacks since sniffing a foxtail plant and vet says it's up to me to put him under to look and I'm really torn as to whether I should spend the money in case it's nothing... sneezing has lessened over the past two days but he said the same, that it may have gone deeper and he will just adapt..

Submitted by Suzie | July 4 2013 |

This has been incredibly helpful. I am in the UK and my eldest dog has had what I thought were hotspots. It came to the point where we took her to the vet who immediately suggested an infection due to foxtails. We had never heard of them and its nice to understand. I know exactly where it happened and now realise that the poor girl had an issue with one in her nose a while ago but luckily that was removed with all her sneezing.

Submitted by LeftyS7 | October 18 2013 |

Foxtails do not dissolve in the body and can migrate through the body because of their barbed design. They must be surgically removed and they aren't easy to find. My Miniature Schnauzer got one in his mouth which migrated to his jaw and caused a large abscess. He had to be operated on three times before the vet could locate and remove it.

Submitted by sara | November 15 2013 |

I got a little female dog from the spca, and she keeps getting fox tails up her vulva. She has had to go to the vet once every month for the past 4 months. We live on a ranch and I don't know what to do to prevent her from getting them. Does any one have any good ideas. Thank you

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