Attention Dog-Owners: How to Protect Your Pet from Foxtails




Neighbor Nicolette Zarday is a Bernal west-sider and a veterinarian whose name is often followed by the letters DVM and MPH. (She practices at the Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos.) She brings a special caution for Bernal canines, and the humans who love them: Beware of foxtails!

If you own a dog, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. If you have a dog and you don’t know about foxtails, keep reading.

Foxtails are small plant awns or seed-bearing structures, usually of the genus Hordeum. Starting in the Spring and continuing through the Summer, plants shed them indiscriminately. We started to see a steady flow of foxtail cases in our veterinary practice mid-April, right after several days of heavy winds which helped yank the awns from their plants and spread them far and wide.

Foxtails are shaped like a badminton birdie, but with a pointy instead of a round end. They also have tiny barbs along their shafts. All this adds up to a unidirectional migration pattern; they go in but they don’t come out. The most common problems we see with foxtails are wounds in the paws. Often the owner will just notice a swelling between the toes and think it is a growth or a tumor. After piercing the skin and entering the body, foxtails can actually migrate up the leg, if left untreated. We also see foxtails in noses, ears, and eyes very often.

The most dangerous exposure occurs when dogs inhale them. This typically happens if a dog is porpoising through a field of foxtail plants and inhales one, mouth wide open. As the dog takes a deep breath, the foxtail bypasses all the normal barriers, so they can end up in the lower airways of the lungs. These can be difficult to find, require extensive and expensive treatment and surgery, and are often fatal. Other places foxtails have been found, in many cases post-mortem, include the brain, spinal cord, urinary tract, and abdomen.

Fortunately for dog owners, foxtails usually represent a minor health hazard, although the expense of having the foxtail removed by a veterinarian (usually under sedation or anesthesia) can be considerable. For us vets in northern California, foxtails are simultaneously the bane of our existence and a significant source of income during the spring and summer. I even heard about one veterinarian who owned a boat named “Foxtail.”

So, what can you do to protect your dog?

  • If it is a long-haired dog, keep the coat short during the Summer, especially the feet. There are groomers who will do a “foxtail cut” if requested.
  • After each walk, check your pet thoroughly and remove any plant material.
  • If your dog suddenly starts sneezing uncontrollably, squinting, or shaking its head during or immediately after a walk, there is an excellent chance a foxtail is involved. Call your veterinarian’s office.
  • Do not allow your dog to run through fields of tall grass that contain these plant awns. (This is what I worry about most.)
  • Check your backyard for plants that shed foxtails, and remove the plants completely.

There are plenty of these nasty little dudes on Bernal Hill, so keep an eye out!

PHOTOS: Tabletop samples, Nicole Zarday. Wild foxtail from UCSC

12 thoughts on “Attention Dog-Owners: How to Protect Your Pet from Foxtails

  1. Thank you, Nicolette! We found out the hard way that you need to be vigilant. Our very furry dog got a foxtail between his toes a couple of years ago. We weren’t checking him for foxtails regularly, and it burrowed into his skin, and his paw became infected. This led to an 11pm Fri night visit to SF Vet Specialists, emergency surgery, two sad weeks of the cone of shame and no walks, and $1800 in vet expenses. And we were lucky – our dog recovered. (Sidebar: we had VPI insurance at the time, but it turned out to be almost worthless – don’t fall for their pitch. Just put aside a little money every month for emergency pet expenses.)

    • Hmm thanks for the heads-up on VPI! I’ve actually been with them for 3-4 years now during which time we haven’t had any major issues with our dog *knock on wood*, so I haven’t had to go through any bureaucratic red tape for reimbursement…although they definitely have no problem quickly collecting their hefty annual fees. Might be time to check out another provider as recommended by @BH lovr

      • It’s almost worth an entire post, but the issue with VPI is that they pay you a % of your claims after deductible based on a national average that is really low. So the ‘removal of foreign body’ that is part of the foxtail experience costs like $500 here in SF (at least at SF Vet Specialists), and VPI claims the national average is $141 or something. So you get 80% (or whatever it is) of $141, not $500. It’s the same thing with anesthesia, antibiotics, and everything else. Also, you end up being reimbursed based on the diagnosis, not the suspected diagnosis. So if you rush to the vet because you think the dog has a foxtail up its nose, but it turns out the dog was just sneezing a lot, you get compensated for hay fever even though you had to have the dog anesthetized so its nose could be looked at. This may all be a better deal if you’re in a place with a low cost of living vs. here. A better plan is just to kick $40 per month into a special account. If your dog never has big vet bills, you can just use the money for something else (unlike with insurance).

  2. Wow! I had *NO* idea that these things were anything other than a minor annoyance. Wow.

  3. We’ve already had two removed from our dog’s paw. And as for pet insurance, check out trupanion- they cover 90% after your deductible. We love them.

  4. When I was about 7 (growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains) I had one get into my ear and I pushed it farther and farther in until my mom took me to a vet to pull it out.

  5. Doctor in my little hometown up north says these are his number one ear complaint by far. Especially after haying season (just now)

  6. I don’t endorse any pet insurance plan, mostly because I haven’t researched them. I often give the same advice to my clients as what Sarah wrote above: set up a separate bank account for your pet and an automatic monthly transfer of whatever amount feels right to you (or the amount you’d be paying in premiums to the insurance company monthly). You might end up needing to spend more but at least you haven’t lost money to an insurance company. If your pet dies after a long and fulfilled life, and you haven’t spent all the money, throw a party or buy a really nice pair of shoes.

  7. Pingback: Reminder: Keep Your Dog Safe In Seasonal Tall Grasses | Bernalwood

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