Foxtails are a very serious problem in the Bay Area for dogs, and occasionally for cats.
Foxtails are the dried seed heads of grasses that break free and attach themselves to things like hiker’s socks and shoes. For dogs, they can become a serious medical problem because they stick between dog’s toes, or between the pads on the bottom of the paw, or they can get into the ears, eyes or nose. In certain breeds such as Huskies, Malamutes, and Poodles (or any dog with a thick coat) they can stick in the fur. Once they attach, they actually work their way into the skin and cause infected draining tracts.
In the ears, they are very painful and the dog usually cries, holds the head tilted, and is obviously uncomfortable. We use a special long instrument with small jaws on the end to remove foxtails. In the eye, a foxtail can cause extreme discomfort, ulceration of the cornea, and swelling of the conjunctiva. Usually, we can remove a foxtail in the eye with a topical anesthetic. In the nose, violent sneezing occurs immediately, sometimes with blood. The pet is usually very uncomfortable. We have to use sedation to remove foxtails in the nose, as the area is extremely sensitive. Foxtails in the paws become more serious if the foxtail gets below the skin. Sedation and surgical probing and exploration of the wound are performed to attempt to remove them. Success is much more likely the shorter the period of time the foxtail has been migrating. Foxtails on the body are the most concerning, as on rare occasions they can migrate into a body cavity and cause a severe infection of the chest or abdomen, which can often not be successfully treated.
For these reasons, the best prevention is to check your dog daily for foxtails if there is any chance of exposure. Pay special attention to the spaces between the toes, the bottom of the paws, the anal and genital areas, and the underarms. Caught early, they are easy to remove with your fingers or a comb. Dogs with thick fur on the paws can have the paws clipped down for the summer (ask for a poodle cut on the paws). The entire coat can be clipped down for the summer on dogs that are continually exposed and have very thick coats. However, be careful about sunburn right after the grooming; use a t-shirt if necessary initially. The foxtail season extends from spring until the first real rain in the fall. The foxtail plants grow in the spring, then go to seed, then the seed heads dry up and disperse.
In summary, foxtails are almost impossible to avoid completely, but you can prevent them from migrating into your dogs’ body with daily checking during the season