- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Your dog might love to explore open fields or lush woods. But during the summer, a dangerous invader might try to hitch a ride on their outing: foxtails. Foxtails are invasive grasses found in some regions of the United States, especially dry areas like California. They take their name from the prickly, arrow-tailed seeds at their tips, which resemble a fox’s bushy tail.
Unfortunately, they also have a nasty habit of clinging to a dog’s skin and fur. “Foxtails are dangerous because of their tendency to trap themselves onto skin, noses, and respiratory tracts, where they create inflammation and irritation,” says Dr. Anita Patel, medical director with Indevets.
Patel adds that the foxtail barb’s arrow shape allows it to migrate inside your dog’s body after initially becoming stuck, where it can cause infections and abscesses. However, it’s possible to remove foxtail seeds before they cause any severe health issues for your dog, either with tweezers or a trip to the vet if you spot them early.
To help you and your dog enjoy the outdoors safely, learn about foxtails, including where they grow, spotting one on your dog, and what to do next.
Where Do Foxtails Grow?
Three of the main foxtail species in the United States include the following. Knowing their types and appearances can help keep your dog safe while walking or hiking in the woods.
- Green Foxtail: (Setaria viridis) These foxtails have green seeds that measure anywhere from 1.8–2.2 mm (0.07-0.08 inches). You can find them throughout most of the United States.
- Yellow Foxtail: (Setaria pumila) Like the name suggests, these foxtails have a reddish-yellow appearance. Their seeds measure 2–3 mm (0.07-0.11 inches) and can be found throughout the continental United States and Canada.
- Giant Foxtail (Setaria faberi): These foxtail plants can grow over 6 feet (2 meters) tall with seeds that measure between 2.5-3 mm (0.09-0.11 inches.) You can find them from the Midwest to the East Coast and even in some West Coast states, including California.
“If you know there are foxtails present in certain areas, just don’t bring your dog there,” says Dr. Genna Mize, DVM. You can return for fun later in the year when peak foxtail season is over.
Symptoms of an Embedded Foxtail in Dogs
Beyond excessive licking, other signs of a foxtail, Dr. Mize says, include:
- Rubbing or scratching a particular area
- The presence of a wound that doesn’t seem to heal
- Red or swollen skin
If the foxtail causes an infection or abscess in your dog, you might notice discharge, a foul odor, or even a fever.
“If you’re wondering what an abscess is exactly, you can think of it as an accumulation of pus,” Dr. Mize says. She adds that the pus is caused by white blood cells responding to the foxtail and bacteria that come along with the migrating plant.
How to Check for Foxtails in Your Dog
Dr. Patel and Dr. Mize say foxtails commonly enter your dog’s body through the following points.
Dr. Patel advises checking your dog’s “problem areas” immediately after a walk, so you can spot the foxtails before they can migrate deeper into their bodies. If your dog has a long coat, she suggests running your hands over their body from root to tip or using a fine-toothed comb to part their fur.
If you do find a foxtail tagging along, don’t panic. Removing them without issue is possible if you catch them early enough.
What to Do If You Find an Embedded Foxtail: Tweezing a Foxtail At Home vs. Vet Removal
In some cases, you can remove foxtails yourself with good old-fashioned tweezing. Dr. Mize says that if you can easily see the foxtail, pulling it out with tweezers is okay if your dog lets you. Try to get as close to the base of the foxtail as possible so you don’t accidentally break it and leave pieces behind in your dog’s skin.
It’s also crucial to keep your dog calm during the process so they don’t jerk away. For example, if they’re anxious about you touching a sensitive area, consider distracting them with something tasty, like a spoonful of peanut butter.
Dr. Mize suggests you should also head to a vet if you believe the foxtail may have broken and left pieces inside your dog’s body or if you see redness or swelling.
Additionally, if your dog is coughing, breathing heavily, or acting lethargic, head straight to the vet. Dr. Patel says these are all signs that a foxtail could be embedded in your dog’s respiratory tract.
How To Treat Foxtails
Antibiotics don’t typically help foxtails, as the infection will continue to drain until the foxtail is removed.
If your vet suspects your dog has a foxtail, they’ll likely try to find it through a physical exam or imaging scans like CTs, ultrasounds, or X-rays. According to one study on 754 dogs, vets successfully found the foxtail in nearly 73% of cases.
When foxtails are embedded deep into the skin or have migrated to another area, such as their respiratory tract, Dr. Patel says your dog will likely need surgery to remove them and treat the infected area. However, most dogs with foxtails don’t need inpatient treatment at a veterinary hospital; only a few need more serious treatments like surgery.
If the vet can’t find or remove the foxtail, they will work with you to find a long-term infection management plan. The infections from foxtails usually continuously drain, which may help your dog from feeling too sick.
While this sounds scary, here’s some good news: severe cases are rare, and outcomes are generally suitable for most dogs that visit the vet with foxtails lodged in their bodies.
How to Keep Foxtails Away From Your Dog
The best way to prevent the headache of foxtails? Help your dog avoid them altogether. Some ways to keep your dog from coming into contact with foxtails include the following.
- Keep the weeds in your yard trimmed through mowing or weed-whacking.
- Restrict your dog’s summer hikes to well-kept areas only.
- Trim your dog’s nails and coat so foxtails have a harder time burrowing.
- Get your dog a hoodie or sweatshirt that protects their head and ears if they’re going to explore an upgrown area.
“Foxtails are small but vicious and a force to be reckoned with,” Dr. Patel says. However, she reiterates that checking your dog after every walk or outdoor trip can help you catch foxtails before they become problematic.