Foxtails and Dogs: A Dangerous Combination for Your Aussie

By Anton Hout, author of The Guide to Aussie Training & Care

F oxtails and dogs are an inevitable mix, especially when your dog spends any amount of time in areas that have heavy foxtail barley growth. Unfortunately, that combination can also be extremely dangerous, as the barbs of the foxtail can become embedded both externally and internally, potentially causing serious health problems. What all this adds up to is another potential hazard that dog owners need to be aware of and take precautions to protect against.

What Are Foxtails and Why Are They So Dangerous to Dogs?

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So what exactly are foxtails and why are they such a problem? The foxtail is a type of annual summer grass that begins growing in spring and reaches full bloom by the summer months.

They get their name because they are shaped like the tail of a fox, but instead of being fluffy and cute the tips of the foxtail are made up of clusters of sharp spikes and barbs that can cause a lot of problems for humans and animals.

Foxtails and Dogs: A Dangerous Combination for Your Aussie - Photo: Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum).

David R Green / stock.adobe.com

Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) is found thoughout Canada and the US.

There Are Many Grasses With Awns That Are Dangerous to Dogs

Several grass seeds, including those of the foxtail, have awns. While we discuss foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) in this article, please keep in mind that there are several different grasses, like wild rye species including Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) and Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus), as well as cheatgrass or downy brome (Bromus tectorum), that can be every bit as dangerous to dogs due to their awns.

Awns are the short bristles on the end of the seeds. Grass seeds with awns can also be pointy with barbs. This combination of features has led to this wide range of "bad" grass seeds being referred to as "mean seeds".

The barbs are designed to aid in distribution of the foxtail's seeds. They can catch on the fur of passing animals or the clothes or skin of humans, allowing the seeds of the plant to spread and grow in nearby areas. Unfortunately for us and our canine companions, once the barbs take hold it is extremely difficult to remove them and they can become painful and irritating. When it comes to foxtails and dogs, it can be even more serious if the barbs manage to work themselves inside the body where they can cause even more damage and potential infection.

Foxtails are most common in the West but they can be found almost anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, making it difficult to avoid them entirely. They are a particular issue for breeds like the Australian Shepherd that tend to spend a lot of time outside, especially in the open meadows where foxtails thrive. Combine that with the long coat of the Aussie and it's a perfect recipe for discomfort and even danger.

Foxtails and Dogs: A Dangerous Combination for Your Aussie - Photo: Foxtail grass seed embedded in dog's skin.

Todorean Gabriel / stock.adobe.com

Once the barbs on an awn of one of the "mean seeds" penetrates a dog's skin it is best to take them to a vet to make sure that the awn is completely removed as any piece left in can continue to burrow deeper and deeper causing infection and damage.

How Dangerous Are Grass Seeds With Awns, Like Foxtails, to Dogs?

The reason foxtails and dogs are so problematic is that once the foxtail awn barbs catch onto a dog's fur they can begin to burrow even deeper. Even more troubling is the fact that the barbs can enter the body directly through the nose, ears, mouth and even the eyes. As the dog breathes, the barbs move even further inside, increasing the danger. In some cases, the barbs can even burrow through the skin, finding their way into the chest cavity and potentially affecting the organs.

Barbs that enter the ear can puncture the eardrum and cause hearing loss and those that enter the nose can possibly make their way to the brain. Those that are breathed in or enter through the mouth can wind up in the lungs, where they can puncture the lung and cause severe respiratory issues. No matter where the barb enters as it moves deeper into the body it brings dirt and bacteria with it, which can lead to infection, abscess, swelling, discharge, pain and even death.

Foxtails and Dogs: A Dangerous Combination for Your Aussie - Photo: Downy brome or cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

maria / stock.adobe.com

Downy brome or cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

What Are the Signs That Your Dogs Is in Distress Because of a Foxtail?

Of course the main question surrounding foxtails and dogs is how do you know if your dog has picked up foxtails? There are a number of signs you can look for, some of which will become apparent quickly after the foxtail attaches to the dog, others that may not show up until a day or so later. The immediate signs include:

  • head shaking
  • limping
  • pawing at the face
  • snorting
  • sneezing violently
  • bloody nose
  • excessive licking of a particular area on the body

Signs that make take a day or two to appear include:

  • lumps and bumps
  • draining tracts
  • or areas of redness or swelling

If you have been out with your dog in an area that has foxtails, it is important to thoroughly check every part of his body afterward for any signs of barbs. If you see a foxtail on your dog you can carefully remove it using blunt edged tweezers. Don't forget to check the mouth, gums and paws, especially between the toes, and also delicately remove any foxtails you may find there.

Foxtails and Dogs: A Dangerous Combination for Your Aussie - Photo: Canada wild rye grass (Elymus canadensis).

Anna / stock.adobe.com

Canada wild rye grass (Elymus canadensis).

How Should You Treat Dogs Affected by Foxtails and Other "Mean Seeds"?

The issue of foxtails and dogs is a very serious one, so if your dog is displaying any of the symptoms above that indicate deeper penetration you should take him to the vet. There is unfortunately little that you can do yourself to relieve the problem. In fact, trying to remove more deeply embedded barbs, especially in delicate areas like the ears and nose, can actually cause more problems than it resolves.

In most cases, your vet can safely remove embedded foxtails using a variety of instruments to thoroughly examine and locate the barbs. In some cases, sedation may be necessary in order to remove the barb safely. Even if you are able to remove the barbs yourself, you should always follow up with your vet anyway to ensure that there aren't any other issues deeper under the skin.

While there is little you can do to treat your dog once it has been affected by foxtails, there are some steps you can take to prevent the problem in the first place. Stay away from areas that have a lot of foxtails and if you have them in your yard do everything you can to remove them. And of course most importantly, always check your dog thoroughly for foxtails and give them a brushing after you have been outside.

For more information about Australian Shepherd health issues see the Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute (ASHGI).

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Foxtails and dogs should be kept away from each other as foxtail seeds can be very dangerous. Barbs of the foxtail (and other grass seeds) can become embedded causing serious health problems and death. #australianshepherd #bluegreenalgae #doghealth #dogsafety #aussielovers

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