Images from left to right: Long-term implications untreated, foxtails, and foxtail in a dog’s paw.

West Coast Danger for Dogs

Foxtail season: from late spring to early summer are the prime foxtails time.

Foxtails are those small, arrow-shaped parts of grasses that carry seeds. They have sharp points at one end and very small barbs. This allows them to migrate easily in one direction but not the other way. Foxtails can burrow into the skin and travel significant distances, causing irritation and infection in pets. Right now, you’ll find a number of different grasses in Southern California shedding foxtails.

Foxtails first stick to your dog’s (or cat’s) fur…then they dig through the skin—especially between toes. They commonly end up in ears, nostrils, and even eyes. They may even lodge in the throat behind the tonsils (my sister’s dog Gidget underwent two surgeries to remove dozens of foxtails…thousands of dollars later, the dog stopped coughing). Foxtails can migrate throughout the body, wreaking havoc in the lungs, heart, and other organs. I saw one case where the dog died after her carotid artery was punctured by a foxtail.

SIGNS TO WATCH FOR depend on the location of the foxtail:

• Foxtails between the toes cause pain, redness, and swelling. You typically see a drainage track of clear or bloody fluid. Pets
often lick the affected area raw and may limp.
• Foxtails in the eye cause pain, swelling, and discharge. The pet will usually hold the eye closed tight.
• Foxtails in the nose cause violent sneezing— you’ll likely see blood or mucus drain from one nostril.
• Pets will shake their heads if there’s a foxtail in the ear. They’ll usually scratch or paw the affected ear. An ear infection may
• Again, foxtails lodged behind the tonsils will cause a dry, hacking cough along with frequent, hard swallowing.
• Foxtails can find their way into the genitals as well. Investigate any sudden, persistent licking of the prepuce or vulva.
• Foxtails that migrate into an organ may cause severe lethargy, loss of appetite, or difficulty breathing.

KEEP ON THE LOOKOUT FOR FOXTAILS throughout the summer. One client was shocked when I removed a foxtail from between her dog’s toes because she only walked him around the block in Santa Monica. If you take your dog hiking, please check their coat immediately afterwards and look between their toes. Foxtails are easy enough to pluck off before they penetrate the skin. Clipping the hair between paw pads will reduce the potential for picking up these sinister seeds.

If you suspect your dog (or cat) has a foxtail, please have them examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Sedation or full anesthesia is often necessary to locate and remove these dangerous seed carriers. I usually prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and sometimes antibiotics if the infection looks significant. Epsom baths at home can soothe the affected paw and promote drainage of an abscess (but please first have your pet evaluated). The easiest way to outfox the foxtail is to keep your pet out of overgrown, grassy areas.