By Dr. Julie Damron
Stockton Record May 30, 2009
A foxtail is the dried seed portion of tall grass or weeds, and it is shaped like an arrowhead with barbs. As these plants mature and dry out, the seed separates. Because there are barbs, the seeds stick easily to fur. Loose seeds enter normal openings of animals such as the nostrils, ears, eyes, genitalia, and mouth; as well as penetrate and migrate through the skin. This may sound minor; but it can actually be quite serious, especially when the foxtails travel internally.
Over time, these vegetative menaces can move into your pet's brain, lungs, spinal cord etc; bringing with them bacteria. At this point, it can be very difficult to impossible to locate the source, and remove all of the fibers. As the grass awn moves, part of the plant material can break off, so infections can exist in multiple places at once from one foxtail. Treatment may require sedation and extensive surgical probing; and the migrating grass awns are not always located. Some patients remain on antibiotics for months, to years; and even lifelong depending on symptoms of infection. Resultant infections can be life threatening depending on the location. Unfortunately, these grass awns are not visible on x-rays.
There are several things that you can do to avoid this problem for your pets. Keep the vegetation at your home mowed down, especially before the spring/summer months. Avoid letting your dogs and cats run freely in areas with tall brush. Inspect your dog or cat's coat and in between the toes daily. Keep your pet's fur cut short in spring and summer, especially the feet. Watch for signs of a problem such as frequent strong sneezing, head shaking, closed eyes, repeated swallowing, limping, licking and swelling between the toes, and draining wounds. Go to your veterinarian immediately at the first sign of any symptoms. Treatment is most successful when begun early on; this is the best chance to remove all of the plant material. Sedation may be needed to probe for the foxtails.