OK…I’m kidding. There’s absolutely nothing fun about foxtails. In fact, I’d rank foxtails right alongside ticks as among the most despised realities of life with animals here in Southern Oregon. Every year about this time, the rain stops and the grass turns from green to brown. One particular type of grass, commonly known as ”cheatgrass” (Bromus tectorum—an invasive species, by the way), develops seed heads that dry out and disperse a profusion of agents of misery and pain known as foxtails.
These angular winged-shaped, pointed-tip seeds most commonly penetrate the cavities between a dog’s toes, but are able to make their way into ANY body orifice—mouth, eyes, nose, ears…you name it. Cats and livestock can be occasionally affected by them too. Due to their uniquely nefarious shape, foxtails are able to move in only one direction: forward. They migrate deep into body cavities and tissues and cause, as you would expect, severe discomfort and a dramatic inflammatory response. A foxtail in the foot will result in visible swelling, redness and pain in the webbed area between a dog’s toes. If they get into the tissue around the eye, they can cause severe irritation and even an ulcer on the surface of the eye. In the nose, dramatic and frequent sneezing results. Any dog that suddenly starts shaking its head this time of year is highly likely to have a foxtail in its ear canal. A gagging dog could very well have foxtails that have penetrated the tissue around the tonsils. I’ve even seen foxtails migrate through the upper mouth behind the molars and cause an abscess behind the eye.
Treatment for foxtails involves removal from the affected site, and frequently requires sedation by a veterinarian, and sometimes surgery. I have been able to non-surgically treat some dogs with foxtails between their toes by having the guardians soak the dog’s foot in warm epsom salts and giving a homeopathic remedy called silica, which encourages the body to push out the offending object. Antibiotics alone are not effective because they may temporarily decrease the associated infection, but not the foxtail itself.
So what’s the best way for you and your animals to avoid foxtail problems altogether? Most obviously, it’s important to know what cheatgrass looks like a
nd prevent your animal’s contact with it. For those who live in town, this means keeping your dogs on leash while on walks and out of areas where cheatgrass grows. You might even have cheatgrass in your yard—it likes to grow along fencelines. It’s very difficult to get rid of, and mowing or weed whacking alone doesn’t help much. It seems that as short as you can cut it, it rapidly grows another seed head. While some folks might resort to herbicides, I feel we already have too many toxins in our environment, and would advocate non-chemical control methods. Mowing with a grass catcher is essential to remove the foxtails from the area and prevent re-seeding. Amending the soil in affected areas and planting with other more desirable grasses to outcompete the cheatgrass can be effective over time.
If you live on a larger rural property, striving to completely avoid foxtails is not very practical. Our Goldendoodle has the run of our property, so we always keep him trimmed short in the summer months, and check between his toes and inside ear flaps every night. Even with our diligence, foxtail problems can occur, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms. Quick veterinary attention can mean the difference between a quick inexpensive procedure and a much more serious and expensive one.
Enjoying the outdoors with your animals is one of the great things about living in Southern Oregon. Be careful, and hopefully you won’t have any foxtail “fun” this summer.
Dr Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville