Amongst the most popular hiking trails and within the dog-parks in the Salt Lake Valley is a hidden risk that you may not realize: foxtails. Those pesky weed seeds that stick to your socks can also become lodged in your pet’s ears or paw pads, under eyelids, in the nose or tonsils, and sometimes even inhaled deep into the lung, causing a chronic infection.
Although they can occasionally cause problems in cats, the majority of patients I see with foxtail-related problems are dogs.
As the name implies, foxtails are tall grass plants that produces clusters of seeds at the top that resembles a foxtail. Some of the common names include Foxtail Millet, Foxtail Barley, Foxtail Brome, and simply Foxtail Grass. The foxtail seed has a blunt base with long and slender projections coming out the opposite side. They are also barbed, allowing one-directional travel. In other words, when the seed gets into your pet’s ear (or other body part), they often migrate deep into the ear canal or other tissue.
If you take some time at your local dog park or hike to examine the flora, you may start to notice how common they are. Hopefully, you notice them before your dog is running through them!
Next, let us talk about the common foxtail ailments encountered in dogs:
1. Ears – Any breed of dog can get foxtails in the ears after running through foxtail fields. Most commonly, your pet may begin to shake and hold her head sideways. The shaking and head-tilt may temporarily resolve, but–if left untreated–an ear infection can result, causing redness, ear wax and debris accumulation, and pain.
Sometimes, the ear infection needs to be treated successfully to fully visualize the ear canal and check for a foxtail. Therefore, when the ear infection is successfully treated, it is important to see your veterinarian again because a foxtail left in the ear canal can fester and cause middle or inner ear infections.
2. Paw Pads – Foxtails usually embed in the paw pads of dogs with a lot of fur on their feet. The foxtail often gets stuck in the fur on the top or bottom of the foot and begins to work its way through the skin between the toes. The area becomes swollen, and an abscess (infection) can form. Your pet typically begins favoring or licking the affected foot. Sedation is usually required to surgically explore the area to remove the offending foxtail seed.
3. Eyelids – Foxtails in eyelids cause immediate and intense eye pain and usually injure the cornea. Your pet will likely hold the effected eye shut due to pain. Retrieval of the foxtail seed is generally routine but requires topical numbing drops to be applied to the eye. Because there is often a corneal injury, topical antibiotics drops are usually needed while the cornea heals.
4. Nose and Tonsils – Foxtail seeds in these locations can be much more difficult to detect and remove. A routine sneeze or cough could be just that. Or it could also be a foxtail seed in the nasal passage or tonsil, respectively. If your dog is treated for “Kennel Cough,” but it does not get better on one or two rounds of medication, a foxtail seed (among other things!) should be considered. Checking for foxtail seeds in these locations usually requires general anesthesia because of how sensitive the nasal passages and oral cavity are.
5. Lungs – Although rare, foxtail seeds have been reported to be inhaled deeply into the lungs where they cause chronic lung (and sometimes even bone) infections. Chronic coughing and back pain are common clinical signs seen with these rare foxtail-associated conditions.
Avoidance is difficult with foxtail seeds, particularly in off-leash dog parks. However, keeping your pet’s fur clipped short around the ears and feet can help. This will limit the foxtail seeds ability to stick and begin to migrate. Another tip is to check your pet for foxtails around the ears or feet after going on a hike or attending the dog park. As always, if your pet starts to show any of the problems described above–take them to your vet!