How to handle those awful foxtails

May 18, 2011

My littlest dog Nellie entered the house tonight sneezing. If it was any other time of year I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail in the nose alarm bell.”

I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing, or blood from her nostril and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning.

If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings. These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in nearly every state west of the Mississippi. Once the plant heads dry, they become hell bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths, and any other orifice they can find…no exaggeration. They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal beyond sight in the blink of an eye, and the conjunctiva (the pink tissue lining the underside of the eyelids) is a favorite spot for them to land in both dogs and cats. A foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin. A favorite hiding place is between toes. Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body and associated symptoms vary based on location. For example, a foxtail in the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung labored breathing and coughing. Not only is the body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a forward direction.  In other words, they don’t work their way out, only further in.

Unless caught early, they and the bacteria they carry either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage. Once foxtails move internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack; notoriously difficult to find and remove.

Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a foxtail magnet, having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years. I was asked to help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere. The question was, would we be able to find it?

As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the proverbial god of foxtails. I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nail biting and a barrage of expletives originating from the O.R., I heard a shout of “Yes! Finally!” The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery. Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail-induced infection.

If you suspect your dog or cat has a foxtail related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken, either at home or in the veterinary hospital, to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material. Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. I recently learned about a nifty invention called the OutFox Field Guardâ„¢, a soft comfortable mesh material bonnet that surrounds a dog’s head (attaches to the collar) and prevents foxtails from entering the eyes, ears nose, or throat. I encourage you to check it out. If your dog or cat does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat and check between the toes a couple of times daily to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc. Have you and your pet experienced any foxtail nightmares? If so, please share your story.
Photo credit: Margaret Birkhaeuser, founder of OutFox Field Guardâ„¢

Filed under: pets, connected,veterinary medicine — Dr. Nancy Kay @ 7:49 am


  1. Dr Nancy – I like the dog “hairnet”! We had a series of claims for one Labrador for exactly the same situation you described above – abdominal mass that turned out to be a foxtail gone wild. It took two months to determine what was causing the anorexia and dehydration and finally abdominal surgery fixed it.

    All in all, the treatment cost $7,700(Woodland CA). Dog is doing well now but pet parent is very paranoid about it happening again.

    Comment by Laura B — May 18, 2011 @ 8:16 am

  2. My 18 month old Golden, Teala, nearly died from a foxtail. Turns out she had inhaled it and showed no symptoms until she collapsed. After exploratory surgery, they discovered that it had migrated from her lung into the miracardial space next to her heart where it formed a huge mass interfering with her heart function. They were able to remove it along with a damaged portion of her lung. She was hospitalized for a week when it was touch and go but she slowly recovered. Today she is strong, healthy, and a happy musical freestyle participant. The bill was $9800. Thank goodness for pet insurance and the foresight of my husband to sign her up when she was a puppy. And thank goodness for caring vets who never gave up on her.

    Comment by Nacina Dawn — May 18, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  3. You might want to think about including scientific names in articles like these, since “foxtail” is a very common name for weeds (foxtail, green foxtail, foxtail millet, giant foxtail, yellow foxtail, foxtail barley, etc.), and most of them are not the problem weed. I’d hate to think that someone in the Canadian prairies, for example, is vigilant against the local “foxtail” (Setaria sp.) and not “foxtail barley” (Hordeum sp.), which is the problem weed.

    I realize many people might not be up on their botanical nomenclature, but maybe even referencing the fact that the weed is called different things in different areas might help?

    Comment by K.B. — May 18, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  4. Hi K.B.

    Thank you for your suggestion.

    Comment by Dr. Nancy Kay — May 18, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  5. Looks like the first part of a biohazard suit!

    Agree with K.B. about the “foxtail” locution; there are about a zillion of ’em.

    One of the dogs I had as a child got a foxtail in her eye that required surgery to recover; it worked its way all the way to the back of her eye.

    Comment by Rob McMillin — May 18, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

  6. Thanks for the useful and timely information, Dr. Kay! When I was practicing in prime foxtail country in California, we would see 3-4 of these every day in late spring and summer. The foxtail hunts in these patients could go on for hours, and for some of the older patients sedation or anesthesia for that long can pose real risks – they are best avoided. I got very adept at removing them from deep inside the nose.

    I saw more than one dog that, like Emma and Teala, that had them migrate to some very bad places, sometimes with unfortunate outcomes.

    The Outfox gizmo is a grand idea, and quite fashionable. I am wearing one now!

    Comment by Dr. Tony Johnson — May 19, 2011 @ 5:22 am

  7. I spent several hours recently working through my Aussie’s undercoat on his stomach after one lousy romp in the grass! I had brushed him out after the walk but then found multiple sites where I literally had to use tweezers to pull out the foxtail embedded in his skin. (Thanks Liz Palika for insisting we go over our dogs regulary head to toe!).

    Comment by Debra Jensen — May 19, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

  8. Great article! I live full time in my RV with 3 pitbulls, 2 foster chihuahuas, & 2 cats. We camp in southern ca, & foxtails are always a concern. My foster chi always has her nose to the ground, so I’m going to look into getting the head covers! THANK YOU!

    Comment by Val — May 20, 2011 @ 7:48 am

  9. Thanks for the article Dr. Kay. I just wanted to acknowledge my partner and the inventor of the OutFox Field Guard, Diane Kostelec. This is her creation.
    Margaret Birkhaeuser
    OutFox LLC

    Comment by margaret birkhaeuser — May 23, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  10. Just had a foxtail removed from cat’s eye. She came home with one eye shut and we thought she had been in a fight, after 24 hours and no improvement we took her in and they found a 1″ long fox tail in the outer corner of her eye socket that had worked its way around the back of the eye socket. She is on medicine now because it caused some minor cornea damage. In one week we will take her back to look again at her cornea. Expensive foxtail lesson (from neighbor’s weeds) $225 plus tne next visit!

    Comment by Kathy — June 20, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

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