By Dr. Nancy Kay
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 â€œfoxtail in the nose alarm bell.â€
Iâ€™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 sheâ€™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 dogsâ€™ noses, ears, eyes, mouths, and any other orifice they can find…no exaggeration. They can dive deep into a dogâ€™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. Â 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 Louiseâ€™s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louiseâ€™s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girlâ€™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 â€œYes! Finally!â€ 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„¢