Foxtails, also known as foxtail barley or grass awns, can be harmful to pets and livestock and can cause severe infections or in rare circumstances, death. The foxtail grass is common all over the Western U.S. typically found in fields, roadsides, and unkept yards or lots. The foxtails are the seedheads of the plant Hordeum jubetum, which are released from the plant when they dry out in the spring and last to early fall. The seeds form spike-like arrowheads that can become easily embedded in fur and clothing.
Unfortunately, foxtails not only get trapped in the haircoat, but also can puncture the skin, be inhaled, or even swallowed. Once the foxtail seeds enter the body they can cause severe infections and inflammation. The most typical places of foxtail migration include paws, ears, eyes, mouth, nose, anal sacs, and genital areas. Foxtails can cause eye ulcers, severe ear infections, and even get lodged in the nostril or tonsils. Your veterinarian may have to remove the foxtail under sedation or general anesthesia and treat the secondary infection with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Uncommon, more serious locations of migration are the urinary tract, or inside the chest or abdomen. They can result in life-threatening obstructions or infections that require major surgery and hospitalization.
The best way to combat foxtail migration is to examine your pet daily for the seedheads. Proper grooming, keeping the hair clipped short around the ears, and brushing between toes will minimize areas where the foxtails can get caught. Also, avoid areas with dense brush and keep your yard manicured. If you notice any unusual swellings, discharge, or see a foxtail protruding through the skin or other areas, contact your veterinarian immediately. Never attempt to remove the embedded foxtail yourself.