Foxtails and the Danger they Pose to Our Pet Companions

Hordeuatum (Foxtail barley)

Hordeuatum (Foxtail barley)

Hordeuatum, also known as foxtail barley, or simply foxtail, is a hardy species in the family of grasses.  Because of its tenacious nature and aggressive ability to dominate, foxtail is considered to be an invasive weed.

The first time I ever saw or heard of foxtail was when I was out visiting my mother and father in San Francisco where they had retired from a life in the military.  They loved walking their dog on the beach and in the wooded areas overlooking the ocean.  Having returned from their evening walk, and being a very good dog mom, my mother was inspecting her dog from head to tail, looking for exactly what she ended up finding… a foxtail caught on her dog’s fur.  The foxtail was a little dried spike with a seed attached to its base.  It looked to me like a stalk of dried wheat, but in miniature form.

Well known to Californians, but unbeknownst to many pet owners in the Washington D.C. area, foxtails pose an extreme danger to our dogs and outdoor cats.  Once attached to their fur, the foxtail’s upward pointing barbs will tenaciously hold on, always going in a one way, downward direction.  Once it borrows all the way down into the fur, the foxtail is able to actually penetrate your pet’s skin.  If not caught in time, the small foxtail spikelet will soon disappear from view, continuing its journey inside your pet’s body. If left untreated, foxtails can wreak havoc on internal organs and have even been known to reach the brain. 

In addition to penetrating the skin, foxtails can find their way into your pet’s nostrils.  The very act of breathing causes the foxtail to go deeper. Foxtails can get in the ears of your dog, traveling downward into the inner ear which could result in loss of hearing if the ear drum is damaged.  Foxtails can be inhaled, lodge in the eye, or enter the body through any opening.

Even the most attentive pet owner can be outsmarted by the insidious foxtail.  I was surprised to learn from my mother that all of her dogs over the years (except the one that didn’t like to walk) have had bad run-ins with foxtails that entailed a trip to the vet.  A sudden fit of sneezing that would not abate resulted in the vet finding that her dog had a foxtail up the nose.  In another instance, a sudden case of limping, where her dog wouldn’t stop licking or put his paw down,  resulted in the vet finding that a foxtail had gone beneath the skin in the soft area between the paw’s toe.  And when her current dog suddenly started shaking her head and yelping in pain, an emergency trip to the vet revealed a foxtail in her dog’s ear.

Though not nearly as pervasive as in California, in recent years I have increasingly noticed more and more patches of foxtail here in Washington D.C.  This year I have spotted foxtail at the green space frequented by dog owners at RFK.  There is a block long swath of foxtails in the curbside tree box in the 100 block of 17th Street SE.  And I have seen patches of foxtail in the neglected and weedy tree box spaces between the sidewalk and street here and there in my travels around Capitol Hill.  Ironically, these curbside grassy areas are the very place that dog walkersguide their dogs into, to take care of their doggy business. 

On the bright side, there are things you can do to prevent a mishap with foxtails.  First and foremost, it is important to know what foxtail looks like.   If you see a patch, make sure you lead your dog away and avoid all contact with it.  Like my mom, do a physical examination of your dog, checking for foxtails.  If you see a foxtail in your car or on your pet’s bedding, remove it immediately.  As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.                                           

You want to always keep in mind your dog’s normal behavior.  If you see a sudden onset of unusual symptoms, trust your gut instinct that something is wrong.  As an observant pet owner, quick action on your part could save you thousands of dollars in vet bills.  And in the case of an unfortunate encounter with a foxtail, your quick action could possible save your dog’s life as well.

Bryan Mazzarello

Creative Director at Mazzarello Media & Arts.