If you live east of the Mississippi, you’ve probably never heard of this danger. But those west of the river, especially on the west coast and in the southwest are quite aware of the word FOXTAILS.
Foxtail barley, Hordeum jubatum, is a perennial grass found west of the Mississippi river. From early spring to early summer, this beautiful dark green grass produces a seed head that looks like a bushy foxtail. However, come late summer, they begin to dry out and become foes of our pets. Once dry, the seeds detach easily from the main plant and their barbed awns attach to most anything, especially fur. The awn has a very sharp point with side barbs that help propel it forward and stop it from backing or falling out.
Foxtail awns can enter anywhere on the body and travel very deep. They have been found in the nostrils, lungs, ears, eyes, mouth and in between the toes of dogs. When a dog comes in contact with a foxtail, the cluster attaches to the dog’s fur and begins to move inward as the dog moves. The barbs on the cluster keep the foxtail from falling off or “backing out” of the fur, and the enzymes in the foxtail’s bacterium begin to break down the dog’s hair and tissue. The foxtail begins to work its way into the dog’s body, just as it would work its way into the soil had it entered the ground.
If you suspect your dog has come into contact with foxtails, give them a thorough grooming and look for and remove any foxtails that may have lodged in his or her coat. Also, examine their entire body, especially the paws, the armpits, stomach and inside the ears. Signs that a dog may have picked up a foxtail include sudden sneezing, intensely pawing at his or her nose or ears, shaking his or her head and crying. If they happen to get in their mouth, look to see if he or she starts gagging, coughing, eating grass or stretching his neck while trying to swallow repeatedly.
Horses can be plagued by foxtails as well. Most horses typically avoid foxtails when they are out in the pasture. However, if they consume hay that is heavily contaminated with foxtails, the awns can become lodged in their mouth and most likely cause it to become inflamed and sore, resulting in abscesses, drooling, lack of appetite and even an infection. Although it is hard to avoid foxtails completely in baled hay, if you notice your horse is not wanting to eat hay or grain, check his or her gums and in between his or her teeth for ulcers or irritation. Sometimes their mouths will even bleed from the irritation or you may see the small foxtail spikes lodged in the gums. If you notice this, you may need to find another source of hay that does not contain the foxtail, and you should also consult with your veterinarian on how to treat the ulcers and inflammation. The easiest treatment is to switch hay.
To help guard your pet against foxtails, try to avoid walking in fields or roadsides where they are prevalent. When camping or hiking, keep an eye out for foxtails in areas where your dog is walking or running. Do a thorough check of your backyard and if you happen to find foxtails, try to eradicate them. Mowing or using a weed whacker only disperses the seed, doing the foxtail a huge favor. Pretty much the only thing that works to eradicate foxtails is pulling up the entire plant before they produce the seed heads, or, if you’re too late, pulling them up while carefully holding the seed heads in your hands (to keep them from falling apart) and transporting them straight into your green recycling bin or compost pile.