Foxtails In Dogs And Cats
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
By Rachele Baker, DVM – Foxtails can be a serious problem for dogs and cats. Foxtails are more commonly a problem in dogs, but cats that go outside can also pick up foxtails. Foxtails are the seed-bearing, bristle-like heads of some grasses. These grasses are common along roadsides, paths, and in meadows. The grass is soft and green from January through April. After the seed heads dry in the late spring, they break apart into the small, sharp, bristle-like structures that attach to pets’ fur or become inhaled or ingested by pets.
Foxtails have sharp points on one end and sharp microscopic barbs along their bristles. Because of the sharp pointed end, foxtails can migrate through the skin. The barbs only permit movement of the foxtails in the direction of the pointed end, so foxtails that are not removed may keep migrating deeper and deeper into a pet’s body.
Foxtails can become imbedded anywhere on a pet’s body but it is common to see foxtails embedded in between toes, in ear canals, and in nostrils. Sometimes foxtails become lodged under the eyelids. A foxtail embedded in the skin can migrate through the skin and into deeper tissues including muscle tissue, the abdominal cavity, or the chest cavity. The presence of a foxtail in the skin, muscles, or elsewhere in the body can result in inflammation and infection around the foxtail and in the tract created by migration of the foxtail through the tissues.
Even though it is not as common to see foxtails in cats, I will always remember the large foxtail that I removed from under a tiny kitten’s eyelid. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo at the time.
What are the signs that my pet may have a foxtail?
Foxtails in between the toes:
If a foxtail becomes embedded in the skin between your dog’s toes, you may notice your dog licking or chewing the area a lot. The site may become swollen and red. You may see a raised bump in the area between the toes. There may be clear or bloody fluid oozing from the site of penetration. Your dog may start limping on the affected leg.
Foxtails under the skin:
If a foxtail burrows into the skin elsewhere on your pet’s body, you may notice redness, swelling, or an open draining sore.
Foxtails in the ears:
If one or more foxtails become lodged in your dog’s ear canal, your dog may begin to shake his head a lot. You may see your dog scratching or pawing at his ear or his head may be tilted to one side.
Foxtails under the eyelids:
If a foxtail becomes lodged under your pet’s upper or lower eyelid, the eye may appear swollen and have a discharge. Your pet may keep the eye completely or nearly closed. The eye may become inflamed and infected. A foxtail under the eyelid can scratch or abrade the cornea.
Foxtails in the nose:
If your dog inhales one or more foxtails, he may begin sneezing frequently. You may also see a mucousy or bloody discharge from the affected nostril.
Foxtails in the throat:
If your pet ingests foxtails while outside or while grooming, the foxtails may become lodged behind his tonsils. The area around the tonsils may become inflamed and swollen. Your pet may start gagging or coughing and swallowing frequently. He may have difficulty eating.
Foxtails that have migrated into internal organs:
Foxtails have the ability to migrate through the skin and muscle tissue into the abdominal or chest cavity. They can then lodge anywhere in the abdominal cavity or in the heart or lungs. Abscesses may then form around the foxtails. Depending on the location of the foxtail, your pet may become lethargic, have decreased appetite, begin coughing, or have difficulty breathing.
How can my veterinarian find a foxtail in my pet?
If a penetrating wound is visible between your dog’s toes, it may be possible for your veterinarian to use a special instrument to probe for a foxtail and remove it. This can often be done with local anesthesia rather than general anesthesia, however general anesthesia and surgery may be required. If foxtails have penetrated other locations on your pet’s body, general anesthesia and surgery may be required.
If your dog has foxtails in his ear canal, it may be possible to remove the foxtails with a special instrument without anesthesia as long as your dog sits quietly for the procedure. If your dog will not sit still for the procedure, then sedation or general anesthesia may be necessary.
Foxtails under the eyelids can usually be removed without general anesthesia, as long as the pet will sit quietly for the procedure.
If your dog has inhaled one or more foxtails, then general anesthesia will be required to explore the nasal cavity and remove the foxtails. General anesthesia is also required to remove foxtails lodged behind the tonsils.
If a foxtail has migrated far from the initial site of penetration, it can be very difficult to locate. Foxtails are not visible on x-rays. Foxtails and the tracts they create as they migrate through the body may, however, be found with ultrasound.
I read a very interesting case about a four-year-old German Shepherd mixed breed dog named Joey that was taken to the University of California Davis Veterinary Hospital to determine the cause of a non-healing wound on his hip.
A veterinarian at the UC Davis veterinary hospital performed an ultrasound scan on Joey to look for a foreign body.
Ultrasound examination revealed a tract that could be traced from the initial wound on Joey’s hip toward his abdomen. Near the end of that tract, a large foreign body was visible on ultrasound. The foreign body was embedded in the muscles near the spine about an eighth of an inch from the aorta (a major blood vessel). It was strongly suspected that the foreign body was a foxtail.
Surgery was required to remove the foxtail to resolve Joey’s non-healing hip wound and to prevent the foxtail from migrating into the aorta. If the foxtail had penetrated the aorta, life-threatening internal bleeding could have resulted. The surgery was successful and Joey made a full recovery.
How can I prevent my pet from having problems with foxtails?
To prevent your dog or cat from picking up foxtails, avoid allowing your dog or cat to walk through areas with tall grasses. Try to prevent your dog from eating or sniffing tall grasses. Regularly mow your yard and keep flowerbeds weeded. If your dog or cat does walk through tall grasses, inspect him or her carefully from head to toe afterwards and remove any foxtails that you find. Make sure to check between the toes and in the fur around the ears.
If your dog has long hair, it may help to have his hair clipped short in the spring and summer.
If you suspect that a foxtail has become embedded somewhere on your pet, take him to your veterinarian immediately.