By Dr. Marie-Anne Woolley, FAAS Medical Director
A foxtail is the spiked seed head of several types of grasses. It can easily attach itself to your pet and work its way through the skin.
Because a foxtail is a foreign object, the body mounts a severe immune response that can result in abscesses, inflammation, and draining as the barb moves through the body. It can be very painful.
Once inside the body, foxtails can be very difficult to remove. This is because they are like fishhooks: On one end, there is a firm, pointed structure that propels the foxtail in one direction only. If you try to pull it out by the other end, the foxtail can break apart, with most of it left behind.
Foxtails can be annoying, irritating, and even deadly -- and they can enter almost any part of the body.
Paws. Many pets pick up foxtails with their feet. The bottom or side of the paw becomes irritated and inflamed, or there might be an infection between the toes. If left in place long enough, the foxtail can continue to migrate through the body and end up in the abdomen, chest or even bone.
Signs and symptoms: Excessive paw licking, drainage, red swollen pustules between the toes or on the top or bottom of the paw that can cause pain and limping.
Eyes. Pets allowed to walk through tall grasses can pick up a foxtail in the eye.
Signs and symptoms: Rubbing the eyes, excessive tearing, discharge, and the eye appearing to be “glued shut.”
Mouth. Dogs can accidentally eat foxtails, especially while playing fetch.
Signs and symptoms: Pawing at the mouth, gagging, coughing or difficulty swallowing, bad odor.
Ears. Foxtails can penetrate the ear drum.
Signs and symptoms: Severe ear infection, odor, head tilt, balance issues, violent head shaking leading to pain and swelling of the ear flaps.
Nose. Animals sniffing the ground can inhale a foxtail, which can then travel to the lungs and pierce the chest cavity.
Signs and symptoms: Violent sneezing, hitting nose on ground, nosebleeds, yellow or green discharge.
Vagina/penis. When a male dog urinates, a foxtail can get caught in the hair and slowly work its way inside the urethra. When a female dog squats, a foxtail can enter directly into the vagina or urethra.
Signs and symptoms: Increased licking of vulva or penis, frequent urination, and bloody or pus-like discharge.
Chest cavity. If a foxtail makes its way into the chest via the nose or by migrating through the skin, the resulting inflammation can cause serious heart or lung problems. One complication is pericardial effusion, fluid produced between the heart and the sac surrounding the heart. Another is pleural effusion, which is fluid surrounding the lungs.
Signs and symptoms: Coughing, decreased activity, excessive panting, fever, even death.
Abdomen. Foxtails can enter the abdominal cavity by migrating through the skin.
Signs and symptoms: Infection of the organs, decreased appetite, fever, pain, even death.
Bone. They migrate from other areas to the bone causing an infection (known as osteomyelitis).
Signs and symptoms: Severe pain causing limping, swelling, redness, draining with a foul odor, and fever.
To treat a foxtail, your veterinarian will need to remove it while prescribing antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and possibly pain medications.
For a foxtail to be removed, your pet probably will need to be sedated at a minimum in order to have the affected area probed, and completely anesthetized, of course, if surgery is needed. Your veterinarian might need to order a CT scan or MRI to help find the foxtail. If the seed head has traveled deep inside the body, the doctor typically uses an endoscope to perform a minimally invasive surgery.
Watch out for foxtails
No matter where a foxtail ends up inside your pet, it is rarely easy to remove and always an expensive procedure. Keep your eyes open and avoid weedy areas, and when you get home, give your pet a thorough going over to check for foxtails.
Watch the companion video to this article, Ask the Vet: What Are Foxtails?, featuring Dr. Woolley and FAAS executive director John L. Lipp.