Foxtail Grass Can Be Dangerous For Dogs | What to Know

A few years ago, Thunder and I worked with the horse and mule team in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Mountain Range of California. At the base of the mountains, fields of tall foxtail grass thrived in the warm and arid climate, growing tall and often drying out before the heads had a chance to disperse. One day, I noticed Thunder continuously and vigorously scratching at his ear and groaning. I was aware of the possible dangers of foxtail grass, and after a few hours of his continuous rubbing and scratching, I took him to the vet.
Foxtail Grass Showing Barbed Feathering

At the vet office, the nurse looked into Thunder’s ear canal, and sure enough, a dried foxtail barb had worked its way in. Due to the barbs on the foxtail feathers, the foxtail seed heads tend to only move one direction as the barbs prevent them from sliding backwards. Using a long pair of forceps, the vet was able to carefully and slowly remove the foxtail from his ear canal—and just in time too. By the time the vet was able to remove the foxtail from Thunder’s ear, the pointed end of the seed pod had begun to puncture Thunder’s ear drum. It wasn’t yet deep (thankfully), but it had imbedded enough to draw a bit of blood when pulling it out.

Foxtail grass removed from dog

Foxtail grass, or spear grass, refers to many species of grass that grow seed clusters as a method of seed dispersal. These seed clusters usually grow at the top of the grass plant and use barbed feathering that allows the seeds to be pulled off the plant and relocated, often by sticking to the fur of a passing animal. The tails are often cone shaped, joining together at one end around the seed head and forming a point. The barbed feathering and pointed seed head combine to pose a possible threat to your dog. 
Dogs can be exposed to foxtail grass in several ways. They can pick up the seed heads while running or playing in a grassy area, or they can get them stuck in their fur, ear canals, snout, or paw pads while exploring. Dogs can also accidentally ingest foxtail seeds while grooming themselves or eating grass. 
While common in many different ecosystems, the varieties that grow in warmer and drier climates tend to pose the most risk to dogs. When green, these seed clusters are more flexible and less likely to become imbedded, however when the grass dries out, the barbed feathers become stiff and the pointed seed head becomes sharp. 

Varieties of Foxtail Grass that can be harmful to dogs

A search query on the internet will reveal a number of unsettling ways these dastardly seed heads can harm your dog. They may become imbedded in the dog’s ear canal, as Thunder experienced, working their way ever deeper. They can imbed in the snout, esophagus, or trachea. The seed heads can even puncture the skin, sometimes between the paw pads, inching their way deeper into the tissue as the barbs prevent them from pulling out, posing risk of infection, lameness, and general pain. 

Image showing x-ray of foxtail tract in a dog's paw and leg

To prevent injuries related to foxtail grass, it is important to keep your pup away from areas where it is present, especially fields of tall and dried foxtail. Make a routine of checking your pup’s fur and skin regularly for foxtail seed heads and remove any that you find. Be sure to check between the paw pads, under the lips, and around the mouth as well. If you notice a change in your dog’s behavior, or if your dog seems uncomfortable, thoroughly inspect the irritated area for possible foxtails.

Foxtails in the ear canal might cause your dog to rub and scratch continuously around the affected ear, as I noticed in Thunder. A foxtail in the snout might cause excessive sneezing or obvious physical pain and discomfort around the area. An ingested foxtail lodged somewhere in the mouth, esophagus, or even trachea might cause retching, hacking, vomiting, excessive grass eating, difficulty breathing, coughing, and obvious irritation. 
If you notice any of these symptoms and suspect your pup has ingested a foxtail seed or has one imbedded somewhere, take them to the vet immediately. 
Foxtail grass can be dangerous for dogs, but with proper prevention and care, you can keep your pup safe and healthy. While it is helpful to avoid fields with foxtail grass, sometimes it is not practical nor possible, especially for farm and ranch dogs like Thunder. Awareness is key: now that you know the potential risks of foxtail grass, you can be diligent about checking your dog for foxtails regularly and trying to avoid fields of foxtail altogether. 

Netted mask for dogs to help prevent foxtail grass injury

For more information about safe hiking, camping, and backpacking practices with your pups, be sure to check out the DOGPAK Blog

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