Pets and foxtails of western Colorado are a bad mix
Last week, while walking with my Lab mix Lucy, she began violently sneezing after running through a field.
Sure enough, I was able to look in her nose and just see the end of a grass seed and remove it before it disappeared any deeper into the poor girl’s nostril. The wild grasses known as foxtails are all too common in the valley and although they are typically more of an annoyance than anything, they can cause serious problems for dogs and cats if they aren’t removed. Foxtails are adapted for animal dispersal and, in that sense, the design couldn’t be more perfect.
Spikes of seed are released in groups of three spikelets that are held together by a barbed outer covering. Once attached, the barbs are designed to move in one direction and are easily able to penetrate the skin.
No doubt you have experienced them stuck to your shoes and socks after walking through a field and know how difficult it can be to remove them from your clothing.
Foxtails can get stuck anywhere and everywhere on an animal’s coat, but most frequently they lodge between the toes and cause painful, red, swollen abscesses to develop.
The mouth, ears, nose and eyes also are common sticking points that may cause coughing or choking, severe sneezing attacks, nosebleeds, ear infections or corneal ulcers.
Liver and lung abscesses have been seen, as have conditions caused by migration into the spinal cord and through the nose into the brain.
Many of the costly problems associated with the grass’ sharp barbs can be avoided with a few routine precautions. Always check your pet’s coat and remove any visible foxtails at the end of the day or after a walk.
Check closely between the toes and up the legs. Check the tail and on the belly. Look into the ear canal and check around the eyes as well.
Regular brushing and keeping the fur on the feet clipped short helps, too.
If you notice red blisters between the toes then it is likely the weed has already made it under the skin and will need to be removed. Veterinarians typically use a specially designed forceps to reach under the skin and try to remove the grass. Antibiotics and Epsom salt soaks can help with the infection.
Often the grasses are several inches deep and sedation is required to remove them safely.
Ears are probably the second most common place for foxtails to be found. Usually, the signs are obvious with persistent head shaking and ear scratching, or an infection.
Often though, they are discovered deep in the ear canal during a routine physical exam. Foxtails should always be removed from the ear canal whether they are causing irritation or not, due to their risk of penetration through the eardrum and into the middle ear where the damage can be far more serious.
Removal from the ear canal can be more challenging and requires sedation in most cases to reduce the risk of damaging the eardrum.
Noses and eyes also are targets as the height of the plant’s stem is just right for lodging into an open eye or shooting up a nostril. Most pets will let you know when there is an eye problem by squinting, rubbing the eye with a paw, or rubbing the eye on the carpet or furniture.
Violent sneezing fits indicate a nasal foreign body. You may get lucky and be able to see the end of the seed in the nostril and remove it. However, even if you are able to remove a foxtail from your pet’s eye it is still a good idea to have them checked by your veterinarian. The cornea is almost always going to be scratched and will need topical antibiotics at a minimum.
The best protection from foxtails is avoidance, but short of staying indoors all summer, the next best thing is to remove the plant from the yard, try to avoid heavily infested areas, and take time to give your pets a good check at the end of the day.