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Foxtails, What Are They?? – Dr. Katherine Burt


Foxtails start appearing in and around Fresno – in our backyards, in fields, and almost everywhere else in the summer. For fall and winter, continue to be aware of these pests as leaves start to fall and pets are outside frolicking in the cool air. These clusters of plant seeds, given their name from their resemblance to, well, fox’s tail, do not require much to grow aside from a little sun and water- less than our grass and more favorable plants need.

Foxtails are a nuisance to anyone who has walked through a field and found the straw colored plant fragments stuck to their pants and shoes. They can, however, be more than just a nuisance to our canine and feline friends. After all, cats and dogs are covered in fur, which can collect and hide the plant material out of our sight. Worse, because of their arrowhead shape, they burrow in and get stuck in whatever area they are in. The most common areas affected are the ears, eyes, and skin, though they can also get stuck in the throat, prepuce, and vulvar area.

The signs of a dog or cat with foxtails are dependent on the area affected. A dog with a foxtail in its ear will hold his head to the side, shake his head, act painful and scratch at the affected ear. This can resemble an ear infection, though is usually more dramatic. A cat with a foxtail in her eye will have a swollen, squinting eye with increased discharge from the eye. Foxtails embedded in the skin can burrow underneath and leave draining areas of infection – we see these commonly in between the toes, and owners usually notice dogs licking at their feet and discharge from the affected area. Foxtails in the throat can cause repeated gagging or swallowing motions. No matter where they are, foxtails are painful!

If you think that a foxtail may be causing a problem for your dog or cat, you should have them examined as soon as possible. Because foxtails burrow, they can cause serious damage in the affected areas – it is not unheard of for dogs to rupture their ear drums, injure their eyes seriously, develop abscesses from skin infections, and to have infected areas in their teeth and throat because of these little “friends.” Early removal is the best chance to avoid any complications. Often your pet will be started on antibiotics – topical or by mouth – to help treat any infection carried by the foxtails.

Avoidal would be the best way to reduce any complications from foxtails, but it can be difficult to do. You can cut down the plants, of course, in your own yard, but if you take your dogs out to parks and open areas, or if your cat roams outside, they risk exposure. If you notice these weeds growing in a field, try not to take your animals into that area. And, if you do, try brushing out your pet’s fur after exposure – particularly around their ears, face, feet, and underside. Long haired dogs and cats have an increased risk due to their hair, so you may want to consider shaving them down to prevent the foxtails from attaching. It would be nearly impossible to completely avoid foxtails, but minimizing exposure helps.

Foxtails are no one’s friends, and we hope that your furry family can avoid them this summer!