You see them everywhere this time of year in Montrose; foxtail grasses are ubiquitous, low-growing grasses with wheat-like heads and thrive during wet springs like the one we’ve had this year.  As the grasses dry out, the individual seeds, known as foxtails, fall to the ground.

Foxtails have a hardened, woody tip and long barbs pointing away from the tip. 

Foxtail is a fibrous-rooted, densely tufted grass that grows from 12–39 inches tall.

Why are foxtails dangerous for dogs and cats?

When pets are outside, they can encounter the seed-heads and the barbs cause them to become irreversibly lodged and will penetrate just about anywhere.  

It is common during the summer season for a client to call us with a concern that a dog came in from an outdoor romp and is sneezing violently, or for a cat who suddenly has a closed, weeping eye.  

Foxtails find their way into nostrils, ear canals, eyes and between toes where painful abscesses will form.  

Recently while anesthetizing a dog for a spay surgery, my technician noticed an infected molar tooth with numerous foxtails embedded in the gum tissue. The tooth could not be saved and had to be extracted, but the dog was spared a lot of pain and other ill health effects from a diseased tooth.  

In Colorado, we frequently encounter foxtails embedded in the mouth. From there, they can work their way into the deeper tissues of the head and neck. Dogs may present with a mysterious deep abscess around the throat area. 

Treatment requires opening the abscess and a search for the offending object, followed by a course of antibiotic and pain relief. In the worst cases, foxtails will travel, causing life-threatening infections within the brain, spinal column, chest and abdomen. 

Steps can be taken to reduce your pet’s exposure to these hazardous plants:  

  • Eliminate all foxtail grasses in your yard in the spring before they dry. These grasses thrive in disturbed soils so over-plant these areas with desirable species or use bark mulch to discourage regrowth.
  • When away from home with your dog, avoid areas where foxtails tend to grow such as open spaces, overgrown lawns, and along trails.
  • After being outside, examine your pet for the seeds. Inspect their coat, foot pads, between the toes, inside the ears, face, nose, and around the mouth.

If you notice sudden onset of violent head shaking, sneezing, closed eye, foot licking or signs of oral discomfort is a reason to have your pet seen by your veterinarian.