It is a beautiful, late spring weekend in June and you decide to take your two dogs, one a labrador and the other a cocker spaniel, on a walk in the Glade north of Farmington. The walk was enjoyable and uneventful. Upon your return home, you feed and water your buddies and notice the lab shaking its head and the cocker shaking its head and licking its feet. You also recall when taking off your shoes the plant material embedded in your shoelaces. Welcome to foxtail season!
Foxtail grass, also known as cheat grass, spear grass or hitchhiker grass is a common, annual grass usually considered a weed. Moving from Kansas to Farmington, foxtail grass was a new experience to me in general and as a veterinarian. Foxtail grass does seem to be isolated to certain locales in the country.
This hardy pest is often seen in late winter growing as green clusters of grass when all else is still dormant. Growing in clusters, it peaks at 6 to 12 inches tall, and, at the end of its pillars, spikelet clusters of small arrow-like seeds are evident. We are just entering the time of year when the grass is dying and turning brown, arming each individual seed on the cluster with an array of reverse "barbs," much like a fish hook. These dried clusters of seeds come loose from the mother plant upon contact and then begin embedding and migrating into whatever brushes up against it — be it a shoelace, a sock or the fur and orifices of our four-legged friends. The seeds are found in the ears, eyes and nose and can become life-threatening. No body part is immune. The seeds have been found in the urethra and prepuce of male dogs, vagina, anal glands and have even been known to migrate to internal organs.
Foxtails are very tiny, so symptoms are site specific. If in the nasal cavity, the dog sneezes repeatedly and violently, often hitting the nose on the floor. If a bloody discharge is noticed, assume it's a foxtail seed.
If in the eye, the dog paws at the eye, and the eye waters. If an eye is glued shut, it is most likely a foxtail seed. The eye is a common site in cats.
If the seed is in the ear, the dog shakes its head violently from side to side. Sometimes, the dog paws at the eyes or ear, shaking the head and squinting.
In the mouth, foxtail seeds can cause gagging or difficulty swallowing. If the seed gets caught between the teeth, in the gums, back of throat or tongue, problems can result.
If the seed lodges in the paw or under the coat, a lump will form that is painful to the touch.
Foxtail seeds can cause fatalities when they reach internal organs. In any case, do not attempt to treat the animal yourself. Get professional help. The best defense for foxtails is a good offense or preventive program. Personally, I try to pull or spray Roundup on these clumps of grass before they mature and dry out. Cutting the grass before it seeds will also eliminate the nuisance. If already mature and brown, burning the clumps will help eliminate the potential hazard.
In regard to your pet's health, avoid areas where you know foxtails grow. Always brush and inspect your dog's coat, especially between the toes. Grooming a long-haired dog is advantageous, especially trimming the feet hair close to the skin. Be smart this cheat grass season and outfox the foxtails by being proactive and educated about the risk of foxtails to your pets.