March 10, 2015
At home I mark the seasons by watching the ever changing flowers along our roadsides and gracing our gardens. Spring brings the first forsythia flowers of bright yellow sunshine, the pink and white magnolia blossoms. At work I am waiting for the veterinary equivalent of that first harbinger of spring, the foxtail weed sticker.
It’s coming, that moment when I look at the chart of my next patient and read “cause for visit : foxtail in ear”.
The foxtail is the seed head of several weedy grasses. Sometimes called wild barley, several different grasses produce an awn or sticker that is pointed and barbed like a miniature badminton birdie. As your dog or cat brushes through the tall grasses the foxtail will catch in their fur, working in deeper by means of the pointed base. Foxtails burrow deeply wherever they enter, travelling in one direction, prevented from backing out or falling out by their bushy tail.
The most common sites for foxtails to lodge in a pet are the ear and between the toes. The eyes, nose and vulva are also vulnerable, though foxtails can burrow into the skin anywhere, especially in thickly furred or matted animals.
Not only are the burrowing weeds painful, they can cause serious infections and abscesses wherever they enter the body. The sticker does not break down inside. It’s pointed end can burrow through ear drums, into eyeballs and travel up legs from the toes. Unless removed, a foxtail can eventually lead to death. Foxtails breathed into the nose can lodge there and run the risk of being inhaled into the lungs if not promptly removed. Foxtails eaten may escape the stomach and tunnel through the internal organs. Foxtails can kill.
Although you can’t always prevent contact between your pet and a foxtail, you can decrease the risk by taking the following steps :
- Don’t let your pet run through grassy fields or empty lots filled with weeds.
- Brush your pet after a trip outdoors, paying special attention to the face and feet. Gently separate each toe to look for tiny tan stickers between the feet.
- Pets with short, slick coats are not immune to picking up a foxtail, but there’s no denying that long silky hair or “feathers”, found in dogs like the Spaniel breeds or Golden Retrievers, attract the stickers. Thick, curly coats – think Poodles or Chow Chows – can also be foxtail magnets. These breeds may do better if their lower legs, toes and underbelly are trimmed short for the summer. A dog groomer can do this safely and easily for you. A “Summer Strip” that shears a long-haired dogs’ coat to an overall length of about ½ inch helps protect heavily coated dogs from picking up the stickers, with the added bonus of cooling your pet off during our hot summers.
- If possible, remove all weeds from your yard in the very early, green stage. Mow the weeds down, rake up and dispose. It is the dried seed head, in its bid to reproduce and spread far and wide, that detaches from the mother plant and hitches a ride on your pet to be carried to new fields. Elimination in the green stage is far easier to control and prevents further dispersal of seed heads. Foxtails are not readily air borne, but once dry “jump” off the plant onto whatever brushes against them.
Signs that might lead you to suspect that your pet has encountered a foxtail might include the following, especially if just after a walk or run :
- Your pet suddenly holds an ear down, shakes or rubs his head vigorously, crying out if you touch the ear.
- Repeated bursts of paroxysmal sneezing, so hard it looks like her nose might hit the floor.
- An ugly swelling between the toes, limping on one or more feet.
Most foxtails must be probed for and removed under anesthesia. Those lodged in the ear offer the sporting chance that, moving quickly enough, one can grab the offending sticker and be done with it. It’s the closest we come to a rodeo in small animal medicine. Given that the ear is awfully close to the teeth there can be a bit of a rush as the veterinarian eyes his or her prospective patient, calculating the odds of success.
Hmmm, the moment is here.” Check ears, foxtail”. The first patient this spring? A Newfoundland, the sort of dog that ought to live at the North Pole where there are no foxtails, and pick on someone his own size, like a polar bear. This dog looks to be about 150 pounds and growing by the second. Probably eats vets like they’re cheetos. And judging by his head tilt and red ear, it hurts, BAD.
We try the calm, business-as-usual approach. Let’s take a little peek here…. Nope. Next the hold-on-to-him, person on each end approach. Uhn-uh. Three people try to restrain his head. Help! Finally, a moment of stillness and we’ve got it! Quickly a quarter inch foxtail is extracted from the ear. Everyone takes a collective breath. The ear is cleaned and medicated. The Newfie is delighted, giving us doggie high fives with his nose which knock us into the wall. We all beam at each other. Success is sweet today. We know there will be more foxtail challenges tomorrow.
Christine B. McFadden, DVM
Valley Animal Hospital, Merced