Foxtails—a type of seed cluster found in a small group of weed plants—are commonly found in Northern California, including foxtail grasses, barley and millets. While these weeds may seem harmless, animal owners should be vigilant to keep their pets away from plant awns. Covered with microscopic projections, foxtails can pose severe health risks to animals, as they migrate into tissue causing abscesses and widespread infections. The physical make-up of the foxtail stops it from reversing direction and exiting the body. The most common access points foxtails utilize to enter the body are through the nose, mouth and ears, but they can also penetrate the skin causing wounds and subcutaneous abscesses.
In California, most foxtail cases are seen in the summer months, after the grasses from the winter rains have dried out. At UC Davis, foxtail cases start appearing in April and diminish by fall. However, cases can be seen throughout the year due to the warmer climate.
An advantage of receiving treatment at a comprehensive hospital like UC Davis is the collaborative approach to care offered. This is important in an incident involving a foxtail. Depending on the location of the foxtail, different specialists may be needed, such as veterinarians from emergency, internal medicine, community medicine, dermatology, and surgery. Assisting all of these are anesthesia and imaging specialists. As an example, the Diagnostic Imaging Service’s use of ultrasound to identify the location of the foxtail in an abscess can be extremely helpful.
“Radiologists are often able to ‘mark’ the foxtail with a sterile dye,” said Dr. Ingrid Balsa of the Soft Tissue Surgery Service. “This greatly aids the surgeons in being able to retrieve the foxtail and hopefully cure the dog.”
Tips regarding foxtails:
• Avoiding areas where foxtails grow in the summer months is key to preventing exposure in dogs.
• Be observant of where your dog walks and plays. Foxtails and other grasses with barbed seeds commonly grow along roads, in backyards, and many other places.
• If your dog shakes its head or persistently sneezes after being in an area with foxtails, take it to your veterinarian as soon as possible – these are common signs of foxtails in ears and the nose. In general, retrieval of the foxtail is easier the sooner it is identified.
The UC Davis veterinary hospital routinely see patients that have come in contact with foxtails. If not discovered quickly, the foxtail can burrow its way toward vital organs and vessels, causing irreparable harm. Here are some examples of the damage foxtails can cause:
Moose, a 1-year-old chocolate Labrador, had always been an active dog. When his overall energy level greatly diminished and he preferred to lay around the house, his owner knew something was wrong. X-rays and a CT scan revealed pus in his pyothorax (chest) and multiple abscesses through his lungs. Due to the severity of the fluid accumulation and concerns for its effect on his breathing, surgical intervention was warranted in order to clean up the necrotic/infected tissues, flush out the infected fluid, and find an underlying source of infection (which was most likely a foxtail he inhaled). UC Davis surgeons ultimately removed his left lung.
Joey, a 4-year-old male German shepherd mix, had a foxtail invade his hip after running into a tree stump while playing. An ultrasound scan revealed a tract that could be traced from the initial wound area on his hip toward his abdomen. Near the end of that tract was a large foreign body. The tract indicated that the foreign body had burrowed its way into the muscles near the spine, and was likely a foxtail. The ultrasound also located the foreign body to be beside the lumbar vertebrae and about an eighth of an inch from the aorta. Surgical removal of the foxtail was the best course of action to prevent it from migrating toward the aorta, which if penetrated, could have result in life-threatening internal bleeding.
Rosie, a 4-year-old Vizsla who loves the outdoors, got a foxtail caught in her ear. After the foxtail removal, Rosie’s ear continued to have a recurrence of a fungal infection, which can lead to serious health issues if not treated properly. Rosie was placed on antifungal medication, and the clinicians discussed long-term antifungal treatment options with her owner, as those would take several months to clear Rosie’s condition. Over the course of about six months, in addition to an oral and topical medication regimen done at home, UC Davis dermatologists performed multiple flushes of Rosie’s ear. Each procedure showed a marked improvement in the fungal infection. Finally, almost a year after her initial encounter with the foxtail, Rosie’s ear was cured.
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