How Can Something as Innocent Looking as a Foxtail be so Dangerous to your Pet?


What exactly is a "foxtail" and why are they hazardous to your pet?

 A foxtail refers to a type of plant seed, from the foxtail weed. During the spring they sprout up, often in vacant lots, along the edges of grass lawns or wild fields. Superficially they have the appearance of a stalk of wheat.  From January until about March or early April, they are soft and green. In late spring, however, the seed heads begin to dry and the the danger begins, lasting throughout the summer until fall rains. The seeds of the drying or dried grasses detach from the plant and stick to a person's clothes or an animal's hair. They can easily become lodged between a dogs toes, in its ears, and in its eyes. Since the seeds are barbed like a fish hook they cannot reverse direction on their own and will continue to travel in random forward fashion until it comes up against something too dense for it to penetrate like bone.  In the case of an animal, a foxtail may travel around in a limb or in muscle or organ tissue for long distances and periods of time, leaving long, hollow tracts behind it, and then suddenly emerge through the skin if it happens to pass that way, always traveling head first.

Untreated Foxtails and the Ear Canal

The problems with foxtails left untreated in the ear canal of an animal is that it can travel down the ear canal and embed itself into the eardrum. This results in much shaking of the head, scratching at outer ear (pinna) and often a carrying of the head cocked to one side. This will usually require veterinary intervention at this point. 

The veterinarian will usually examine both ears with an otoscope, to locate all hidden offenders, and then will use an alligator forceps passed into the ear alongside the otoscope to extract the foxtail.  In some cases sedation of the dog will be required to reduce the possibility of puncturing the eardrum with the forceps if the dog jerks at the wrong moment.  

Foxtail Extraction

With a calm dog, many experienced vets will attempt the extraction without drugs.  The vet will recheck the ear after the foxtail is removed, to make certain that more than one wasn't present (often there are several, sometimes in both ears) and then instill Panalog or other antibiotic ointment to prevent the occurrence of infection as a result of the mechanical irritation caused by the foxtail combined with any foreign organisms that might have been on it.  Usually the owner is advised to instill medication in the ear for the next several days.  

Foxtails up the nose can be even more dangerous.  If he gets lucky, the dog will sneeze a few times and that will be the end of it.  His nose may bleed, but if all appears quiet within 15-30 minutes, he's probably gotten rid of it...hopefully by sneezing it out.  If he continues to sneeze, paws at his nose, is very uncomfortable, and has repeated episodes of nasal bleeding, the darn thing is probably stuck somewhere in his nasal passages and will require extraction by a vet.  Very rare is the dog that will lie quietly while the vet pushes an alligator forceps 3 or 4 inches up his nose!  Most of the time the dog will have to be sedated to remove a foxtail from the nose 

You should be aware that most uses of the alligator forceps consist of blind probing and groping.  This invaluable instrument extends a vet's reach but not his vision, except in combination with an otoscope in ear examinations, where blind probing would lead to certain rupture of the eardrum.

The forceps consists of a slender metal rod from 4" to 8" in length, with a small hinged gripper at one end and a scissors-like fingered holder at the other end, which provides the mechanism for opening and closing the gripper.  The instrument is inserted into the suspected site with the gripper closed; then the gripper is opened and shut; then the entire instrument is withdrawn.  This is repeated a number of times, until on one of the withdrawals a foxtail is held fast in the gripper, or until the site is fully probed and has yielded nothing.  

Believe me, one of the best sights in the whole world is a nasty old foxtail clutched tight in those alligator jaws!  Because if one isn't found in the nasal passage, while it may have been sneezed out and the dog be reacting only to residual irritation, there is an equal chance that it has been inhaled, and where it will go once it enters the lungs is anybody's guess:

I have acquired my own operating type veterinary otoscope from the website that I use on a regular basis to remove foxtails when they are simply laying in the ear canal before they have embedded into the eardrum or ear canal. This is the best time to catch them when they are easiest to remove. I usually have my wife hold our dogs head while I use the otoscope to exam the ear canals. We do this every time we are in a weedy area during the fall of the year. Often I can easily grasp the ends of the foxtail and remove them without any pain or discomfort to our dog since they are not lodged into any tissue at this early point. As they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.