Foxtails!

 

Truly the vegetative scourge of the canine world, foxtails, the seeds or awns of a variety of wild barley grass, are a common sight in California fields, hillsides, vacant lots, and many backyards in the months from May to August.  Other parts of the country have their foxtail-lookalikes which can do considerable damage, such as cheat grass and ripgut brome, but nothing is potentially as deadly and as hard to eliminate as foxtail barley, which occurs occasionally in portions of states which border California, but is primarily a Golden State phenomenon, brought here from its native habitat in the bellies of Spanish cattle making the passage to the New World.

 

Foxtails begin their annual cycle in early spring when they emerge as thin-bladed stalks of green grass.  Mowing and watering can keep them looking lush and lawn-like into early summer, but inevitably, being annual plants, they must head out, dry, and form seeds.  Livestock will graze on tender young foxtail blades, which have a respectable protein level, but once the plants have turned brown and dry, they quickly lose their food value and palatability, and turn into lethal canine menaces!

 

Well, just exactly what does this loathsome object look like?  A foxtail can range in size from 1/4" to 3" in length.  It is pointed at one end and branches into two or more wispy tails.  On the plant the pointed head end is embedded in the stalk, which vaguely resembles an overgrown stalk of wheat.  Each stalk of foxtail barley produces a seed head, each one of which can contain dozens of individual seeds, or foxtails.

 

As the seeds ripen they become more easily dislodged from the stalk, until the brushing by of a person's leg or an animal's body is sufficient for the task.  The wispy ends have minute barbs along their edges that catch in hair or fur and also allow movement in one direction only.  If the pointed head end happens to stick into something solid, it is sharp enough to begin penetration.  Then the little barbs take over and pull the foxtail forward.

 

It cannot reverse direction on its own and will continue to travel in random forward fashion until it either reaches conditions favorable for germination in the earth or comes up against something too dense for it to penetrate, like concrete or 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.

 

Foxtails will head out when water, temperature, and seasonal signals give the command, no matter what height the stalks may be.  A grazed or mowed field of foxtails is potentially far less dangerous than a tall stand, based on the dog's anatomy:

 

Tall foxtails are often picked up in the ears and nose.  In the case of setters, a foxtail in the ear almost immediately travels down the canal and embeds itself in the membrane of the eardrum.  This results in much shaking of the head, scratching at and inflammation of the ear leather and canal, and often a carrying of the head cocked to one side.  A trip to the vet is called for at once...in cases of extreme discomfort, mineral oil or Panalog ointment may be instilled into the ear to suspend the foxtail so that it does no further damage to the eardrum while the dog is en route to the vet.

 

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.

 

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!  There have been a few, but even the calmest and best-behaved setters generally require some form of chemical restraint for this procedure.

 

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:

 

Setters sick for months with debilitating pneumonia-like symptoms have been found to have a foxtail lodged in a lobe of their lungs, necessitating major surgery, often with removal of that lobe, and likely subsequent lifelong restrictions on activity.  A foxtail can also pass through the lungs and enter the spinal cord or chest cavity, wreaking total havoc upon bodily systems and functions, sometimes resulting in death!

 

Foxtails that have been grazed or mowed down to a few inches above the ground before they head out pose less danger to a dog's nose and ears, unless he happens to roll in a patch of them (don't laugh!).  These weeds tend to collect between dogs' toes, in their anal area, and around a bitch's vulva.  They can travel into the anal glands and colon, the abdominal cavity, and throughout the female reproductive tract.  Male dogs can pick them up on the edge of the prepuce where they can travel the length of the penis and into the prostate.  A heavily coated dog may pick them up in his chest, where they can lodge in the armpits, pierce the skin, and penetrate the chest wall and chest cavity.  They can also embed in the lips, gums, and tonsils, or be swallowed to travel the length of the digestive system.  Anytime that your dog has an unusual soft swelling or any draining wound, suspect a possible foxtail, particularly during the spring and summer months.

 

Most people's (and dog's) first experience with foxtails comes with one that enters between two toes.  The dog will lick repeatedly at the site, which will often display a pea to marble-sized round swelling.  The dog may limp, especially as the swelling increases.  Often there will be a tiny, perfectly round hold near the center of the swelling.  This is an almost certain sign of a foxtail.

 

As the swelling increases it often begins to soften over the surface and the skin takes on a purplish color.  Many times it will rupture on its own; hot soaks and packs may hasten this development.  Upon rupture, blood and pus will be discharged from the swelling, or abscess, leaving a hollow pocket.  Sometimes a foxtail will also pop out...then you are lucky and the abscess will heal in a matter of a day or two and you need do nothing further to treat it.

 

When a foxtail-caused abscess ruptures you may squeeze on it as hard as the dog will reasonably allow and in so doing you may very well force the foxtail out.  If the abscess has in fact been caused by a foxtail and it does not come out in the rupture and drainage or with subsequent squeezing, you can be certain that this abscess will not heal and swelling will recur, possibly at a different site.  If you see a perfectly round pinhole between two toes, even if the swelling is several inches above it, you can assume that it is a foxtail entry hole and it will not close nor heal completely while the foxtail is still within the dog's body.

 

If you have no success in squeezing the foxtail out of the abscess, you may want to seek veterinary assistance.  The vet cannot open an abscess until it is "ripe," i.e., soft and about to rupture.  He may send you home to soak and hot pack the foot prior to a return visit.  If he finds a typical entry hole between two toes he may try to probe this with the alligator forceps.  If you are skilled and non-squeamish, you can purchase an alligator forceps for probing feet at home, but do not attempt extractions from ears or nose yourself!

 

Probing is often done without any anesthetic: the abscess and tract are usually within layers of the skin and do not involve many nerves.  Sometimes local anesthetics are used.  After repeated unsuccessful probing of the same area on several occasions, the vet may suggest minor surgery to open the skin along the length of the tract, to locate and remove the foxtail.  This will involve shaving the leg, sedation or anesthesia, and sutures; but sometimes it is the only recourse.

 

One cannot have long-haired dogs in California for long without encountering these miserable wisps, and eradicating them completely from one's environment is almost impossible without leaving the state!  There are, however, several preventive steps to take that can reduce the risks of severe consequences:

 

1.  Check your dog over thoroughly after each outing afield: between each toe, the bottoms of each foot, the armpits, and the anal and genital areas.

 

2.  Keep your dog brushed out and free of mats: foxtails may fall out of smooth hair but will stick in mats and travel down them to and into the skin.

 

3.  Keep the hair completely trimmed out of the bottom of your dog's feet and around his ears and vent.

 

4.  If your dog isn't showing or being conditioned for show, give him a "foxtail trim" every spring: trim back all hair between the toes, over the tops of the toes and feet, the back of the pasterns, and the entire hock.

 

5.  If you have access to one of the heavy duty dog drying units such as a Force II or Mighty Wind, or have a vacuum cleaner that you can reverse the airflow direction on, blow the coat between each toe and up its length: you'll be surprised how many bits and wisps of foxtails will be revealed and blown away!

 

6.  Be alert for any swellings, drainage, limping or other unusual behavior.

 

7.  If you live in a very urbanized concrete environment, be sure to tell your vet that your dog has had contact with foxtails; if you feel that he isn't experienced enough to deal with foxtail-related problems, contact a doggy friend in the country and see if his vet can be of more help.

 

8.  If you go to a training session or other field event and see that it is being conducted in a stand of tall and dry foxtails, consider forfeiting any entry fee and not exposing your dog to the hazard.

 

9.  If you are a member of a committee arranging such an event, scout out the terrain a week or so ahead of time and suggest mowing the field or changing sites if foxtails will pose a major threat.