Summer Danger Lurking in the Grass

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Check your dog thoroughly after a run on dry grass. Photo: Thinkstock.

by Maria Libonate RVT.

If you own a dog in Los Angeles, chances are, you’ve heard of foxtails. They are what we term grass awns, which are commonly found in the dry grassy areas of southern California. Because we live in such an arid climate, this can often breed dangerous, tiny foxtails.

These small menaces attach themselves to your pet, usually in their fur, and slowly begin to burrow into their skin. They can travel very deep at times and can often lead to infections, causing your pet pain and discomfort. The most common areas they tend to attach to are the paws and the ears. I have seen many cases of foxtails embedded in dogs paws, inside their ear canals, in their noses, and even one in the eyelid!

Often, the foxtail isn’t noticed until it has been burrowing deep into the skin for quite some time and the pet starts to show outward signs of discomfort. Many pet parents know that pets can oftentimes be very stoic and hide their pain rather well. So when these tiny grass awns become painful enough for the pet to start showing it, it is already pretty far along.

Not so scary looking. However, foxtails can cause serious damage and even risk the life of your pet. Photo: Thinkstock.

Foxtails may not sound very dangerous. However, they can be more painful than anything else, and there are rare occasions where they can cause serious damage and even risk the life of a pet. For instance, if a foxtail were to be accidentally inhaled, it could travel into the trachea and may get to the lungs, causing severe respiratory issues. Luckily, this is not common, and more often than not, a foxtail will usually embed itself into the paws.

So what do you look for with foxtails? Well, they’re not very easy to see. You may notice your dog licking or chewing at their paw. There could be some noticeable swelling and redness at the site with possible oozing, as well, if there is a secondary infection. As seen in the picture, a drainage tract may also be visible as a very small hole on the top or bottom of the paw where the foxtail entered.

A VCA patient with multiple foxtails in one paw. The point of entry is a small hole at the top. Courtesy: VCA

Treatment will usually consist of antibiotics to treat infection and sometimes Epsom salt soaks to help pull out the foxtail. If it is too far in, the doctor may recommend sedation to surgically remove the foxtail from the paw. This is usually done by making a small incision and using very small and specially designed forceps to help pull out the foxtail. Even then, a doctor may still have trouble taking a foxtail out. Imagine trying to pull out a tiny seed from a giant watermelon with a blindfold on.

So what can you do to help protect your pet against these nasty buggers? Well, first of all, try to steer clear of dry, grassy areas as much as possible, which may be easier said than done if you are an avid hiker. That’s not to say you can’t take your dog out or go on hikes and enjoy nature. Just be conscious of the risks and always check your dog thoroughly after coming back inside. Run your hands along their fur to check for any burrs or other hijackers. Pay close attention to their paws and ears and monitor them for a few days after to make sure there is no excessive licking or chewing noted. Signs of possible foxtails in the ears may be excessive shaking of the head, and if any were inhaled, you might notice excessive sneezing.

If you suspect that your pet may have a foxtail, call your veterinarian and schedule an exam. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Have your pet properly assessed and treated to prevent something bad from getting even worse.

Maria Libonate is a Registered Veterinary Technician. She works at the VCA Venice Boulevard Animal Hospital at 12108 Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista. Ph: 310.313.9118. There is also a VCA clinic at 2506 Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Ph: 310.306.8707.