Those Frustrating Foxtails

My littlest dog Nellie came in the house tonight sneezing.  Any other time of year and I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail in the nose alarm bell”.  I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing, or bloody nose and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning. 

If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings! These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in most every state west of the Mississippi.  Once the plant heads dry, they become hell bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths, and just about every other orifice.  They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal (beyond sight) in the blink of an eye. And a foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin (a favorite hiding place is between toes).  Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body and associated symptoms vary based on location.  For example, a foxtail within the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung labored breathing and coughing.  Not only is the dog’s body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a “forward” direction.  Unless caught early, they and the bacteria they carry either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage.  Once foxtails have moved internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack- notoriously difficult to find and remove. 

Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a “foxtail magnet” having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years.  I was asked  to  help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal.  Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere.  The question was, would we be able to find it?  

As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the “god of foxtails.” I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nail biting and a barrage of expletives originating from the O.R., I heard a shout of,   “Got it!”   The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery.  Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail induced infection. 

If you suspect your dog has a foxtail related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material.  Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. If your dog does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat a couple of times daily- checking ears and toes, too- to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc!  Have you and your dog experienced any foxtail nightmares?  If so, please share your story.

Best wishes to you and your four-legged family members for abundant good health, 

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life

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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.

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7 Comments on “Those Frustrating Foxtails

  1. Foxtails showed up in our beach neighborhood about five years ago. One thing to remind people is that your dogs will eat them, as I’ve pulled foxtails from between teeth, a nasty business! The first time I had no idea, and we were at the vet for something else when she found it, a first in all her years as a vet. Now it’s a routine check. We even find them on the floor.

    Another thing: years ago I had a Cavalier in as a rescue. When I took her to the vet for dental work, I urged him to check one ear, as she’d been scratching and rubbing her head. Sure enough, a foxtail down deep in the ear canal. The vet and I were both pleased that a little observation had him looking for trouble and catching it before it got worse.

    What about reminding people to check their cats, too, if they go out? My cat loves to eat greenery, and I provide her and the dogs with pots of healthy greens to much on. I wonder how many foxtails cats eat as they wander around?

    So thanks for the reminder on these weedy pests. Let’s keep our animal friends safe.

    Robyn in Seattle

  2. A couple years ago, I was camping and looked down to see my leashed Yorkie’s head sniffing some foxtails. He came up sneezing. I knew they were trouble and immediately checked him out, seeing nothing in his tiny nostrils. But the sneezing fit continued. I was 150 miles from the nearest vet and 250 miles from my vet, whom I called immediately. By the time he called back, the sneezing had subsided. Surprisingly, he told me not to worry about it, to bring him in when my camping trip ended in two days. He sneezed off and on through the night, but it had pretty much stopped the next day. Based on my vet’s advice, I decided not to rush him to the vet but to complete our trip. When I got him to my vet two days later, the sneezing had returned but the vet found nothing. He recommended antibiotics. I then called a couple more vets, including one in California who said the dog’s nose should be scoped and flushed immediately.

    To make a long story a little shorter, I went to another vet for the scoping. They, too, advised against the scoping because Yorkie nasal passages are so tiny. I went through with it anyway, but they found nothing. I found out later that I should have insisted on the tiniest scope available.

    The sneezing continued. I then put him on the antibiotics. Ten days later, the symptoms had stopped. I’m still dumbfounded on exactly what happened. Did the scoping do some good afterall? Did whatever it was enter his body? Was he able to eliminate it, or did it lodge somewhere only to become a problem later? It’s been a couple years, and he’s been healthy, so I’m hoping whatever it was is gone. They are nasty little things.

    Here’s a video I made at the time. A little dramatic perhaps 😉 but I was a mess and felt so helpless.

  3. This comment was sent to me via email and is posted as requested.
    Spot Speaks didn’t seem to want to take my foxtail-related tale, so here it is. (Can you add it to the public responses?)

    We (two Sacramento rescuers) rescued a young chocolate-colored lab. (He got named “Hershey” because he was so brown and SO SWEET!) But he was so covered with foxtails that we had to completely shave him to get them all off. (Or so we thought.)

    After totally shaving him, the vet examined him and removed 17 more foxtails that were TOTALLY embedded. (Got them all–or so we thought.)

    A week later the vet removed seven more. (Finally got them all–or so we thought.)

    We adopted Hershey out to a great home. Even though Hershey wasn’t allowed anywhere near “foxtail territory,” his adopter called a week later to say that her vet had removed several more foxtails. (At least his new vet finally got the last ones–or so we thought.)

    His adopter called TWO MONTHS LATER to say that a couple more embedded foxtails had recently festered enough to reveal their hiding places!

    Gary Sawyer / Sacramento rescuer

  4. I am forwarding this info..I never knew any of this and I have three dogs that run in the pastures in rural Arkansas. We have been lucky so far.

  5. Last year my then two-year-old colt got a foxtail in his eye. Not knowing what it was, I put eye medicine in it and watched it for a couple of days before calling the vet. By that time, it had created an ulcer on the eyeball that could be seen. The vet was able to get it out – it hadn’t become embedded, and it didn’t cause any permanent damage, but could have affected his vision! I dodged a bullet on that!

  6. Foxtails, or their evil cousins are also a problem east of the MS. We lost our best human remains detection dog who ingested/inhaled one during a search that ended up migrating to her lungs. This went undiagnosed for a year and by the time they discovered it, via exploratory surgery,she had weakened too much to survive. The cost (over $10,000) nearly banrkupted her handler. Beware these cussed devils.

    in Memory of Rulan

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