Posted on May 18, 2010
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 http://www.speakingforspot.com 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 Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.