Oct 24, 2023

Foxtail seeds blooming, posing lethal threat to pets

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Foxtails look like harmless grass, but they’re dangerous and can be deadly to pets.

They could be growing in your yard right now.

The seeds of foxtails — so-named because they resemble the fluffy, full tail of a fox — are annoying to humans, getting stuck in socks and tracked inside, but pose a threat to dogs and cats.

Dr. Sam Varon is the owner and medical director of Broadway Veterinary Hospital in Sacramento. Every year from late spring through the summer, he sees patients with foxtail seeds that have burrowed their way into any number of places.

"They just attract these foxtails in between their toes, in their ears. They go up their private area. It's just really sad. Up their nose is really sad; we have to sedate them," said Varon, holding a long, thin metal device. "This is one of the instruments we use to retrieve them. It's called an alligator forceps. Antibiotics, we use a lot of the time because there is so much infection."

He said foxtails are everywhere now and will be for months to come.

"These are really just a scourge, especially around summertime when they dry out," he said. "This year, (it's) even worse than ever because we've had all this rain and now sun. We're really seeing them early and it's going to be a rough summer."

The seeds are streamlined to burrow deep.

"They go in (one) way and then they never track backward," said Varon.

That's because the seed has little backward barbs that lock it in and prevent it from going any direction but forward.

"When the dogs are running through the field or even next to the path and they brush up, and the problem is, these things stick out, right? And the dogs come by and they just grab onto their fur because they have those barbs and they break apart and go all up in them," said Varon. "I've seen these guys track into the back of the mouth, and they go into the back of the cheek and they'll go all the way down and they'll form an abscess in this area, too. So sometimes we actually have to have surgery performed because of it."

Extricating a foxtail seed can translate to a painful and expensive solution. They can even be deadly.

"The most common time we see them killing dogs is if they inhale them and they go into the lung and make an abscess. So prothorax — or pus in the chest — is when it would kill a dog," said Varon. "The other thing that we do see sometimes is they'll actually travel all the way through the abdomen and they'll actually lodge up in a vertebra and cause discospondylitis — or an infection in the actual spine — and I've seen that before, too. So they really do travel far lengths, just working their way through the tissues with those barbs that are only one direction."

He recommends checking dogs’ feet after walks, making sure there's nothing in between the toes. A check of ears, nose and gums can also be helpful in looking for foxtail seeds that can still be removed at home before they burrow too deep.

"You can even do some shaving in between the feet on some of your furrier dogs," said Varon.

It begs the question as to how people can get rid of foxtails in their own yard.

"They are really hard to get rid of because the seeds break off — and that's what they’re made to do, is… to stick in the ground somewhere and grow, and they are a weed in California and they’re everywhere," said Varon.

Herbicide is one option, he said, "or tarping the area. Once they’re dead, then actually putting some cover over it."

Varon says burning foxtails is an effective option as well -- just check to make sure there's no burn ban in your county or city at the time.

"Make sure you have your fire extinguisher ready!" he added.

If anyone finds a foxtail burrowing into their pet, they can try and remove it themselves. People should remember to monitor the site for infection in the following days, in case some of the seeds broke off inside.

Varon says it's also a bad tick and mosquito season in our area, and both insects carry diseases and parasites that can be harmful to pets and humans alike.

He recommends pets get flea, tick and heartworm prevention medicine to protect them as they venture outside.

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