Some see the end of the rainy season as bathing suit time, I see the beginning of Foxtail Season. The first foxtail—in an ear, nose, or eye, brings a sigh to all veterinarians and their staff. The dubious descriptions of, “shaking head,” “excessive sneezing,” “swollen paw,” or “squinty eye” brings a whole list of potential causes to mind, but one cause tops the list: a foreign body; a grass awn; a foxtail.
In vet school (Colorado State in my case), the dubious “grass awn” is occasionally mentioned in lists of medical diagnoses. I even heard a few stories of their power. Come to think of it, most of those stories were from friends from California. Until moving to the Central Valley, though, I had NO IDEA how pesky the pointy seeds of a pretty green grass could be!
Several species of grasses comprise this group of pesky weeds. According to my research, the one we most commonly fight here in California is Hordeum murinum. Several excellent references are available online regarding the plant and even its effects on dogs. As far as I am concerned, every dog that goes through a weedy area needs to be searched for the unwanted seedy passenger. The search must include folded areas, like under arms and between toes. The longer the animals’ hair, the more thoroughly they need to be combed. In yards with many foxtails, consider a short summer haircut to make the awns easier to see and more likely to fall off.
Don’t forget cats! Although their nostrils are smaller, they hunt in the weeds more than dogs. As excellent groomers, they can often get the foxtails out of their coats and paws, but their eyes, ears, and even vulvas can be a lodging place.
I have seen foxtails migrate from between toes up to the shoulder, from the vulva into the uterine horns, and from an eye out the side of the head! Deaths result from the awn entering the chest from under an arm or down the throat, to name just a few of many possible ways. The reason is that the seed has lots of rear-pointing hooks and a sharp front, so once it gets headed in a direction, it never goes back the other way. Consider how hard they are to remove from your socks!
Just because the animal stops tilting its head or sneezing does not mean the foxtail has come back out of its hiding place. In fact, this rarely happens because of the plant’s design, as previously mentioned. Rather, it just moves on past the most sensitive area, and the animal begins to adapt to the discomfort. Animals can do this much better than we can; that is, deal with discomfort! Just because they can adapt does not mean the owner should forget. Get the pet checked out before the foxtail moves on to somewhere more serious.