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Foxtails

Foxtails and grass seeds can cause significant problems in pets – ranging from a simple ear infection to life-threatening complications from their migration through body tissues.

The shape of a grass seed or foxtail is that of an arrow. They have a sharp end on one side and long strands on the other. Once the sharp end of a foxtail has penetrated the skin of an animal, it typically moves deeper into the tissue but cannot back out.

The body tries to reject these ‘foreign bodies’ by creating an inflammatory response or abscess. Unfortunately, grass awns have been discovered to migrate throughout the body causing infections in the spinal canal, in the chest around the lungs and heart, abdominal organs, and can even enter the brain. Serious complications may occur in these instances, causing non-specific and severe illness and possibly death. Luckily, most cases of foxtails in animals never reach life-threatening stages.

The most common site of foxtails is the delicate tissue between the toes. Excessive amounts of hair or thickened skin between the toes can trap grass seeds. Thus, breeds like Cocker Spaniels and English Bulldogs are prone to this condition. After embedding in the skin, fluid filled swelling may be observed between the toes. Your pet may limp or chew at his or her feet. Summer months, when plants go to seed, tend to be the most problematic. Check your animal’s feet for foxtails after going for a hike, to the park, or even coming in from the backyard. The external ear canal is the next most prevalent site of foxtails.

Signs that your pet may have a foxtail in the ear include shaking of the head, scratching at the ear, pain when the ear is rubbed, or tilting the head so the affected ear is down. A secondary bacterial infection may occur in which discharge or debris is often present in the ear along with a foul odor. If foxtails are located in the nose or throat, a honking cough or sudden severe sneezing may occur or an animal may have obvious difficulty swallowing. Large, firm swellings may occur over the cheeks and neck where the foxtails are migrating through tissue. Multiple visits to the veterinarian may be necessary as grass awns migrate outward toward the skin.

Cats are meticulous about grooming themselves and generally do not experience the same problems with grass seeds that affect dogs. Eye infections in cats seem to be the most common problem caused by foxtails which lodge between the eye and eyelid. They may have a yellow-green discharge from the eye, keep the eye clamped tightly shut, and show pain when the owner or veterinarian attempts to open the eyelids. The cornea can become ulcerated giving the eye a ‘cloudy’ or ‘blue’ appearance. If left untreated the eye can rupture, resulting in loss of vision and/or removal of the entire eye. Treatment in every case consists of removing the foxtail or grass seed.

Depending on the number and location of foxtails, treatment can range anywhere from one simple visit to the veterinarian to repeat attempts at removal, a long course of antibiotics, or even surgical exploration. Many times removal is straightforward and does not require anesthetic. However, pets occasionally may need sedation to remove a foxtail if extraction causes discomfort or pain.