In parts of Northern America each summer brings the blooming of the dreaded foxtail or diaspore grass. Grasses known as foxtail include:
- Alopecurus (foxtail grasses - the scientific name literally means "fox tail")
- Bromus madritensis (foxtail brome)
- Hordeum jubatum (Foxtail Barley)
- Setaria (foxtail millets)
This invasive grass sprouts a wheat-like head of faceted seed shafts that resemble the tail of a fox. As they dry out and mature, they dislodge from the base, and become easily attached to a dog's fur as he passes through them. Or, if the dog puts his face in a growth of foxtail, they can pierce through eyes or become lodged in an ear canal. On the ground, they are picked up in a dog's feet and can become imbedded between toes and pierce the skin. Once in the dog's flesh, if not caught in time they can puncture and travel throughout the dog's body just by entering a part of it's body, whether it be an ear, toe, eye or other area. Eventually they will emerge, but the pain and discomfort they cause are considerable. In rare cases foxtails can puncture vital organs and cause death.
Long haired dog breeds are more susceptible to picking up foxtails however, short haired dogs can pick them up too. Also, the shape of a dog's foot comes to factor in as to if he is prone to picking up foxtails or not. Experience has shown me even some long haired dogs do not attract foxtails as much if their hair is particularly fine and their feet are set up so that the foxtail spears have a difficult time wedging in between toes. The only dogs I own here who do not pick up foxtails in their feet are my Spanish Mastiffs. The space between their toes and shape of their pads seem to deflect them.
There are a few things you can do to help prevent your dog getting full of foxtails. Weed control and abatement is of course, of primary concern, but the invasive nature of the foxtail, and the ease by which its seeds are scattered by birds or transported by other animals and humans (for example on clothing or shoes), makes traditional week abatement methods a gallant but often fruitless effort at best.
Having lived in foxtail country on ranches most of my life, I've learned to deal with them by meticulous management of my dogs exposure to them, and time consuming yet necessary daily checks of feet, eyes, ears, and other body areas, in addition to grooming and trimming toe and feet hairs. I go as far as to close off the back fields where the foxtails are the worst, and keep my dogs out of them for a month. Once the pesky weeds have peaked out and bloomed, I haul a drag behind my lawn tractor and knock down the dry stands. Because I don't like to use pesticides and herbicides where my sheep and cattle graze, that type of action is out. I resort to hand pulling the weeds up and burning them in a fire ring or pit when dry. On my lawn, spot spraying with herbicide seems to help but then some days I look out there at the clumps of foxtails and just throw my hands in the air in despair!
Aside from stopping the growth of this pesky grass, there's things you can do to help your dogs get through the foxtail season with minimal damage. As I mentioned above, daily checks are a must. Examine closely toes and between the toes, female dog's private areas, and legs where longer hair may pick up foxtails.
Regular combing and brushing out can remove many foxtails. I also can highly recommend kiddie wading pools so your dogs can soak their feet. What does this do? It actually softens the foxtail if it is stuck in your dog's foot and may facilitate its removal or coming out, much faster.
But what to do if you find foxtails galore in your dog's feet, ears, or coat? Get a good pair of tweezers, and go to work! The following photos will include captions describing what to look for, and what a foxtail looks like imbedded in a dog's skin, and once taken out.