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Foxtails in dogs: How to spot and remove from your pet

Foxtails in dogs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Foxtails in dogs can be incredibly dangerous. They are the barbed seed heads of the foxtail plant which is a grass-like weed primarily found in the western US. 

Although they look quite soft and feathery, they are far from it and can cause serious injury to your dog. Foxtails are one of the few cases where lathering on the best dog shampoo won't cut it, and a vet visit is likely in order.

That's because foxtails will endlessly burrow into whatever part of your dog's body it attaches to. Removing it will be nothing like how to remove a tick from your pet, as it often requires minor surgery to get it out safely. 

Foxtails are not something to mess around with, and if you're the kind of owner who frequently goes camping with a dog or takes your dog on nature walks, you should know about foxtails.

Here's everything you should know about foxtails on dogs, including how to spot them and the next steps if you do find one on your dog. 

Why are foxtails dangerous to dogs?

Foxtails aren't just dangerous because of the potential skin irritation they can cause to your dog. Foxtails have barbed seed heads that can work their way into any part of your dog, whether it's on their nose, hindquarters, between their toys, or inside their ears and mouth. 

But the foxtail seeds won't break down once they've made their way inside your dog's body and since they can cause abscesses, swelling, and discharge, can even lead to a serious infection that could be fatal. They are also very tough to find in your dog's fur. 

Where are foxtails found?

Foxtails can be found anywhere in the United States, but are most common in western states. There is a foxtail season that runs from late spring to early summer, but in states like California, they can exist all year long. 

According to PreventiveVet.com (opens in new tab), foxtails reportedly do not thrive in seven states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Georgie, Hawaii, and Louisiana.  

Foxtails can also be found in the UK, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. There are several different species of foxtail. 

foxtails on dogs

(Image credit: Getty)

How do you know if your dog has a foxtail? 

If you've taken your dog on a walk through overgrown brush, you always have to consider that foxtails might be involved. 

If you notice your dog limping or persistently licking an area on its body, you should check for foxtails. If there is random swelling in an area on their body or they're shaking their head/tilting it to one side, you should examine them for foxtails. 

Here are some areas on the body where your dog could get a foxtail and the symptoms it may show:

  • Eyes - Squinting or completely closed eye. There may also be discharge. 
  • Ears - A head tilt or frequent head shaking
  • Nose - Expulsive, almost constant sneezing, potentially with bloody discharge
  • Mouth - Gagging, hacking, coughing, trouble swallowing food or water
  • Paws  - Limping, continuous licking of the foot or foot pad, swelling between toes or sign of a hole in foot
  • Skin - Bump or lump on skin that feels hard, may have a small hole in middle

Will a foxtail come out on its own? 

No. A foxtail will not come out on its own. If you cannot safely and somewhat easily remove the foxtail from your dog's body with tweezers, call your vet right away. Foxtails can burrow through to any part of your dog's body and puncture vital organs. 

How do I remove an embedded foxtail? 

If you can easily see and access the foxtail, you can try to remove it with tweezers. 

Dr. Aimee Johnson (opens in new tab) has a great YouTube video showing you how to remove foxtails:

In some cases, however, it may be deeply embedded in the skin.

If that's the case, or the area where it went in is clearly inflamed, call your vet immediately. You should not try to remove embedded foxtails, as you could cause more damage and put your dog in more pain. 

When to call the vet for a foxtail

As mentioned earlier, if the foxtail is deeply embedded in the skin or you suspect it is in an area that you cannot easily access (throat/nose/ears/etc.), then you'll want to call your vet immediately. 

A foxtail in the eye can cause serious damage, while a foxtail can in the ear can be so deep inside the ear canal you won't be able to see it.

If you believe your dog has a foxtail in its paw but you can't spot it, you should likely visit a vet anyway. Embedded foxtails can cause abscesses that can spread infection through your dog's entire body. 

Or they can puncture organs and cause internal breeding, and in some cases even enter your dog's brain. Foxtails are serious, and if you know your dog walked through the plant and is displaying signs, don't hesitate.  

How to avoid foxtail problems

Dogs with longer ears and curlier coats are more prone to having foxtail problems, as they can more easily sweep up the seeds. 

It's also a lot harder to spot foxtails if they have ended up on a longer-haired dog. But keep in mind, any dog can have foxtail issues. There are a few ways to try and avoid issues with foxtails, here are a few:

  • Avoid walking your dog through overgrown brush or especially grassy areas
  • If you have foxtail plants in your yard, pull them up and discard them
  • Examine your dog's coat during the high season (late spring/early summer) and beyond if you live in areas where foxtails are especially prevalent
  • Consider trimming long-haired dogs in the summer
  • Check your dog's face and ears, mouth, gums, and paws after a walk

Summary

Foxtails can be a serious problem for your dog, but if you stay vigilant and keep an eye on its behavior and health after camping, hiking, or long walks, you should be okay. 

Avoiding dense, overgrown areas will help cut down on the chance that your dog even encounters a foxtail, and keeping its fur nice and cropped will hopefully avoid them sweeping one up. 

However, if you believe that your dog has come in contact with a foxtail and may have one embedded in its skin or in its throat, eyes, ears, or nose, do not hesitate to call your vet as it can be a very serious and even fatal problem.