Are Foxtail Plants Hazardous to Dogs and Cats?

May 5, 2014

By Linda Cole

Foxtail is a grass named for its resemblance to a fox tail; it grows in every state expect Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and Hawaii. It’s also widespread in Canada and some parts of Mexico. Foxtail is a generic name used to describe several different species of grasses, but it’s associated mainly with wild barley or Canadian Rye. Many pet owners have no idea how dangerous this innocent-looking, fuzzy grass can be to dogs and cats. Foxtail can cause serious injury, and can be life-threatening.

What makes foxtail grass so dangerous are the tiny barbed awns that allows it to attach to dogs, cats, your socks or other clothing. Grass seed is enclosed inside a sheath at the top of the plant and the awn is part of that. The purpose of the awn is to burrow the seed into the ground, but it’s also a means of transporting seeds to other areas. When hunting dogs, hiking canines and even cats go racing through grasses containing dried seeds, the awns get stuck to their coats, between their toes and pads, inhaled through the nose, or ingested. The wind can blow them onto your pet, as well.

Once on a dog or cat, these dagger-like awns move through their coat and can become embedded in the skin. Awns can move through the body to the lungs, colon, urethra, digestive tract, and any other part of the body. Left untreated, these nasty barbed spikes can cause serious infections and internal abscesses, and can turn deadly for some pets.

Because the awns are like tiny fish hooks, they move in just one direction through the body and can be difficult to remove once they’ve become embedded. They’re usually found in the nose, ears, paws, hind end and underbelly, but can be anywhere on your pet. Once an awn has gotten under the skin or entered the body, it’s powerful enough to penetrate the ear drum, work its way through a paw into a leg, or find its way into the lungs, other organs or the brain. The movement of the pet causes the awn to work through the coat and into the skin.


● Grooming more than usual, excessive licking of paws or pads, swollen area between the toes

● A small hole in the skin, which is where an awn entered the body

● Any signs of swelling or painful lumps on the body

● Sores, puss or abscesses

● Head shaking from side to side, head tilt, discharge from the ears, pain or odor

● Bleeding from the genitals

● Limping

● Pawing at the nose, violent sneezing or a bloody nose

● Squinting, redness in the eye, eye pain, excessive tearing, discharge or pawing at the eye

● Gagging, loud cough, exaggerated swallowing motions or an odor from the mouth

● Any sign of pain at all


The best way to protect your pet is to know what foxtail looks like and where it’s likely to be found, and avoid letting your pet wander through overgrown grassy areas. Foxtail grows like a weed alongside roads, in ditches, in open fields, along mountain trails, along fences, in landfills and vacant lots, and can sometimes be found in lawns. The critical time is when foxtail becomes dry and brittle, which usually runs from May through December. Keep your pet out of areas where this grass grows, and if you have foxtail in your yard pull it up or mow it, rake up the grass, and dispose of it.

Make sure to give your dog or cat a thorough inspection and combing if they’ve been romping through tall grass. Check between the toes, paw pads, ears, nose, eyes, inside the mouth, gums, his underbelly, neck and under the collar. Foxtail awns can be hard to find in a pet’s coat, especially long haired dogs and cats. They won’t come out on their own. As long as you can see an awn you can remove it with tweezers, unless it’s embedded or the area around it is swollen or red.

To make sure you get the entire awn and nothing is left behind, it’s best to have your vet remove partially or fully embedded foxtail awns. If you notice any of the above symptoms, call your vet immediately. He can find where the awn entered the body, follow the path it took via infection, and remove it. However, if the awn goes unnoticed, finding and removing it after symptoms develop can require major surgery, and can be fatal.

Top photo by Kim MyoungSung
Middle photo by John Tann
Bottom photo by Matt Lavin

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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