Foxtails - Plants of Concern

Record-setting amounts of winter rain were so welcome for California this year.  We have green hills and full reservoirs after years of drought.  We also have a thick carpet of plants, which become a concern when pets get into some that cause problems.

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Foxtails are the most notorious of these. They have arrow-shaped plant seed appearing with fox tail- fluffs of one directional barbs, which allow them to move only in a forward direction.  These plant awns move into the nose, ear, eye, interdigital areas of feet and other sites of direct skin contact and sometimes even the lungs of dogs and cats, who travel through high grass and fields.  Dogs who chase balls and Frisbees at a high speed can suck these plant awns into their lungs and cause an abrupt cough.  In each of these locations, the plant awns can cause serious damage. In some cases, they migrate through the body and resulting in the loss of an eye, a lung lobe with a severe chest infection or the creation of abscesses in body cavities.  Rare but documented is the migration of the foxtail from the nose or eye to the brain, or from the lungs to the spinal cord. 

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If you have these plants on your property, do your best to cut them down when green before drying out can create firmer more dangerous seeds. If your pet has sudden shaking of the head (ear); paroxysmal sneezing sometimes with blood (nose); closing of an eye and discharge from that eye; or a sudden onset cough after running hard through a field- then a foreign body such as a foxtail is a strong possibility and warrants a trip to the veterinarian.  

Grasses and sticks in fields are also a concern.  In the course of my career using bronchoscopy- which is a digital video scope used to examine the deep nasal passages, trachea and the airways of the lungs- I have removed sticks, grass, pine branches and rocks from the respiratory tracts of both cats and dogs.  A very important part of differentiating a foreign body as the source of coughing or sneezing is the history of recent activities for that pet, the environment in which it lives and the acuteness of the signs.  Usually, the presence of a foreign body means acute onset – essentially zero to 60 in a cough or sneeze. 

Dogs like to eat grass and both they and cats may have the rough surface of grass catch on the soft tissue of the mouth and soft palate.  Cats allowed outside who appear to be swallowing hard or who don’t want to eat might have grass caught in the back of their throat- particularly if a foul smell develops in their mouths. These grasses need to be pulled out under anesthesia because the small barbs on the grass grab the tissues of the throat requiring traction to dislodge them.   

I have removed sticks from the trachea and throat of dogs (and 1 cat). Often these are exuberant dogs that have run hard and inadvertently impaled themselves or aspirated plant material.  Again a sudden onset of cough and mouth pain are indicative of foreign material being lodged. Some dogs who like to chew sticks may break off a small piece in the back of their mouths creating a nidus for infection that will show up as facial swelling or pain on chewing sometimes associated with a foul smell in the mouth.

In this celebratory Spring where the green and sunshine brings smiles to our faces, keep your pets safe by removing high grasses and foxtails on your property and watching for signs of a foxtails or grasses affecting your pet. 

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM