May 20, 2007


No, you won't find them in the Encycloweedia. Ask any California dog person, though, and chances are she'll name the foxtail, Hordeum murinum, as the state's most noxious plant.

Those are my sneakers after a recent [unplanned] walk through a friend's pasture. Worth a thousand words, no? You can click on the photo for a larger, dog's eye view of foxtail stick-to-itiveness.

It's clear why so many California stockdogs are slick-coats. No coat type is completely safe from foxtails, but rough-coated dogs are foxtail magnets, and if the foxtail awns aren't carefully removed from a dog's coat they can burrow into the skin and migrate throughout the body. Foxtail awns are like tiny porcupine quills: they are designed to go in and stay in. Untreated, a burrowing awn can be disastrous, even fatal. Scary photos.

More foxtail danger: any dog can sniff up part of a foxtail when the awns are dry and scattered on the ground. At a sheepdog trial years ago, I saw a dog sneeze until he was spraying blood after he'd inhaled a foxtail. (His handler rushed him to the emergency vet.) It's not unheard of for a sheepdog trial to be cancelled if the foxtails are particularly bad.

Resident bloggers Christie and Gina over at Pet Connection Blog both spent this weekend at the vet's, worrying over dogs with embedded foxtails. Gina's dog McKenzie and Christie's Rebel will need additional surgery to locate and remove foxtail awns. If your dog needs to be anesthetized for foxtail removal --- after sniffing one up, say --- or for any other reason, please be sure you've read the terrific Pet Connection report on veterinary anesthesia.

How to avoid the foxtail risk? Keep your dogs out of areas where foxtails are dry and most likely to fasten to anything they touch. The awns can get into a dog's eyes, nose or ears. Foxtail awns that are broken apart and scattered on the ground are less dangerous, though they can be sniffed up.

And whenever you come home from walking or working your dog during foxtail season, go over your dog with a fine-toothed comb. Literally.

When I get home from the farm, I set my border collie on the "grooming table" [ours is an old cabinet topped with a carpet sample] and groom her from nose to tail. I start with a slicker brush or an undercoat rake and progress, every time, to the proverbial fine-toothed comb. My dogs are slick-coats, so this doesn't take too long. I comb forwards, backwards and sideways, and may comb through the same area several times before I spot a stubborn little awn. I check every orifice. (Stockdog bitches seem to have a knack for collecting a foxtail or two around the vulva.) I check carefully between the toes, and I check the bottoms of the feet.

And after we're done on the grooming table, I settle down on the kitchen floor and check my dog's underside while she's lying on her back.

I may go for days or weeks with no sign of a foxtail --- but just when I start asking myself why I'm grooming so religiously, I'll find an awn between my dog's toes. Eternal vigilence...

The extra-careful grooming during foxtail season takes a bit of time. But in nearly twenty years working sheep with dogs in Southern California, I've only taken a dog to the vet once [knock wood] for a foxtail --- I was working my good dog Piper too close to an area where the foxtails were high, and one broke apart in her ear. A quick trip to the emergency vet and she was good as new, and I've been more careful in the years since.

A dog owner's guide to California foxtails.


Julie said...

Wow- I had absolutely no idea about Foxtails! I'm new to the West and foxtails are new to me. I will be sure to keep an eye on my pooch. Thanks.

Unknown said...

my dog just had one remove from her nose, was over 1.5 inches deep. cost $550. i never knew, expensive lesson

Luisa said...

Ed, I hope your dog has a quick recovery. Foxtails are awful.

Three Dog Days said...

I just found a foxtail in my dog's eye. Luckily I was able to remove it. She is a shaggy dog and hiking and her coat are a bad combination. My short coated Malinois works much better for Southern Califoria in foxtail season... which is pretty much year round. Due to foxtails and other dry brush related issues, I will probably be sticking with short coated dogs from now on.