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Foxtails (Grass Awns) in Cats and Dogs
Dogs and cats
Foxtails, or grass awns, are arrow-shaped stickers that are produced by some types of grasses that have gone to seed. Foxtails carry grass seeds. They evolved to embed in the skin and be spread by animals.
Foxtails cause a large number of problems for pets. Their shape promotes deep penetration into, as well as movement (migration) within the skin. Foxtails have the potential to cause infection and irritation in any area of the body in which they occur.
Foxtails commonly embed in the skin, ears, eyes, and nose. They may lodge in the throat, particularly behind the tonsils. They can occur in the penis or vulva. Foxtails can migrate throughout the body, causing irritation and infection in the lungs, heart, and other internal organs.
The symptoms of an embedded foxtail depend its location.
- The skin and the area under the skin are the most common sites for foxtails in pets. The most frequently affected areas are the feet (especially the webbed areas between the toes) and the anterior portions of the chest and shoulders. Foxtails embedded in or under the skin cause swelling, pain, redness, and drainage of clear or bloody fluid from the site. Pets often lick the affected area of skin, and hair loss may occur. Limping is common if a foxtail is embedded in the foot.
- Foxtails located in the eye cause severe swelling, pain, and discharge in the affected eye. The eye usually will be held tightly closed.
- If located in the nose, foxtails usually cause violent sneezing (cats, dogs). Mucus or blood may drain from one nostril.
- Foxtails located in the ear may cause head shaking, scratching or pawing at the ear, and an abnormal posture with one ear tilted downwards. An ear infection may develop in the affected ear, or the eye on the affected side may begin to appear abnormal.
- Foxtails that lodge behind the tonsils may cause a dry, honking cough (cats, dogs) or frequent, hard swallowing.
- Foxtails that migrate through the body can lodge in the lungs, heart, or other internal organs and may cause severe lethargy, lack of appetite, weight loss, coughing, or difficulty breathing.
- Foxtails occur in grassy, outdoor areas. Animals that hunt or play in uncut grass are at highest risk. Animals that do not go outside or that do not have access to grassy areas are at low risk.
- Geography affects risk. Foxtails are very common in some areas (such as northern California), and less common in others (such as dense forests or deserts).
- Due to feline grooming habits foxtails are less likely to remain embedded in the skin of cats than that of dogs. However, foxtails can occur in either species.
- Animals with long, thick hair are more likely to attract and collect foxtails. Foxtails may blend in and go unnoticed (and therefore un-removed) in animals with tawny or straw colored hair.
- Pets that squat to urinate on seeded grass are at risk of a foxtail lodging in their genitalia.
- Pets that eat seeded grass are at risk for foxtails lodging behind the tonsils or in the mouth or throat.
Regardless of location, foxtails cause pain and irritation. They very frequently cause infection in the surrounding area. Foxtails in the skin may cause chronic draining sores. In the eye, foxtails can cause ulcers and infection. Foxtails in the ear can cause ear infections, and can penetrate the ear drum to cause hearing damage and neurological problems.
Until they are removed, foxtails often cause chronic infection in and irritation to the structure in which they are located. The long-term nature of these issues can be extremely frustrating.
Foxtails have a tendency to migrate through the body, and can move to areas such as the lungs, heart, liver, or other internal organs. When located in these sites severe illness and death can occur.
Consistent symptoms combined with potential exposure to grass awns leads to suspicion of an embedded foxtail in a pet. A confirmed diagnosis occurs when a foxtail is located.
In many instances, foxtails are difficult to locate. This can lead to significant frustration. Foxtails are not visible on X-rays. However, inflammation and swelling associated with foxtails may be detectable on X-rays or CT (computerized tomography) scans.
If a foxtail can be located, physical removal is the most effective treatment. Depending on the location, sedation or anesthesia may be required to search for and remove a foxtail.
Antibiotics often are used to treat infections that foxtails have triggered. Affected areas may be cleaned and flushed with antiseptic solutions. Pain killers are appropriate in many cases.
If a foxtail is suspected but cannot be located and removed, long-term antibiotics often are coupled with aggressive flushing and cleaning of the affected area.
After a foxtail is located and removed, most symptoms resolve rapidly over 24 - 96 hours. Persistent symptoms may indicate the presence of additional foxtails or of other medical problems.
If a foxtail is suspected but cannot be located and removed, follow-up evaluation by a veterinarian may be necessary during the treatment period. In some cases, procedures to search for and remove foxtails must be repeated several times.
Foxtails are a frequent nuisance in people. They often lodge in socks and trousers of people who walk through tall grass.
Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM. All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.