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The Dangers Of Foxtail
by John Harmon
August 27, 2000

I don’t know about you folks but I’m seriously considering building an ark. At the very least I’m keeping the canoe handy if this rain keeps up. Lets hope it lets up some before this weekend in time for the Klondyke Harvest Fair. Keep in mind that the fair has moved to the Takhini Softball Complex for the year 2000.

If you notice your neighbors out along the roads near their property with gunny sacks collecting weeds they are not crazy! They are getting rid of a pest weed from the grass family called foxtail. The scientific name is Hordeum jubatum (Family Poaceae). This is a perennial weedy grass that’s found primarily along the edges of fields, waste places, and roadsides. It gets its name from it’s long bushy flower spikes. Each long slender wiry bristle bears small teeth or barbs that point backwards like tiny fishhooks. It’s the little barbs in the seed heads that are the problem.

This weed is very dangerous to animals. All animals can be affected but grazing animals and outdoor domestic animals are especially at risk. The seed heads of foxtail can cause mechanical irritation to the skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, feet and stomachs of animals. The grasses can cause problems in the pasture as well as in prepared feeds like hay. Embedded seed heads can cause local irritation and infections or become more deeply embedded in tissues and migrate in the body. Irritation and infection often develop.

I talked to the folks at Yukon Veterinary Services about foxtail. Dr. Darrell Smith told me “ We see, on average, two or three cases a week in the summer and fall of dogs and cats with embedded foxtail.” He went on to tell me, “Most of the cases we see are with foxtail embedded in the throat. The seed head usually gets embedded in the tonsils and has to be removed. It can pierce the tonsils and cause infection.” He also told me that more serious problems can occur. He said “ A couple of years ago we had a dog come in with a serious eye infection and after repeated attempts to treat it the only option to save the dog was to remove the eye. We found a small foxtail behind the eye that had embedded and caused the infection. It must have gotten in under the eyelid and migrated behind the eye.”

If your dog or cat has thick woolly hair, foxtails embedded in the coat can burrow through to the skin and into his body. By the time you discover the problem there may be dozens of foxtails that have become difficult or impossible to locate and remove. This can be prevented by careful daily combing or a close whole-body trim. The best time for trimming is just before the fields begin to turn brown and again six or eight weeks later if you live someplace warm. In the north you will want to allow time for the coat to grow out before it hits -40.

Even for animals with short hair, foxtails can get started between the toes and burrow into the feet. This is a worse problem for Spaniels or other dogs with webbed toes but can happen with all breeds. Check your dog's feet every day and remove foxtails before they burrow in. If your dog has long hair between it’s toes, trim it out.

Here’s some of the other signs to watch for in you pets or livestock. Foxtail in the nose: Sudden and extreme sneezing, pawing at nose and/or bleeding from the nostril. Symptoms can diminish after several hours and/or become intermittent. Foxtail in the ear: Tilting and shaking head, pawing at ear, crying, moving stiffly. Foxtail in the eye: Squinting, or the eye suddenly swelling accompanied by tears and/or mucous discharge. Foxtail in the throat: Gagging, retching cough, compulsive grass eating, stretching neck and swallowing. If your animals show any of these symptoms take them in to be checked by a Veterinarian as soon as possible.

The best cure is prevention. Kill any foxtail you can find growing by pulling it up roots and all and then burn them. If you have a bunch of it along a road a propane tiger torch works great. Just remember to be careful about the fire spreading, not that it’s likely to be a problem this week!

I spend many hours every summer hunting down and killing foxtail around my farm but I figure it’s better than the alternative. Even if you don’t have a farm feel free to stop along the road and kill some foxtail. You may save some animal, wild or domestic, from all that pain and discomfort.

John Harmon owns and operates Tropicals North. Write John at The Real Dirt, c/o 211 Wood St., Whitehorse, Y1A 2E4

His site is at

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