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The Only Good Foxtail is a Dead Foxtail!
by John Harmon
July 27, 2003

It's the time of the year again when after getting a little rain the weeds are going nuts. That includes the foxtail. Once planted as an ornamental this perennial weed is a serious danger to animals. I've had a couple of people ask me about what it is and how to take care of it. Please don't help it along! The only good foxtail is a dead foxtail! I talked about foxtail a couple of years ago but here's the information in case you missed it.

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) (I know it's a dead language again and if it's the wrong name please don't tell me). This is a perennial weedy grass that's found primarily along the edges of fields, waste places, and roadsides. It gets its name from its 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 could 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. Careful daily combing or a close whole-body trim can prevent this. 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 are 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 the head or pawing at the 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.

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.

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