Foxtails and dogs: understanding the risks and how to protect your pup

June 21, 2024 - 4 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Dr. Rebecca MacMillan on June 21, 2024 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

Close-up of a dog's leg with a foxtail grass seed stuck in its fur, next to an image of foxtail grass in the wild.

Foxtails might sound harmless. At worst, they get stuck in your hiking socks and your dog's fur, right?

Unfortunately, these pesky plants can pose serious risks to our pups—even requiring surgery to remove them!

As a dog owner, being aware of the dangers foxtails present and knowing how to prevent and treat injuries can save your pet from discomfort and even severe health issues.

Let's dive into the details.

What are foxtails?

person's thumb and forefinger holding foxtail weed in front of blue sky

The term "foxtail" refers to the seed heads of several types of grasses, including some species of wild barley, ryegrass, and brome, which can include cheatgrass. (They often resemble a bushy foxtail, hence the name.)

These seeds can be found all over the world—along roadsides, in parks, fields, or even in your own backyard. But they're especially plentiful in the Western United States in late spring and summer.

When they're soft, green, and pliable, they may seem harmless. But they quickly become a dangerous problem when they dry out and harden, which makes it quite a bit easier for them to attach to or embed themselves in your pup.

dog's hind end in field of foxtails

How foxtails affect dogs

Foxtail problems are fairly common in the summer months (in warmer climates, the season might be extended).

In one study spanning 2009–2018, researchers found that about 0.25% of 754 dogs studied had run-ins with foxtails.

Young to middle-aged dogs were especially at risk, and they were most commonly found in their ears, embedded in their skin, and up their noses.

corgi running happily through a field of tall grasses

Their pointed ends and barbs mean that they can only move in one direction, often leading to deeper penetration.

Once embedded, they can migrate through the body, causing pain and potentially serious health issues. Here are a few.

Health risks of foxtails French Bulldog sitting in a field full of foxtails

The real trouble begins when foxtails embed and lead to infections and abscesses.

If left untreated, these can result in severe complications such as organ damage or respiratory issues. Here's a story from one dog owner on Reddit:

Here at ManyPets, we've seen a plethora of claims for foxtail injuries ranging from $90 to $2,400, depending on the severity of the problem. The top three most expensive claims were for foxtails that required surgery to be removed from pups' noses.

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Symptoms of foxtail injury in dogs

Recognizing the signs of a foxtail injury can help you act quickly. Here’s what to look for based on the location of the injury:

  • Ears: head shaking, scratching, and ear discharge.

  • Nose: sneezing, nasal discharge, and pawing at the face.

  • Paws: limping, swelling, and excessive licking.

  • Skin: redness, swelling, pus, or an abscess.

A lot of these symptoms look like they could relate to other issues (like an ear infection or allergies). So how can you tell if it's a foxtail?

In many cases, you can't. Many owners aren't even aware their pups have embedded foxtails until they visit the vet for what they believe is a different issue.

Here's a story from one dog owner on Reddit:

I started to notice my dog shaking her head constantly, and her ear was very sensitive to touch. I looked in it and saw nothing; I thought it may be an ear infection. Thank goodness the vet had an opening the next day. Sure enough, she had a foxtail lodged so deep in her ear that you couldn't see it without a scope.

The moral of the story? Always see your vet if your dog's showing any concerning signs—even if you don't think they've encountered any foxtails!

First aid and treatment

If you suspect your dog has a foxtail injury, it's time to take action—but not necessarily on your own.

In some cases, it's pretty obvious your dog has a foxtail. You might be able to remove it if it's visible and not deeply embedded, but generally, we don't recommend it.

First off, there could be other hidden foxtails you might be missing, and infection could crop up.

That, and even the most well-behaved pup might snap when faced with tweezers. Head to the vet!

Veterinary treatments for foxtails

vet wearing red shirt and white coat examines black dog's paw atop an operating table.

Veterinarians have several methods to treat foxtail injuries, including:

  • Removal: Vets use specialized tools to carefully remove foxtails from sensitive areas like ears, noses, or deep within the skin.

  • Antibiotics: To prevent or treat infections caused by embedded foxtails, vets often prescribe antibiotics.

  • Surgery: In severe cases, surgical procedures might be necessary to remove deeply embedded foxtails or to address complications caused by their migration through the body.

How to prevent foxtail injuries

Again, you might not be aware your dog has a foxtail injury. Those things can be sneaky!

So just do your best to make sure to report any symptoms to your vet and stay on top of routine wellness appointments.

Dog being cleaned

ManyPets Wellness Plan for Dogs

Save on preventative care for your pup

The non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for the cost of routine and preventative care, including routine vet visits and certain over-the-counter products.

Dog being cleaned

Here are a few other tips for avoiding foxtail injuries.

Avoid tall grass

One of the best ways to protect your dog is by avoiding foxtail-prone areas, especially during peak seasons.

Stick to paths and avoid letting your dog roam through tall, dry grass (which is also where fleas and ticks also like to hang out).

If you have a yard, mow your grass short to reduce the risk of foxtails, and make sure to deal with any invasions by digging them out, using herbicides, and re-seeding affected areas before they take over.

Make grooming a habit

jack russell terrier being brushed by its owner with a black brush

Regular grooming is key to your pup's well-being—not just to keep foxtail problems at bay but also to keep an eye on their overall health. It's also a great way to bond.

You should keep the hair well trimmed between your dog’s toes if they have fluffy feet. Foxtails are more likely to get trapped in long fur, where they may gradually enter your dog’s skin unnoticed. 

If you're finding it tough to stay on top of grooming sessions, find a groomer you trust nearby and set up regular appointments.

Look into protective gear

dog having shoes put on by person wearing red and yellow vest

If tall grasses and foxtail-prone areas are an inevitable part of your adventures, think about using protective gear like booties, vests, and even this shield for your dog's mouth, eyes, and nose.

Check, check, and check again

After outdoor activities, make it a habit to check your dog thoroughly. Look in their ears, nose, paws (between the toes), and fur for any signs of foxtails. Early detection can prevent serious injuries!

By avoiding risky areas and performing regular checks, you can reduce your pup's risk of collecting foxtails.

Of course, you can't plan for every health issue that might crop up in your dog's life, and foxtail injuries are just one of those things!

That's where pet insurance comes in handy. It's designed to help you pay for unexpected accidents and illnesses, as long as they're covered and not pre-existing.

Find out more today!

CTA _17

Top-ranked* dog insurance

We've got your dog's back (even if it's in a brace).

ManyPets offers nose-to-tail dog insurance for accidents and illnesses at competitive prices with no hidden fees. *According to Forbes Advisor’s “Best Pet Insurance of 2023”

CTA _17

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.