The Worst Sound a Dog Owner Can Hear

Foxtails can lead to a medical emergency - thankfully that was avoided this time around.

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This is the time of year that all dog owners who live in any of the western states, particularly in any part of California, will freeze in fear when they hear their dog sneeze. If the dog sneezes more than once in a row, they drop whatever they were doing and run to look at the dog. And if the dog sneezes violently again and again, most of us are reaching for their car keys and cell phone simultaneously, looking up the number of the emergency vet.

My California compadres know what I’m talking about: the dreaded foxtail in our dog’s nose.

Foxtail” is the common name for a few species of grass that have fox-tail-shaped reproductive structures. Hordeum murinum and Hordeum marinum (which appear across most of the western U.S.) cause the most harm to dogs (and other animals). In the spring, when grass is green in the west, the foxtail structures are soft and bushy; as spring turns to summer and the grass dries out, the foxtails also dry out and turn brown. And as summer progresses, the foxtails start to fall apart; those previously bushy structures separate into dozens of individual seeds, each topped with a hard, sharp, arrow-like tip and trailing several long, stiff awns. Each awn is covered with microscopic barbs that grow from the awn in a single direction, away from the seed tip. When these awns come into contact with anything, the barbs help propel the seed relentlessly forward.

These structures help the seeds literally bury themselves in the earth, reseeding the plants that will grow tall and grassy again the next spring. But they also bury themselves deep into any clothing, skin, or fur they come into contact with – and if you grasp one by the awn, to pull it out of your clothing, skin, or hair, the awns tend to break off. Even a tiny portion of an awn that’s connected to the seed tip will keep propelling the seed forward

If a dog, walking through the grass, gets one lodged between his toes, the seed will penetrate the skin and start to travel into the dog’s foot and even up into the leg. The discomfort makes most dogs start to lick the place where the seed broke the skin – which pushes the seed further and further into the dog’s flesh.

removing foxtail from dog ear
Veterinarian team removing foxtail from dog’s ear. ©Whole Dog Journal

Dogs also get foxtails in their eyes, where the seeds can burrow back into the eye socket; ears, where the seeds can penetrate the ear drum and even enter the brain; in their genitalia, where the seeds can cause excruciating pain. But most commonly of all, dogs can accidentally sniff foxtail seeds into their noses as they are smelling the ground. And the moment a light-weight, stiff, bristly, awn enters the dog’s nose, you know it, because almost every dog will immediately and violently SNEEZE, again and again. I just read a Facebook post of one of my dog-owning friends, whose dog sneezed so explosively, trying to dislodge a foxtail in her nose, that she broke one of her canine teeth on the floor, and had to be rushed to the vet for not only for removal of the foxtail in her nose, but also, surgical removal of the painfully broken tooth. 

So imagine my horror when, on deadline, sleep-deprived, and working around the clock, I heard my 6-month-old puppy Boone walk into the kitchen this morning, and SNEEZE, SNEEZE, SNEEZE! “Boone, noooooo!” I cried, as I immediately envisioned spending the next 10 hours at an emergency vet’s office (they are all seriously overburdened with patients and understaffed at the moment).

But the gods took pity on me and the best sort of foxtail miracle seemed to occur: It seems that the awn whisked right through Boone’s nose, into his throat, and down his esophagus – the best case scenario. After another minute or two of sneezing and rubbing his nose with his paws, Boone gagged, coughed, and swallowed, and that was that –no more sneezing or rubbing his nose (dogs seem to be able to digest any swallowed awns, thank goodness). Most of the time, foxtail awns that enter the nose end up lodging deep in the folding nasal passages, or stuck in some crevice in the back of the throat, where they can dig into the tissues and travel into the sinuses, the back of the eye, or even the brain. Ack!

Any dog can accidentally sniff a foxtail into his nose during any casual smelling of a field or weeds on the edge of a sidewalk; my son’s dog, a hound-mix named Cole, once inhaled a foxtail within a minute of arriving at my house after a three-hour drive; he started sneezing when I was still hugging my son “Hello”! My son had to put Cole back into his car immediately and head to a vet. An hour and $200 later, they were back, only a little worse for wear, with Cole needing a quiet room to sleep off the sedative he was given for the foxtail removal.

outfox field guard on dog
© Whole Dog Journal

But my point is, while any dog can sniff up a foxtail, some dogs seem more prone to it. Hounds, hunting dogs, and others who use their noses more than the average dog are most at risk, as are (it seems) young dogs, who are still in the habit of enthusiastically and excitedly investigating everything in their world by smelling. Which will explain why, if you happen to drop by my house this summer, you might see a young dog with a mesh bag over his head. No, Boone isn’t being punished, but I’m ordering an Outfox Field Guard for him today. It’s the only tool I am aware of that can keep a sniffy dog safe during foxtail “season.” My nerves just can’t take any more sneezing fits!

19 COMMENTS

    • I was going to order the Medium for Boone, but saw that it was out of stock, so I ordered the Small (he was right on the border anyway). But I didn’t look at the availability of the larger sizes. I will call Outfox and ask when they think they will be restocked and post here.

  1. This Outfox Field Guard works for poop eaters, and I have a Cavalier that is obsessed with pine straw used in the Southeast instead of much and the pine trees dump it as well 🙂 So if you have a dog in a different area that has Coppa philia … this is also for you!

    • If only! The first step is recognizing them. They aren’t present everywhere. The fields where I take my dogs to run in our local “wildlife area” are full of tall dried grasses, but no foxtails. Ironically, they tend to be in places where people have tried to get ride of them, because the most common weed-eradication methods (mowing and string trimmers) literally broadcast the seeds, helping the plant spread.

      I have them in spots all over my property. Some people spray the grass early in its development to kill the plants before they sprout the problematic reproductive structures (the “fox tails”). That works, but I won’t use Roundup on my property. Mowing is problematic, because unless your mower has a bagging feature, mowing just scatters the seeds everywhere – and even the best bagging feature misses some. Also, if you mow early, the plant will start to sprout the foxtails practically right at the ground level, where you CAN’T even mow them. String trimmers are even worse; they act as seed broadcasters! If you burn the plants without burning down your town, that works…The only other tactic that works to eradicate them takes years, and it’s hand-pulling them and disposing them in your “green waste” bin. You can’t even compost them, because the seeds survive. I do a lot of weed-pulling in the spring, and the patches are slowly getting smaller, but there are still a lot.

      I check my dogs’ paws daily, but neither of the adult dogs seem to have trouble with the ones that do grow and get mowed on my property (knock wood). So far, Boone is a little sticker magnet. I hope his coat develops some of the Teflon-like quality of Otto’s coat.

      • I was going to ask about hand pulling. My front yard isn’t that big. I don’t own a mower, only a string trimmer. But my favorite method in dealing with weeds is pulling. (Got rid of all of the oxalis that way.) When the ground is still soft, I dig and loosen with a shovel, then pull and remove anything green and as many roots as I can find and then move on. It is labor intensive but little by little I cover the ground. Once my raised beds are in place the area will be much less to cover. The raised beds are soft and really easy to weed if that becomes necessary. I don’t compost anything pulled from the ground. And no clippings either. Everything gets bagged for the landfill. We do have a composting area but you can’t bring roots, dirt or certain weeds and plants so rather than try to sort it all gets bagged and disposed of.

        I will say this. I would rather deal with foxtails than ticks.

  2. I tried the pulling weeds idea. As you said, it’s a never-ending problem. I did a complete reseed of the lawn, and after that failed, did a complete resod. Twice. Nope. I gave up and after a lot of research, decided to install artificial grass. I took out the pool years ago to give the dogs room to run and play, so now I have a big flat green yard. No water (drought-resistant), no harsh chemicals (weedkiller and pesticides), no maintenance (gas-fueled mowers, edgers), other than sweep with a broom, and hose or “shampoo’ occasionally, to keep it free of dog urine smell. Yes, it gets hot in the summer. I have a 10×10 canopy up throughout the year…shade in the summer and shelter in the winter…and there are always shaded areas depending on time of day. The initial cost is expensive but the savings from all of the above add up quickly. And the dogs love it. One other note: My front yard is areas of drought resistant plants with a narrow green artificial turf pathway running through it. I cut up leftover turf and did it myself. Looks gorgeous. I get lots of compliments. The most I do is brush it once in a while to get rid of leaves. Bottom line, foxtails are NOT an issue, other than on walks.

    • I’ve been trying to kill the 50 year old Bermuda that was in my front yard when I bought my house 30 year’s ago. It’s now at least 80 years old, maybe older and it still crops up. I’m now in the process of putting four large raised beds in the front to be a victory garden of sorts, but the Bermuda keeps creeping in. I’m wondering if I put artificial grass between and around the beds, if that would help.

      I really hate grass and have tried almost everything to get rid of it, but I read a university did an experiment and after digging down over 12 feet and still finding the Bermuda rhizomes they gave up. I really don’t want to go the chemical route. I covered it with carpet to smother it and deny it sunlight for five years and when I removed the carpet, it came right back. It gets no water and we’ve had extensive drought years but it still comes back. If it weren’t for the raised beds that are intended for vegetables I think I would try the most powerful defoliant I could buy without being a secret military organization. But I expect it would still come back.

  3. I have read from several sources that foxtail awns DO NOT dissolve in the stomach thereby still creating a hazard. Have you read otherwise?

  4. I’ve been putting my Outfox Field Guard on my GSP when we walk in foxtail infested areas. The foxtails seem to have dried up early this year. I also work at an emergency veterinary hospital and have been seeing many dogs coming in sneezing.
    My dog is not thrilled with wearing it, but I am happy to have some kind of protection. People give strange looks, I say it’s her foxtail mask!

  5. Oh man, it sounds like a nerve-wracking thing to have to be constantly vigilant (though totally necessary as I now know!) But it’s one of the few reasons to be GLAD one lives in the eastern mid-West, where these evil pain-propagating fauna don’t live (as far as I know ( maybe to the south in more rural parts of Ohio??) I’m so sorry that you have to have this on your dog-health & wellness radar! Nonetheless, as a non-professional editor (read: pain-in-the-butt to many of my friends who write) I have to take issue more generally with the title, a serious thing here. I’m not trying to be morbid but– uugh!– it’s something I’ve heard just ONCE- and that is all I ever hope to hear it. The TRULY worst sound that a dog -or cat- owner could hear (when their pet is outside for some reason) is the sudden big squealing of car brakes and, instantly after, a high-pitched yelp, or feline shriek! No further explanation needed. ( with event I mentioned, it wasn’t MY dog, but a neighbor’s: luckily, he survived!)

  6. My McNab, Clipper, has worn the Outfox when outside in Spring/Summer for two years. He can still catch balls and frisbees and doesn’t seem to mind it at all. It’s great to come up to Butte County 3400′ and no foxtails YET!

  7. Ah, yes. I remember our childhood dog Cuppy getting more than one foxtail under the skin. One in her…private parts. Ouch. And one between the toes. Both had festered enough they were easily spotted and removed by the vet. I was put on toe duty and would check her pretty regularly.

    None of my other dogs have had them. (yet). I think I caught a few on Ramses before they were able to work themselves into him. Nothing serious.

    So far nothing with Diana pawPrints or my parent’s Dolly . Dolly has very short smooth fur so easily seen and not much to get caught on. He’s a smidgen coonhound but doesn’t spend much time outdoors sniffing. and no foxtails in the yard that I could see.

    Diana will be four in October and has never had a problem with them, but my yard doesn’t have them either.

    Now Freyja is the fluffy one but so far, her fur seems to be very clean and free from any dry vegetation she might brush against in the yard. Not sure if that is a Husky thing, a Border Collie thing or she’s just lucky. She doesn’t like the brush much but I’m trying to get her over that. Diana loves it and would stand and let me brush her until she was bald if I let her.

    I see almost all of the sizes are sold out. It seems a simple design. I’m wondering if I can sew some with some light screening and an elastic tie.

  8. For many reasons ‘Roundup ‘ should NEVER be used… EVER, for your pets sake, your sake, any living creatures sake. There are ways with more environmentally friendly products ( usually contain iron etc.) Look at the line from bonine and others that work as great without all the toxins. Trading poison for the foxtail isn’t a good idea for anyone. There are all kinds of vinegar, lemon juice… and more “hacks” out there to make anyone’s tails wag.😉 So best wishes to all humans and their furry loved ones, for a happy healthy summer… from myself, Dash (an Australian/American shepherd) and all of us ” down on the farm” in Oregon!

  9. OutFox masks are a godsend. My Lab has pica. He eats rocks. He’s had 3 obstructions, 2 surgeries (3rd time he had 3 enemas and passed the rock). We had considered putting him down because we couldn’t find a solution and didn’t want to subject him to abdominal surgery every few months, not to mention the cost of surgery. Now he wears an OutFox mask whenever he’s outside, even if we are there to supervise. He has an incurable condition that we have to manage for the rest of his life.

  10. This a great article and woudn’t hurt to be one of those topics published every month as a reminder.
    Everyone….look up under homeopathic remedies, the following, and see if it may be useful to have on hand in the future: Silicea

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