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Articles by Dr. Tesluk


Dr. Stephen Tesluk, DVM


Just a couple of weeks ago, I remember musing about the perfect spring we’ve had this year.  “Every spring should be just like this!” I gushed.  “Wet and cool; everything is so lush and green, and the lakes and rivers are full – it’s all good.”  Now, I generally try to stay away from superlatives and emphatic statements, but I believe I was suffering from a brief dementia know as spring fever at that time.  As great as our spring was, it was not “all good.”  There has been a downside for our furry companions – the bumper crop of foxtails this year.

            Anyone who has taken a shortcut an un-mowed field in the middle of summer has had a close encounter with the various types of seed heads known as foxtails; the dry, stiff, pointed and barbed devils that you can never get completely out of your socks.  The product of eons of evolution, many plants have perfected this simple dispersal mechanism; grab on to anything that moves and don’t let go.  Foxtails, also known as grass awns, come in many shapes and sizes; from the large, bushy seed heads to the tiny, hair-like single seed variety, but they all have the ability to grab onto your pet’s coat and then work their way to, and through, their skin.  Once through the skin, they continue to migrate, depositing bacteria in their wake causing infection.  The body cannot break down the cellulose that makes up the awns; the most it can do is wall off the intruder with scar tissue.  But the foxtail shelters the bacteria from white blood cells, so in many cases the body cannot eliminate the infection.  Foxtails commonly enter the body between the toes, but they can get through anywhere there is enough hair to hold them.  They can also cause problems in the ears, nose, mouth, and eyes.

            The classic sign of a penetrating foxtail is non-healing, oozing wound.  These wounds may be small and obscured by hair – so many owners may only notice their dog licking its feet.  A sudden onset of head shaking may signal a foxtail in the ear.  A sudden onset of head shaking may signal a foxtail in the ear.  A foxtail in the nose causes repetitive sneezing fits or a one-sided nasal discharge.  A dog or cat that greets its owner with one swollen, red eye this time of year has a foxtail in that eye until proven otherwise.  When presented with a penetrating foxtail, a veterinarian will try to remove it.  In places like the nose, ear or eye, the awn can be visualized and extraction is straightforward.  When the foxtail has completely penetrated the skin, most vets will probe up the tract with a long tweezers, blindly attempting to grab and extract it.  As some of these awns may be only an eight of an inch long and as thin as a hair, some may go unrecovered despite the careful and thorough efforts of the doctor.  A course of antibiotics is required and tracts that have been cleared of foxtails will heal quickly.  If a tract not heal, or reopens after the antibiotics are finished, the owner must decide on another blind probe or a more invasive surgical procedure where the tract is dissected open to allow visualization of the foxtail.  These procedures, along with the anesthesia or sedation and antibiotic that may be required, can be costly – so in the case of foxtails, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.

            Here are a few suggestions that will lower your pet’s risk for foxtails.  First, whenever possible cut them down – try to cut the tall grasses in your pet’s environment once a month April through June.  If possible, pick up the clippings, because dried awns on the ground can still penetrate.  Second, check your pet’s body daily, particularly the feet, and remove any awns that you see.  For pets with exuberant coats and furry paws, consider clipping the hair coat short and clipping the hair on the feet down to the skin.  Known as a “field cut,” this decreases the ability of the awn to get a foothold (no pun intended) and makes it easier for the owner to spot and remove it.  Owners may have to get used to seeing their dog in “poodle feet,” but I have a feeling any dog would choose poodle feet over scourge of the foxtail every time.

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