Backcountry health & safety


by Susan Bradford, Ph.D.

Foxtails pose a serious threat to dogs, and working dogs are at particular risk since they spend so much time in the field.

The seed head of these grasses is bushy, like a fox's tail. The fan-shaped seeds contain small barbs, which allow foxtails to become lodged in dog fur and humans’ boots or socks. Once firmly embedded in a dog’s fur, foxtails may travel under the skin, causing bleeding, infection and even death.

The signs and symptoms of a foxtail problem may go unnoticed or mistaken for other issues resulting in a severe problem. Because seeds are fan-shaped, they have a single direction path; they easily enter fur and skin but cannot be easily removed.

Caution is required when removing foxtails so that they do not break apart.

What exactly are foxtails?

Foxtails are a group of barley grasses that are predominantly found in California and other western states. Hordeum murinum is the genus and species of wild barley. These annuals produce attractive green seeds in the spring that are somewhat similar in appearance to wheat. Green, young plants do not pose a problem to dogs. In the late spring through summer the seeds turn light brown or tan and then become a hazard to working dogs. The seed heads may range in size from less than an inch to almost 3 inches. The tiny barbs on the seed heads ensure transport of seeds via animals to other locations for germination. Unfortunately, foxtails may also be effectively transported into the tissue of a dog.

The risks

Typically foxtails become painfully embedded in a dog’s paws, ears or muzzle. Paws are obviously susceptible to foxtails for dogs working in the field. Dogs may also inhale foxtails while picking up a scent. Foxtails can also enter the ears and eyes if the plants are at a height similar to the dog’s head. Dogs with long or dense fur may be especially prone to foxtails. If field work is being conducted where foxtails are present avoid having the dog sit or lay in the area since foxtails may also enter via the genitals and/or anus.

What the handler can (and should) do

Handlers should take note of the presence of foxtails in an area that is being worked. If possible, avoid having the dog come in contact with foxtails by staying on a cleared trail or path. Watch how the dog is walking to see if the dog suddenly begins to limp or favor one paw from foxtails. Be prepared to thoroughly check the dog over for foxtails if contact in the field is unavoidable. Obviously, foxtails may also become embedded in the clothing, socks and boots of humans. If foxtails are lodged on human clothes, then there is a great likelihood of foxtails on the working canine.

Signs and symptoms

Foxtails can migrate under the skin and move through tissue, causing pain, swelling, infection and even death.

Since the symptoms may be fairly generic in nature the presence of a foxtail problem can go unnoticed until it is severe problem.

Foxtails in a dog’s paws may lead to excessive licking or even biting of the paws at the point of entry. This can be mistaken for allergies or hot spots. Foxtails embedded in the eye or eyelid will cause excessive squinting and tear production. The dog may continuously shake its head and try to scratch if a foxtail is lodged in the ear. Once in the ear foxtails can migrate through the tissue to the eardrum.

It is also possible for dogs to inhale foxtails resulting in sneezing, coughing and gagging. Diagnosis may be problematic since the foxtail is internalized and cannot be visually detected. Foxtails have the ability to continue to migrate within a dog’s body and become lodged against a bone. Prevention of foxtail infections or worse is the key to safely working a field dog.


The dog should be thoroughly checked for foxtails after each field event. This is a multi-step process that is best conducted with two people so as to not miss the removal of any foxtails present on the dog.

Upon completion of fieldwork, check the dog prior to transporting back home.

Make sure to conduct the foxtail check in an area close to one’s car and free from foxtails. It is frustrating to be removing foxtails from one part of the dog while picking up new ones from the ground. An easy way to check for foxtails as well as any other foreign objects (including burrs, cactus spines, and splinters) is to have one person hold the dog’s front paws and body upright while another person checks for foxtails along the dog’s belly and groin and front paws. The face, ears and muzzle should be carefully checked too. The tail, anus and back paws should then be checked. Careful examination requires parting the fur and examining close to the skin. A brush or fine tooth comb is also helpful. A pair of tweezers or small hemostats is useful in the removal of foxtails.

It is important to remove a foxtail carefully so as to prevent it from breaking apart. Even pieces of the seed can cause irritation and infection. Have the person holding the dog then switch off and check for foxtails with “fresh eyes”. It is easy to miss foxtails deep in the fur. Don’t forget to check kennels and vehicles for foxtails after transport. Carpeting in vehicles and kennels do a great job of holding foxtails in place.

Foxtails also attach typically to people’s socks and boots and may be brought home where a dog can encounter them. Therefore thoroughly check both the dog and handler for foxtails after fieldwork. Avoid wearing field boots in the house since carpeting may also hold foxtails.

If a foxtail enters the dog’s skin or is suspected of being a problem, seek immediate veterinary care.

Removal of the foxtail can require sedation of the dog depending on the location. Medication may be necessary to prevent infection.

See how easily foxtails can get tracked into your home from your shoes. They were wedged in the heal and the upper sole in these boots.

Copyright 2010 California Karelians
San Diego, California