What Are Foxtails
Foxtails, also referred to as “grass awns,” are long, sharp, spine-like projections that cover the seeds of certain grasses. Although they look harmless enough, foxtails actually are barbed, which helps them penetrate into an animal’s skin and other tissues. Foxtail injuries are especially prevalent in outdoor pets during the warm spring and summer months. Foxtails have evolved in such a way that they easily “grab onto” anything that brushes up against them, such as a strolling cat or dog. Pets that walk through the mature drying grasses come out with the barbed seeds sprinkled throughout their coats. They can also get foxtails in their paw pads, between their toes and in their ears, noses, eyes and mouths. If foxtails are inhaled, they can cause the pet to suffer sudden and violent sneezing episodes. If they lodge in the nasal cavity, owners may notice a bloody discharge tinged with pus draining from the nose. If a foxtail gets into an animal’s eye, it can cause severe irritation. The eye may look like it is glued shut. Of course, far more serious damage can also occur if an eyeball is pierced by a sharp barbed foxtail.
Dangers of Foxtails
Once a foxtail crosses through an animal’s skin, it can migrate very large distances into and across all bodily tissues. Foxtails can cause internal and external infections and abscesses. They also can cause severe allergic reactions in some animals. Dogs tend to be more affected by foxtails more frequently than cats, because dogs tend to poke their heads anywhere they think they might find something smelly, alive or otherwise interesting. However, cats can and do suffer from foxtails as well. Foxtails are particularly problematic in the ears, eyes, mouth and nasal cavity and can be especially difficult to locate in long-haired, thick-coated pets.
Foxtails get their nickname from the fluffy accumulation of awns that forms at the tip of each blade of certain annual grasses, resembling a fox’s fluffy tail. Grasses with foxtails typically grow near water ways, ponds and damp yards. Once the grass matures and finishes its spiky flowering stage, the entire plant dries and turns a rich golden brown color. The seeds inside the foxtail mature during this stage.
When foxtails get stuck in a pet’s mouth, they cause severe irritation and discomfort. The cat will have difficulty swallowing and may gag repeatedly. It may start to paw frantically at its nose and mouth, especially if a foxtail becomes wedged between teeth or penetrates the tongue. Foxtails can cause sudden swelling and the appearance of a mysterious lump when they become lodged just beneath the skin.
What To Do
If you think that your cat may have a foxtail in its skin or somewhere else on or in his body, take him to a veterinarian immediately. If foxtails are not removed promptly and properly, they can migrate into vital internal organs and potentially be fatal. Owners should groom their cats regularly, especially if they are allowed outdoors, to remove any foxtails found in their coat before they have a chance to work their way through the animal’s skin.