Foxtail Grasses Explained

Foxtail grasses, which come in many varieties, are a potentially serious health risk to German Shepherds, and for that matter to any dog that may come into contact with them. Their effects on a dog range from external irritation to internal infection and organ damage. Untreated, such damage can be fatal. Foxtail grass is both common and widespread. It grows plentifully across the temperate and subtropical regions of Eurasia, northern Africa, and the Americas. It is also naturalized in Australia and New Zealand.

In the US, foxtail grass grows mainly west of the Mississippi, concentrating in the Great Plains – where wild bison feed on it. It is also abundant in California. Nevertheless, some varieties range into other parts including the mid-eastern regions.

The more common types of foxtail grasses include Cheatgrass, Foxtail Brome, Foxtail Barley, Foxtail Millet Needlegrass, Canada Wild Rye and Nimblewill.

In a moment we’ll get into some detail on the health risks to our dogs posed by foxtail grasses, and we’ll discuss both prevention and treatment. But first, let’s look at the nature of the foxtail grass itself, in order to better understand its hazards:

These grasses are named for the foxtail-shaped seed clusters that grow on their tips. The illustrations and corresponding text below explain the parts of a foxtail. You’ll see how it is that small pieces break off in order to disperse their seeds; and where these pieces, or spikelets, get their capacity to catch onto a dog’s coat, thence migrating to the skin and beyond.

The Dangers of Foxtails to Your Dog

Foxtail spikelets, because of their ratcheting action can work their way deep into a dog’s coat through to the skin where they are able to penetrate and migrate into organs. They are also prone to find their way into dog’s noses, ears, and other openings. If not located and removed while still visible and external to an animal’s skin, a spikelet can and often will continue its path to the insides of the victim.

Spikelets can also lodge in the eye socket including the conjunctiva – the membrane lining the inside of the eyelid. In addition, they’ve been known to find their way into the genitals and even the brain.

The presence of even a single foxtail spikelet in a dog can range from causing mild irritation to serious pain. Once inside a dog, infection invariably results, and if not addressed, the consequences that can be fatal. It should be noted that the dog’s body is considered incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails. So we shouldn’t consider “letting nature take its course” as a viable option.

In wild mammals that inhabit the native ranges of foxtail grasses, the fur is usually short enough that the foxtails will eventually become dislodged, dispersing the seeds – nature’s design for the spreading and propagating of the grasses. But their are also cases where wild animals fall victim to spikelets that don’t let go.

How to Know if Your Dog Has a Problem

Your dog will react to the presence of a foxtail spikelet in varied ways depending on the location of the unwelcome guest. A foxtail in the ear canal will have the dog shaking his or her head; coughing and labored breathing is likely to indicate one in the lung or breathing tubes. A spikelet under the skin will likely display itself through the presence of a draining tract. 

Prevention is the Best Medicine

While this article is applicable to a dog of any breed, those with thick coats or long hair are particularly prone to picking up foxtail spikelets. Shorthair breeds present less opportunity for the spikelet to gain a foothold. Nevertheless, like their thick-coated cousins, they also have nostrils, ear cavities etc. each of which can be a point of entry.

Here are preventive steps that can be taken to minimize the potential of foxtail problems with your dog:

  1. Avoiding a problematic environment is of course the first line of defense. Where possible, simply keep your dog away from foxtail areas. For example, in the event your dog plays mostly in a fenced-in back yard area, any foxtails present should be removed. If you take your dog to romp away from the house, try to be selective about where you go, avoiding areas of foxtail growth. However, if you are in a situation where some foxtail contact by your dog is unavoidable, then you must rely on the following prevention steps.
  2. For dog breeds where trimming their coats is appropriate, their hair should be kept quite short during the foxtail season. This is likely to significantly reduce the potential for a dog to pick up foxtail spikelets. Clipping the hair between paw pads is recommended for all breeds, as part of the grooming process. However, double-coated dogs like the German Shepherd, Husky, Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Chow Chow and a number of others should not be shorn except under unusual medical conditions, if so advised by a trusted veterinary professional (see ARTICLE on this topic).
  3. Get a protective mesh face mask for your dog to wear when he/she is romping in a foxtail area. This at least provides good protection to ears, eyes and nose. This gear may be obtained through the following website:
  4. Comb the coat without failure every time your dog comes in. A thorough go-over should remove foxtails along with burrs and other detritus. But I stress thorough, because it’s possible to do what seems like a complete combing or brushing, and still miss a spikelet. A visitor to this site recently wrote, describing several instances of abscessed spikelet entry points that had to be treated. And, this was in spite of regular combings. I recommend the use of a flea comb where feasible. A flea comb has very closely-spaced spikes, making combing more of a chore, but greatly reducing the likelihood of missing anything. Note that in the course of combing your dog to check for foxtail spikelets, pushing against an embedded spikelet may serve to lock the spikelet in place rather than removing it – like trying to comb out a tangled knot of hair.  If resistant to combing, the spikelet may more easily be removed by using your fingers to separate away the tangled hairs, thus loosening and freeing up the spikelet.
  5. Another approach that can be helpful, if the offending cluster is stubbornly locked in place within the dog’s coat, is to first break it up with a pair of pliers and then brush or comb out the pieces.
  6. Thoroughly inspect! A visual inspection of your German Shepherd (or other dog) should be performed immediately every time your dog comes out of a foxtail area. Inspect all over, focusing particularly in these areas: the armpits (axillae), between the toes, the nostrils and ear canals, the genital area and the lower thorax, around the stomach.


In the event your dog gets a foxtail spikelet lodged somewhere that’s out-of-reach, it is vital to get to your veterinary professional as soon as possible. If you catch a spikelet early in its migration, when it’s just inside a nostril, or under the skin, removal will likely be relatively easy for your vet. But a word of caution is in order: Beware of the temptation to attempt removal yourself of a spikelet that is visible but not in easy reach. Your efforts could backfire, inadvertently pushing it further in; for example, down the nasal passage. Such an action could significantly complicate an otherwise simple removal by your vet.

If the spikelet is already deep within your dog’s anatomy, removal can be time-consuming and costly. First, it must be located. An external wound would indicate likely entry through the skin. However, coming in through a nostril, ear canal or other opening, a spikelet may not leave externally visible signs. Detection must then be attempted by other means. Given the abrasive nature of a foxtail spikelet’s method of migration, “clawing” its way along by means of its retrorse barbs, it leaves a trail which can often be picked up through scanning technology. Once located, surgical removal can usually be undertaken.

There have been cases where, for one reason or another, the affected dog is treated with an ongoing course of antibiotics instead of surgical removal. This should not be viewed as a desirable alternative, where the option of surgery exists. On occasion it may be that the vet has been unable to actually locate the spikelet, or else possibly, that surgery is either too risky or too expensive, in which case drug treatment may be ongoing in order to keep infection in check.


My hope is that many dogs will be saved due to the precautions that you and other conscientious owners take regarding the foxtail. While this article may seem to paint a gloomy picture, it’s no doubt kinder in the end to put out the hard truth in order to sound the alarm, than to downplay a danger, and see more dogs fall prey as a result! For we are all about our German Shepherds – and all other dogs – living a full, happy and healthy life!!


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