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!!


We’ve pushed up the publishing schedule this month in order to get out our book review of Dr Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats ahead of the book’s release date which is set for March 21!

At 500 pages the newest – and 4th – edition represents a significant makeover from earlier versions. Here I’m giving the briefest overview, or summary, of some key areas of focus of the book, and we’ll provide a link at the bottom for those who’d enjoy seeing the full review. In addition,  we’ve arranged a very convenient tie-in with Amazon: To purchase the book – at a great price! –  just click the purchase link below.

Micro and Macro?

While most of us will approach a book such as Dr Pitcairn’s Guide’ with a view to some specific benefit to our pets, the author does a good job of broadening the topic in ways that add greater understanding, at the same time resisting the temptation to get off on an overly extended tangent. He keeps things relevant. The reader comes away with practical solutions for improved health for our animals that allow us at the same time to exercise an enhanced level of good stewardship over the environment beyond our immediate surroundings. Continue Reading


If you’ve been following the recent blog posts, you ‘ll know we’ve been discussing Dr Richard Pitcairn’s holistic methods as covered by his book Dr Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats. This month we’ll veer from our planned food-related topic, and we’ll cover some other items which I think will be of interest.

Rumor’s Big Day at the Westminster Show

On February 14, at the 141st annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the Best of Show award went to Rumor, a 5 year old female GSD. Favored to win the previous year, Rumor narrowly missed Top Dog spot in 2016, settling for Reserve Best of Show, or runner up. This year’s win was a first for a dog in the Herding Group since 1987, a title also taken by a German Shepherd. It was the 104th career win for Rumor. Continue Reading



In this second of 6 articles featuring the work of Dr Richard Pitcairn, author of the bestselling, Dr Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats. we’ll lay the foundations to Pitcairn’s approach to food. With 466 pages, the book covers a range of topics in some depth. In these articles we are taking an overview of key points. So, while space limits the detail we can get into here, I think the articles will serve as a helpful introduction to the important work of a leader in the field of holistic animal care.

Getting on the Right Path

Before diving in to our study, I’d like to make what I think is an important point. I happen to know wonderful, conscientious German Shepherd owners who use a higher grade commercial kibble, and their dogs seem to do fine on it. Others, however, have a GSD with a sensitive system, where no commercial food agrees with them. They’ve had the frustration of an unhappy, sickness-prone dog, and ongoing vet visits, trying to figure out the problem. Such experiences may lead to an owner experimenting with alternative diets. And often this is where they find the help they need as their dogs begin to amend and eventually flourish. Continue Reading


Learning from a World Leader in Holistic Pet Health

In the last post I introduced Dr Richard Pitcairn and his holistic approach to pet care. I was reminded recently of the extent to which he’s influenced a new generation of veterinarians as I read a couple of unrelated articles by holistic veterinary practitioners. Yet both authors cited Pitcairn as instrumental in their shift to a more natural approach to treating animals.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the reach of his book, Dr Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats (one of our recommended resources). Originally published in 1982, the book is due out in its fourth edition this March. In addition, in 1992 Pitcairn established the Professional Course in Veterinary Homeopathy, a year-long post-graduate training for veterinarians. By 2013, 500 had been trained in the program. Continue Reading


Something Missing

1“Tell your clients to feed their animals a good commercial pet food and to avoid table scraps” These words, according to Dr Richard Pitcairn summed up the instruction he’d received on pet nutrition for his entire time in veterinary college!

His first job found Pitcairn in a busy practice that handled small and large animals. It soon became clear that the optimistic predictions of great results from an arsenal of drugs and surgical techniques in which he was trained, represented a disconnect from what he was experiencing. In spite of his best efforts, many animal patients failed to show significant improvement.

Providence Intervenes

In search of answers, Pitcairn providentially received an offer to teach in a veterinary college. That move soon led to him resuming his own studies, digging deeper into the science behind veterinary practice. After 5 years, and getting his PhD degree, the answers he was looking for still eluded him. So began a lifetime pattern of reading broadly on matters of health, nutrition and immunity. He’d try out alternate approaches on himself; then with initial successes using a more holistic approach Pitcairn started using homeopathy and healthier, often raw, foods with family members and pets. Continue Reading


Humorous, But Not Recommended
Humorous, But Not Recommended

It’s been my observation that there are two trigger points that can get owners of German Shepherds, and other canines with substantial coats, to contemplate the merits of shaving their dog! The first is where an owner considers the solution to having a thick fur coat in warm weather is to take it off! The second trigger point can be exasperation at the amount of hair getting deposited all over a home during their dog’s shedding.

Other than the less-than-wonderful appearance resulting from a complete dog shave, you cannot blame well-intentioned owners in either situation. But well-intentioned is not enough, for we need also to be well-informed! Continue Reading


The Benefits of Dog Training

Training a dog well has two principal benefits: First, owning the dog becomes a more pleasant, rewarding experience; and second, trained properly, a dog often becomes much more contented and peaceful.

Good training results in benefits that extend beyond the basics of obedience, to the point of impacting the entire quality of life of the dog, and consequently, the whole family. By “good training” I refer to an intuitive, commonsense approach to conditioning a dog that takes into account basic dog psychology.

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Did You Know?

About Calcium…

Calcium deficiency is a big problem with commercially-fed dogs; one that contributes to health problems like hip and elbow dysplasia.

A nursing pup gets a good and balanced supply of calcium from his mother’s milk. But once weaned, he depends on his humans to provide it in a form that is easily assimilated and provides nutritional balance.

Commercial food claims to provide sufficient calcium, yet cases of hip and elbow dysplasia, common to domesticated dogs, are not known to wolves in the wild. The difference points to diet. Raw and unprocessed bones are nature’s perfect dietary calcium source. Plus, the meat that comes with them gives the potassium needed to metabolize the calcium. Continue Reading


We recently heard from a Canadian visitor, Des (we have no last name – see Note 1) who wrote us through our  Comment box. The first of his two “comments” comprised 700 words. Clearly, Des was passionate about what he had to share! As I read it, It was clear that what he was recounting called for more coverage than the Comment section would afford. From my knowledge of our readers, it would be of interest to many of them.

So was born today’s article; Des’ words along with with some reduction and a few edits; but preserving the essence of what he wrote. The headings and bracketed items are ours.

Observations Before and After Feeding Raw Food to German Shepherd

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