National Vizsla Association
This article was written by Patty Mead. It first appeared in the Vizsla Club of Northern California newsletter in 1995, it was revised and updated for its next appearance in the Fall 1997 NVA newsletter.
[Editors Note: This article is a result of an interview regarding foxtails with veterinarian Doctor Linda Amezcua of the Linda Mar Veterinary Clinic in Pacifica, California. As with all medically related articles, the reader needs to know some of the conditions covered are very complex and discussed with specific medical terminology. Yet our newsletter must present information briefly and simply. Thus, because we simplify and abbreviate the actual interviews, it will always be wise to check with your own vet prior to following any advice that may be offered. Further, Dr. Amezcua recommends that you consider the following when dealing with foxtails: "Dont ignore the symptoms: always assume the foxtail is in the dog unless proven otherwise, and get your dog to a vet to have it removed!"]
The foxtail, in its "green condition" as seen below, is a native plant in Western areas of the United States.
This plant populates the area by drying and breaking apart into tiny burrowing duplicates of itself as seen in its "brown seeding condition" below.
The "seedlings" are physically built to burrow. While some animals do not have difficulty with the plant (horses can eat them with no side effects), and people seem to be able to remove them easily, dogs appear to have the most severe reactions to them.
The outsides of the "seedlings" contain a bacterium with enzymes used to break down vegetation. This bacterium also allows the seedling to burrow into a dog along the tunnels of pus created by the enzyme. In fact, Dr. Amezcua informed us: pus and foxtails go hand in hand.
A foxtail can literally go anywhere in the dog. For example, they have been found inside the brain, anal glands, eyes, ears, jowls, feet, spinal cord, lungs, and vagina. We will focus on the symptoms, first aid treatment, and veterinary treatment for foxtails in the more common areas of the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, feet, vagina, and a general wound.
Ears: The symptoms are clear: a head tilt or head shaking is the immediate response of a dog that has a foxtail in its ear. Later, the symptoms look like an ear infection. The larger the dog, the less noticeable the symptoms so monitor your dog carefully. Vizslas, due to their height and hanging ears, are less likely to get foxtails during normal every day activity than shorter and/or pricked-ear dogs. However, our dogs can and do get foxtails in their ears. First aid response is to put drops of oil into the affected ear to soften the foxtail. This softening helps prevent the foxtail from moving forward and may allow the dog to shake it out. Unless you see the foxtail shaken out, do not assume it has been removed. Take the dog to a vet for removal of the foxtail. The vet will most likely conduct an otoscopic exam and a simple retrieval.
Eyes: Symptoms for foxtails in the eyes are a gummy discharge and a squint, or an eye glued shut. In parts of California, for example, if an eye is glued shut, it is generally considered a foxtail and treated as such. First aid response is to calm the dog. If the foxtail is in sight and you can control your dog, use a blunt tweezer to pull out the foxtail. Foxtails cannot be flushed from the eye with water or eye-wash, nor can they be removed by applying ointment. Get your dog to the vet. Once at the vet, the dog will usually need to be placed under a general anesthesia, especially if your dog cannot remain calm while being handled. After a topical ointment is applied, the vet will remove the foxtail. A calm dog can have a foxtail removed from its eye without the anesthesia, but most cannot.
Nose: For a foxtail in the nose, the obvious symptoms are spasmodic and serial sneezing. If blood comes from the nose as a consequence of sneezing, you are almost assured it is a foxtail. First aid treatment is to drop (not squirt) some oil into the nose. Mineral oil is best but baby or vegetable oil can be used. The oil will soften the foxtail, so hopefully, it will not continue to burrow. The oil is for the dogs comfort as well as to help stop the foxtail from poking the sensitive nasal passages. But again, get your dog to a vet quickly. Once at the vet, the dog will be anesthetized, its nose scoped, and the foxtail found and removed.
Mouth: Dogs can get foxtails in their mouth. The symptoms of a foxtail stuck in the gums or back of the throat include gagging, difficulty swallowing when eating, etc. If swallowed, foxtails can be passed. However, if it gets caught in periodontal pockets, the tongue, in between teeth or in the back of the throat, it can cause problems. You can tell if this has occurred, not only from the above symptoms, but also because the dog may have a "dead body" odor coming from the mouth. The vet will anesthetize the dog, then locate and remove the foxtail.
Interdigital: Symptoms are continuous licking of the foot or pad, or the appearance of a bubbly swelling between the toes. First check the dog. If you think there is a foxtail, you can soak the foot in warm water 10 to 15 minutes one or two times a day for three days. This will assist in the creation of an abscess in the area that will eventually burst. Once it bursts, you can remove the foxtail by milking the abscess and backing out the foxtail. Once the foxtail is removed, keep soaking the foot, but now add an antiseptic (like betadine) to the water (about one tablespoon per cup of water). What should be clear by now is that for foxtails, "pus marks the spot," so always look for a bubble of pus on the foot. Sometimes the bubble shows up and disappears, then shows up somewhere else on the dogs leg. From our experience this indicates a roving foxtail and the best bet is to get your dog to the vet.
Vagina: This area is hard to spot symptoms at for they are not as obvious as in other areas. Look for a swollen area in the groin and constant licking of the vaginal area. There is no first aid treatment. Take the dog to a vet immediately.
Any foxtail that enters a dog through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, feet, or vagina ,if ignored, has the potential to travel (burrowing along the tunnels of pus created by the seedlings bacteria) anywhere in the dogs body. Dont ignore any of the outermost symptoms, as internal symptoms are usually not visible. Severe injury and even death can occur if the foxtail reaches the dogs brain, spinal cord, heart or lungs.
Wounds: At one field trail I was at, a dog had cut itself severely on barbed wire. The cut was a long one and nearly ran the length of the dogs leg. As the dog and owner came in from the field, one could see not only the blood but could also tell the dog had debris in the wound. The owner did not understand the dangers of foxtails and did not have a first aid kit to assist the dog. Kay Ingle, who was standing next to me, instantly grabbed sterile water and tweezers from her first aid kit and started carefully pulling and washing out foxtails from the wound. After doing what she could, she instructed the owner to leave the trial and get the dog to the local vet, which he did.
In Dr. Amezcuas 14 years of experience in the greater San Francisco and Peninsula area, less that one percent of the dogs that had foxtails have died; in her case only two dogs. In both cases, the dogs died due to the foxtail getting into the lungs. Unfortunately, there are no symptoms to recognize when the foxtail is in the lungs. The lungs can fill with pus and lead to to death.
Although generally foxtails do not lead to death, they can cause severe injury. After any event in areas with foxtails, it is wise to carefully inspect your dog. It is also wise to immediately treat any dog that shows the above symptoms and get it to a vet. You might also want to add blunt tweezers, mineral oil, and an eye dropper to your growing first aid kit for field trial dogs.