I see foxtails. Everywhere.
Hordeum murinum or "Hare Barley," a non-native invader from Spain, grows in healthy, thick patches along the trails and in open spaces where people walk their dogs. What appears to be innocent, lush grass in early spring quickly develops into pesky, sometimes-lethal spiny seed-heads; little torpedoes ready to burrow into anything and everything.
Some common scenarios: dog sniffs the ground near a dry foxtail and up the nose it goes, dog walks through the weeds, hits a foxtail that bursts and sends a tiny arrow into the dog's ear or attaches to the fur and begins its trek through the hair to pierce the skin.
The foxtail, equipped with microscopic barbs and designed for forward motion, propels itself determinedly along its path. It can travel several inches a day through soft tissue. While ears-nose-and-between-the-toes cases are most prevalent, no body part is immune. Foxtails have been found in the urethra, vulva, and anal glands. If left untreated, foxtails that reach internal organs can be deadly - a local dog had to have a lung lobe removed due to a foxtail. Another had a foxtail lodged in his spine.
The faster you can seek veterinary help the better and vets keep busy May through September surgically removing the sinister spears. The simplest foxtail office call (removal from the ear, no infection) runs about $60. If the evil weed has penetrated the eardrum, expect to pay $150 - $200. Extracting foxtails from noses is more expensive ($300 - $400) because anesthesia is always required.
Tell-tale symptoms of foxtail trouble: Excessive, violent, sneezing (one vet calls it a "head-banging sneeze") is a sure sign a foxtail has gone up your dog's nose. Also watch for repetitive licking of paws, rear-end and legs; cyst-like lumps or abscesses; frantic head-shaking and/or scratching at ears, and puffy/goopy eyes.
Foxtail weeds are prolific in these parts and thrive in almost any soil. On a recent walk, I saw that someone had sprayed herbicide along the edges of the Sacramento River Trail after the foxtail grass was a foot tall and the seed heads had developed. They are now dry dry dry and busily morphing into a thousand potential landmines. All it takes is a moderate wind or being brushed by passersby to cause them to burst. If they don't attach to something right away, they will lay patiently in wait for something to come along.
Keeping your pet on the pavement and away from the edge of the trail is certainly advisable but may not be enough. As seen here, the seeds have fallen onto the paved part of the trail. I didn't even venture off the pavement and found several stuck in my shoelaces after they'd brushed the ground.
Beware! If you have foxtail weeds on your property, eradicate them BEFORE they dry and start doing their deadly damage. Even if they don't attach to your pet, they will at the very least, reseed themselves and come back even stronger next year.
It's possible to make it through summer and fall without an expensive foxtail incident, but it requires diligence on the part of pet owners.
When it comes to fighting Hordeum murinum, it's not a battle - it's war!
- Own a long-haired dog? Consider having him/her shaved during foxtail season
- Inspect pets carefully each day, especially after outings near dry weeds. Brush thoroughly, check ears, in between toes.
- Eradicate foxtail weeds from your yard. Pull them out by the roots. If you use an herbicide, spray in early spring before they develop.
- If you mow foxtails, bag and THROW THE CLIPPINGS AWAY!
This "Best Of" article originally appeared July 8, 2009.