The desert holds many barbs, seeds and sharp burrs that can injure mammals. One familiar to most are goatheads,those sharp round barbs that cause dogs to stop suddenly stop mid-step to raise their irritated paw until the offending seed is removed by the attentive owner.

Goatheads are considered an invasive plant that can damage the digestive systems of grazing animals, and injure humans and pets. Anyone who has stepped bare-footed on a goathead barb that has made its way inside knows just how hard and sharp they are! If you get a flat tire while riding in the area on your bicycle, there’s a good chance a goathead caused it. These sprawling low growing vines usually have yellow flowers in this area, or purple.

Perhaps the most insidious of the plethora of desert prickers is the common foxtail, which is widespread in the southwest. This innocent – looking grass contains a nasty seed which, as it dries, can burrow into pets’ paws causing great injury; if undetected, even death.

Foxtail grasses are a variety of grasses that have densely packed seeds at the tip, resembling wheat. Although originally only found in California, they are now spread throughout the west.

Each seed is enclosed by a “spikelet” which has one hard pointed end—and on the other end is a flare of fibrous sheath covered with tiny, near-invisible teeth aimed away from the point, much like fish hook barbs. Thus, once embedded in the hair of an animal it won’t back out— it continues to penetrate deeper. If not detected and promptly removed from the fur, the sharp tip reaches the skin and can even continue traveling to internal organs. The outside of this spikelet is covered with enzymes that allow the seed to penetrate plant cell matter; unfortunately this also makes the spikelet able to eat through flesh, addition to the migrating barb that will not back up.

Detection is not easy, as frequently there is no evidence of a problem initially. There may only be some scratching by the animal, in the beginning. Ask any veterinarian around, and they will tell you it is a huge problem in this area, getting especially bad by June. Yet, many people new to the west have no idea of the dangers this grass presents. One thing that you can do, in addition to pulling the weeds and carefully examining your dog after each outing, is to have your dogs hair groomed very short in the spring and summer months.

Our dog’s foxtail nightmare began last spring when we were visiting friends of ours in California with our dog, Allie. Our friend asked if Allie was “starting to feel her age,” noting she was limping. We then noted she began chewing her foot occasionally. By the next day, however she was chewing incessantly. As we were driving home the foot began to bleed. We continually checked it for a wound, and there was nothing but a little swollen red lump until the bleeding began.

We called our veterinarian, who advised us to come in as soon as we could. Reluctant to begin probing the foot, as it also can injure tendons within the dogs foot, she recommended a course of antibiotics and to keep a very close eye on it, watching fir fever, abscess and malaise. Within two days it was evident that the abscess was worse, not better. We went to animal urgent care in St. George. The veterinarian discussed possibilities. Because there was a new wound on the top of the foot, in addition to the bottom, we entertained the possibility that the thorn could’ve actually come out. If so, I was concerned she had licked it and ingested it. It’s complicated, as needlessly probing the little dogs foot has its own set of problems. Together, with the vet, we decided rather than probing the foot, to give it a couple more days, returning if it seemed to worsen—which it did. Fortunately, the very next day the veterinarian was able to find the seed and remove it (shown in the photo.) Sometimes the embedded seed cannot be found, as it has already migrated deep into tissues, and we considered ourselves fortunate.

Five other dogs that night were in need of foxtail extractions at the Southwest Animal Emergency Clinic in St. George. One dog owner we spoke with that night had been there twice already with foxtails in their dogs nasal passage. Early detection is vital. Many dogs may even die from Foxtails without the reason being ascertained.

Hopefully, awareness and diligence will help keep your beloved pet safe and healthy — and should a nasty foxtail find your pet’s paw, nose or ear, AllieDawg hopes you might know what to do, having read her saga.

Little AllieDawg looks sadly upon a foxtail her human pulled from the yard this week, and wishes every dog owner understood the pain and illness this little grass can cause.
Foxtails are a green and frequently reddish, widespread in the Southwest, and pose great danger as they dry.
This is the actual foxtail seed (shown beside pencil tip) that was extracted from AllieDawg’s forepaw last May. Oddly, we could not see the entry wound until it became badly infected. Note that the barbs grow in such a way that propels the seed deeper into soft tissue, making extraction best left to veterinary professionals .
Although Allie was chewing on her paw constantly and in pain, we could not detect an entrance wound on her paw until days later when it started bleeding and abscessing. At this point the veterinarian prescribed antibiotics, suspecting the cause might be a fox tail, and hoping it might have worked its way out.
Even after a couple days of antibiotics, the infection went to the top of the paw, as well as the bottom. At this point we and the veterinarian hoped the seed may have worked its way out, but it had not.
Allie’s paw on the day after the foxtail seed was extracted. The seed eventually caused two additional wounds as it migrated within her paw.
“Try to avoid foxtails, and be sure to check your dawg’s paws carefully,” reminds AllieDawg.

For information on goatheads:

Information on dangers of foxtails:

Goathead barbs are so hard they can even cause bicycles to have flat tires.

2 thoughts on “Foxtails and Goatheads and Dogs, Oh My!

  1. Our menagerie of pets has had a variety of problems with such spikes and hooks. Except, for years I went out with our dogs into areas infested with cheatgrass. They did not seem to be bothered by such, with a few exceptions. Was that because their paw soles hardened from daily running around on hard and rough ground to prevent damage?

    1. According to several pet health sites and from experience breeding and training dogs, I can tell you dogs get hardened paws from rougher and tougher terrain so the answer to your question is yes it is from daily running on harder and rougher ground.

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