The tawny California landscape from early summer through October is one reason we love the Golden State. Among all those waving, sun-kissed stalks, however, lurks a dog-killer known as the foxtail.
Foxtails are the awns (or seed heads) of various kinds of wild barley. They are the scourge of gardens, open space, and much of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), including Point Isabel.
The pointy, razor-sharp foxtail is designed to burrow into the ground. This clever plant-dispersal mechanism wreaks havoc with mammals and even birds, however. First, the bristly spikelet sticks to some creature that passes by. Second, the sharp point works its way under the animal’s skin. Third, tiny barbs propel the awn forward as the hapless host moves.
The results can be horrifying. Foxtails blind dogs, pierce their eardrums, cause huge abscesses, and penetrate lungs and brains. It’s common for a foxtail to meander undetected throughout a dog’s body, leaving a trail of infection in its wake. One Point Isabel regular suffered for months last year with a mystery illness that was finally diagnosed at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine as a foxtail or two, in the abdominal cavity, that will require major surgery to remove.
Short of massive applications of herbicides, there seems to be no good way to eradicate this menace. Even goats would be no silver bullet; the typical rent-a-flock would take at least three weeks to clear just North Point Isabel. PIDO encourages the EBRPD to mow early and often so that seed heads don’t have a chance to mature. That helps, but foxtails are still a big issue for about eight months every year.
So, from now until those pesky awns crumble into dust around the end of October, here are a few coping strategies:
Never let your dog run, wrestle, or roll in foxtails.
Don’t let your dog sniff around in dry grasses. It takes just a second to inhale a foxtail or get one in an eye or ear.
Be alert for the “foxtail sneeze,” which is violent and repeated. Even if it stops, there’s a good chance that the foxtail has just been sucked up higher, toward the sinuses.
Don’t throw a ball where your pup will have to plunge headfirst into a stand of foxtails to retrieve it.
Try rubber balls. Foxtails stick to tennis balls and can be swallowed or stick in the throat or gums.
Check and comb every inch of your dog after walk, and look and feel between its toes.
If your dog has a thick coat, consider a buzz-cut during foxtail season. If it has hairy feet, trim them.
Consider a protective mesh hood such as the Outfox® Field Guard.
Consider pet insurance. Removing a foxtail from an ear canal or nostril requires sedation and will set you back at least $300. Anything complicated could be much more.
Lastly, please join us at PIDO’s monthly weed pulls! Hand-weeding the park may seem overwhelming, but yanking foxtails before they spread keeps the problem from becoming worse. Every foxtail gone could be one emergency vet visit prevented. And who doesn’t want that?
PIDO’s monthly weed pulls are on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to noon. For the date of the next one, please check the Events page above, sign up for our email alerts, visit our Facebook group (Point Isabel Fans and PIDO), or follow us on Twitter (@PIDOtweets).