Most dog owners would do anything to keep their pets safe. So when vets began warning of a plant dangerous enough to kill their animals, people were no doubt concerned. And to make matters worse, the weed was so prevalent, it could have been hiding in their backyards.
In July 2016 vets warned pet owners across the United Kingdom that a potentially deadly plant was taking over. Though fairly unassuming in appearance, the common weed in question has the ability to inflict severe pain on its animal victims and even kill them.
Indeed, the terrifying plant can affect pets in several awful ways. If inhaled through the mouth or nose, the shrubs’ barbed seeds can travel into an animal’s brain or lungs. And if this occurs, the spikelets may cause irreparable or even lethal damage.
But even if the spiky seeds don’t find their way into internal organs, they can still be fatal. You see, if the spikelets become embedded in a dog or cat’s fur, they may be difficult for owners to find. And when left untreated, the seeds can lead to catastrophic infections.
The weed in question was foxtail grass. This plant is common in the United Kingdom and easily identifiable thanks to its prickly seeds – and it is these spear-like heads that pose the most risk for pets. That’s because they can easily embed themselves in animals’ skin, feet, ears, nose, mouth and genitals.
And these risks were heightened in the United Kingdom when foxtail numbers began to multiply, as a perfect cocktail of weather conditions spurred the weed’s multiplication. “The cool, wet spring does seem to have favored grass growth this year,” plant expert Dr Trevor Dines explained to the The Daily Telegraph in July 2016.
Dr. Dines added, “In particular, the cool conditions in March and April seem to have held many grass species back. When warmer conditions finally arrived in May and June many species grew suddenly are now seeding abundantly at the same time. Which might lead to an increase in reports of problems.”
So with foxtail numbers on the rise, animal welfare charity PETA warned people of the perils of the plant. PETA U.K. director Mimi Bekhechi told the Daily Mirror, “Foxtail can get lodged between dogs’ toes or stuck in their eyes or ears. If it becomes embedded, it can cause severe infections.”
To protect their pets, then, Bekhechi advised owners to take precautions against foxtail seeds. “Guardians can protect their animal companions by keeping them away from overgrown, scrubby areas and sticking to roads and wooded areas, as opposed to meadows, where foxtail grasses grow, when out for a walk,” she said.
What’s more, United Kingdom-based pet insurance specialists Animal Friends estimated that foxtail-related ailments would account for most summertime claims. In fact, in 2015 there were nearly 500 such cases; and the cost of treating injuries could set pet owners back the pricey sum of $470.
The British Veterinary Association doesn’t know how many dogs die from foxtail-related injuries each year, though. It is, however, keen to stress that the seed alone is not lethal. Instead, it’s the problems that the spikelet causes which can prove fatal.
And the vice president of the association, Gudrun Ravetz, warned, “The risk of a dog dying could develop if they inhale or swallow a grass seed and it gets lodged somewhere that is extremely difficult to treat, such as the lungs or abdomen, meaning an abscess may potentially develop.”
Ravetz added, “The severity of the resulting infection or the potential abscess is what can place owners in the position of their dog undergoing difficult surgery or euthanasia. This isn’t a new problem, but owners should be aware of the issues grass seeds can cause if not treated.”
But although the initial foxtail warnings originated in the United Kingdom, the plant occurs more widely than that. In the United States, for instance, it grows across all the western states. As a result, it would be valuable for all pet owners to learn how to avoid and treat spikelet injuries.
First of all, as Bekhechi suggested, the easiest way to keep pets safe from foxtails is to avoid long grass. And if foxtail weeds grow on your property, you should consider digging them out. Alternately, trimming your dog’s fur could help them avoid a nasty nick.
Moreover, when foxtail season occurs – usually between the months of May and December – pet owners should check their animal’s fur regularly. And to ensure that you cover everywhere on your dogs, you should use a brush and pay extra attention to particularly thick patches of fur.
Another important place to check, meanwhile, is your animal’s face – especially in their ears, mouth and gums. Their soft paw pads are also particularly vulnerable to spikelets. It is vital to check these thoroughly, then, including between their toes.
But if your dog does have a foxtail lodged in its fur or skin, the likelihood is that the animal will display certain symptoms. So be vigilant if your dog is limping or constantly licking their pads, as this could be a sign that they have a spikelet stuck in their foot.
Alternately, if your canine is constantly shaking its head and scratching at one ear, a foxtail may have snuck inside the canal. Weeping eyes and noses are also telltale signs that the painful seed is present. Furthermore, persistent licking of the private parts could also be a clue.
And if you do find a foxtail in your dog’s fur, carefully remove it with tweezers. That said, if the seed is too deeply embedded, or if you spot redness or swelling, contact your vet. Never leave a spikelet to work its own way out, though. You see, its barbs mean that it will only burrow further, leading to serious internal damage.