Foxtail barley — A danger to your dog

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Foxtail barley can be harmful to your dog.

This long feathery grass looks beautiful, but foxtail barley seeds have tiny barbs can attach to your dog’s coat and burrow into his skin, ears and nose. Find out how you can protect him.

If you walk or run your dog in rural areas, you need to be aware of a plant called foxtail barley. Definitely not dog-friendly, this tall feathery grass develops seed heads with tiny barbs that can attach themselves to your dog’s coat and work their way into his skin, paw pads, ear canals and nasal cavities. These barbs cause a lot of discomfort, and if they get lodged in deep, surgery is often needed to remove them. Protect your dog by learning how to recognize foxtail barley, and taking steps to prevent contact.

What is foxtail barley?

According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program, foxtail barley (the Latin name is Hordeum jubatum) is a native grass that can be found in a range of habitats throughout North America, including pastures and fields as well as ditches, fencerows, and roadsides, and in disturbed moist areas. The plant can grow up to two feet tall and has a long stem with a feathered, bushy top that resembles a foxtail — hence the name. The U.S. Forest Division states that foxtail grass is becoming more widespread, and is common in California, the southern and western United States, Canada and Mexico.

Foxtail barley can germinate in the spring or fall (depending on where you live), says North Dakota State University Weed Science. After flowering, the grass gets dry and brown, allowing the seed heads to detach easily. The wind can cause the seeds to scatter – as can a dog or other animal brushing up against the plant.

Armed and dangerousFoxtail barley

Foxtail barley seeds are arrow-shaped awns, made up of razor-sharp needles. Nature designed them this way so they can plant themselves in the ground and start burrowing beneath the surface to grow. Unfortunately, they do the same thing if they get on your dog’s skin, or get snuffed up, ingested or land in his ears.

“Because the foxtail is barbed, once it becomes embedded it cannot come out easily,” says Pippa Hutchinson, a clinical companion animal behaviorist. “Should a dog bite the end off, the rest will remain and work its way up and along an opening such as the nasal or ear canal, or through the skin.”

“The most common foreign body found in the external ear canal of dogs and cats is the grass awn,” concurs Richard G. Harvey, author of Ear Diseases of the Dog and Cat. “In the US, the most common species of plant awn is Hordeum jubatum.”

In a blog from 2011, the LA Times reported that the emergency room of an animal hospital in northern California sees 60 to 90 cases a month during foxtail seed season. And in many instances, surgery is required to remove foxtail awns. One man noticed that his dog was continually sneezing after a run outdoors. Upon checking, he saw something in the dog’s nostril. He took the dog to his vet, only to learn that a foxtail awn had attached itself to the inside of the animal’s nasal cavity and needed to be surgically removed.

Protecting your pooch

  1. The best way to protect your dog from foxtail barley is to keep him away from long dry grasses. But this may be easier said than done, since long grasses of many varieties can be found everywhere from spring through fall.
  2. Contact your veterinarian or regional agricultural unit and ask if they know of any foxtail barley growing in your area, and/or learn to recognize it yourself. This way, you’ll know which areas to steer clear of when walking or hiking with your dog.
  3. Check your dog’s coat and face after every outing in or near areas of long grass. Immediately remove any visible seeds that are stuck to his hair, and take him to the vet as soon as possible if he starts sneezing, shaking his head, scratching, rubbing or chewing right after a walk. The sooner you get veterinary attention for your dog, the easier, less invasive and less expensive treatment will be.
  4. If possible, try to keep your dog’s hair short, particularly around his toes, feet and armpits. That way the seeds are less likely to cling to him, and you’ll have a much better chance of spotting them.
  5. Several companies have come to the rescue with products especially designed to protect a dog’s head and face from foxtail awns. Foxtailfree Hoodies and OutFox Field Guard offer lightweight hoods that cover the dog’s head and face, protecting his ears, eyes, nose and mouth but still allowing him to comfortably breathe, see, sniff and explore. The Foxtail Dog Protector (www.foxtaildogprotector.com), meanwhile, is made from a comfortable, breathable fabric in a variety of colors and patterns, and fits protectively over the dog’s ears (the ears are one of the most common sites for foxtail seeds to wind up in).

Though foxtail barley is a pervasive problem, it doesn’t mean you have to give up rambling through the countryside with your dog. Learning how to recognize it and where it grows, and taking some simple precautions, will help ensure carefree walks.

Is your dog at risk?

If foxtail barley doesn’t grow in your area, you don’t have to worry. But given how widespread it is, it’s wise to be on the lookout for it no matter where you live, especially if you live or walk in the country.

Any dog can have a run-in with foxtail barley, but those at particular risk are long-haired dogs as well as sporting, hiking and hunting breeds such as cocker spaniels, pointers, setters, Labrador and golden retrievers.

“If your dog has been running in long grass, where you suspect there may be foxtail grass, watch him for new behaviors such as chewing the paws, shaking the head, sneezing or scratching,” says Pippa. “If you feel the behaviors are excessive, go to the vet and get your dog checked.” This is especially important if your dog’s eyes are watering and/or he is rubbing them.