With abundance of foxtails in Southern Utah, here’s how to keep your pet safe from ‘nightmare’ injuries

ST. GEORGE — Foxtails are a “nightmare” this year after an especially wet winter. What do pet owners need to know as Southern Utah enters the dry summer season?

A dog’s paw bleeds after foxtails were removed from between her toes, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Kris Neal, St. George News

Kris Neal, director and “chief bottle washer” at One More Chance C.A.T.S, noticed her dog’s foot looked infected and upon closer inspection, she found a foxtail. But once she pulled it out with surgical tweezers, she realized she was dealing with a cluster of three.

“The field around my house is full of (foxtails),” Neal said. “The last few years, I have not had that many — they’ve been very manageable.”

Higher-than-normal precipitation encouraged weed growth this spring. Many of Southern Utah’s common weeds produce seeds that will remain in the ground until conditions are favorable. Because of the severe drought, the area saw fewer plants, said Benjamin Scow, a professional practice extension assistant professor at the Washington County Utah State University Extension.

“This year, however, we are seeing a lot more weed pressure on the sides of roads, on our rangelands and open areas,” he said.

Several bloody foxtails removed from between a dog’s toes, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Kris Neal, St. George News

Foxtails disperse their seeds in clusters, and the seed head has a backward-facing barb that burrows into the animal and “just keeps moving,” Neal said, describing them as a “nightmare.” Foxtails are easily caught in fur, especially when it’s long, and can burrow anywhere on a pet’s body, including in their skin, between their toes, and in their eyes or ears.

Once they begin to burrow, foxtails can migrate throughout their body. For instance, Neal said in one of the worse cases she’s seen, the seed head was in a cat’s ears, but by the time they removed it, it had traveled to her shoulder.

If the foxtail can be brushed out or pulled out easily, Neal recommends home removal, but if a pet owner is struggling or it’s in a sensitive area like the eye, they should consult a veterinarian.

“The worst-case scenario is that (the seed heads) traveled down to where it’s hard for the vet to find them or the vet has to go deep to get them out, and it gets pricey,” she said.

A dog plays in a yard full of foxtails and other weeds, Cedar City, Utah, May 25, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

When untreated, foxtails can cause “nasty” infections, puncture eardrums, clog tear ducts or cause eyesight loss, among other health issues. Neal said the seed head can also burrow into the gums, throat or internal organs when swallowed or inhaled.

The Animal Clinic of St. George posted on its website about the dangers of foxtails, writing that they’ve “surgically removed foxtails from eardrums, from under eyelids, from inside the vulva and from inside the abdomen, where it had caused an abscess.”

Animals with a foxtail in their nose may sneeze violently or present with bloody discharge, according to the clinic. If it’s in their throat, they may repeatedly swallow, gag or cough.

Seedheads burrowing in ears may cause the pet to paw at its ears, shake its head or rub it on the floor. Squinting an eye, discharge and swelling could indicate there is a foxtail in their eye, and excessive licking, chewing, whining or crying with no obvious injury could be a seed head embedded elsewhere on their body, the clinic wrote.

Foxtail in a cat’s fur, Cedar City, Utah, May 25, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Neal suggests checking pets’ “nooks and crannies,” including eyes, ears, mouths and in between toes, for foxtails regularly so they can be pulled out before burrowing. Pet owners should routinely brush animals or trim their fur and check for seed heads in their own clothes, on floors or other surfaces pets come into contact with, as indoor pets can still be impacted by foxtails humans track into the home.

Once a foxtail is removed, Neal recommends that pet owners keep wounds clean. Additionally, they can trim the fur around the area or ask for assistance from a groomer or vet. If in doubt, individuals should consult their vet about proper wound care.

The best way to handle foxtail-related issues is prevention, she added.

Southern Utah’s foxtails

The most prevalent foxtail-type species in Southern Utah are hare barley, foxtail barley and red brome. As one of the most common species of foxtail-type plants, hare barley often causes the most harm to animals, Scow said. The annual plant sprouts in late winter and begins drying out in late spring, after which “the seeds start getting picked up by animals, or shoes and socks.”

Hare barley grows in Cedar City, Utah, May 25, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

A native perennial grass, foxtail barley can be found throughout the county in pastures. Because the seedbeds are longer, they are easier to spot and remove. Red brome, or foxtail brome, is a non-native species that is becoming more common in the area. It boasts a distinctive reddish color and while it is typically found on public land or rangelands, it is also spreading to residential areas, Scow said.

While foxtails are not on Utah’s Noxious Weed List, they are still “obnoxious,” said Brad Winder, Washington County’s Noxious Weed Control Department supervisor. Cheatgrass, or downy brome, can also get stuck in pets’ ears and noses, and many foxtail-type plants also pose a significant fire hazard.

Medusahead plants are considered a noxious weed and their barbed seeds can damage animals’ eyes, noses and mouths, according to the USU Extension.

Foxtail-type weeds have shallow root systems and can typically be pulled from the ground easily, Scow said. Herbicides are also effective if used before the plants have fully seeded.

Cheatgrass grows near wildflowers in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, St. George, Utah, May 14, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“Keep in mind that these plants are a type of grass and will look similar to your lawn in the early spring,” he added. “If plants have fully seeded out (meaning they have the foxtails on them), then they need to be pulled, put into a trash bag and then sent to the landfill.

“Spraying with herbicide is only effective prior to the seedbeds forming. If they are formed, killing the plant will only make it dry out faster and the troublesome seed heads will become mobile still. A preemergent herbicide can be applied in the fall and the spring to help reduce the germination of annual weeds like hare barley and red brome.”

Winder said individuals should follow the label completely when using any herbicide product. Spectacle Flo, containing Indaziflam, is recommended for landscapes as a preemergent product. Products like Anderson’s 21-0-10 Fertilizer and other granular preemergents are commonly used in yards in January or February and “can significantly reduce foxtails but must be applied to let water in before plants have started up.”

Red brome and cheatgrass grow in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, St. George, Utah, May 14, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

RoundUp or Glyphosate products can control foxtails before they dry out and have gone to seed, and the spray may also impact other vegetation, like grass, Winder said. Products containing both Glyphosate and Imazapyr can suppress weeds for most of the year when applied but can also impact lawns.

Winder said that many of the same products used to reduce cheatgrass could also help control foxtails, including Plateau or Panoramic, with Imazapic as an active ingredient, or Esplanade 200 SC, which is often used on roadways and Rejuvra, which is often utilized for ranges — both with the active ingredient Indaziflam.

“We of course recommend consulting landscape professionals and licensed weed control specialists in your area for help on your property with foxtail and other nuisance or noxious weeds,” he said.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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