Cambrian: Opinion

How to help your pets by outfoxing prickly foxtails

Curly-haired labradoodles are a magnet for foxtails when they become dry.
Curly-haired labradoodles are a magnet for foxtails when they become dry. Special to The Cambrian

It’s “foxtail season” in Cambria and in most of the states. “Foxtail” is the common name we give to grasses that have bushy spikelets enveloping their seeds. The spikelets are arranged along the flowering stem, giving them a foxtail shape. Rather lovely, really, and not a problem to man or beast until they dry out. There are hundreds of plants that fall under this description all over the world.

Foxtail grasses grow in pastures, meadows, fields, along trails, in vacant lots, between cracks in pavers, and around the perimeters of gardens and homes. They are green in the early spring and quickly turn to a pale brown as they dry.

Some of the most problematic varieties to animals are called “wild barley.” The foxtail grasses by that name can be annual or perennial. As the seed heads dry in the late spring, they become dangerous to pets, and they stay that way throughout the summer and early fall.

If you run your finger along the tails, you can feel the tiny microscopic barbs on their edges. These barbs allow the seeds to move in one direction only; to a new location, wherever that may be!

As a kid in Southern California, flying a kite meant running through vacant fields in socks and sneakers. Running until the excruciating pain in your feet and ankles would be intolerable. Sitting and removing the spiky little seeds from the fabric surrounding your ankles was just part of the game. You’d return to the field again and gather more of the pesky foxtail seeds.

We have three dogs now. They’re curly-haired labradoodles, magnets for foxtails. Foxtail seeds get into their fur, noses, ears, eyes, between their toes, and ahem, anywhere, and I mean anywhere, there is an opening. They dig into their skin. The seed heads resist bacterial breakdown even under the skin. Most owners take their infected dogs to the vet after a few days of soaking the body part in Epsom salt. Those dogs who are having a sneezing fit, shaking their heads or scratching their ears must be taken as soon as possible, as the dog has probably inhaled a foxtail or had one lodge in the ear canal and needs to have it removed by experts. When ignored, these little seeds can travel great distances in the dog’s body, emerging into the lungs or other essential organs.

There’s really not much you can do about your pet picking up foxtail seeds this time of year if you are out and about on trails. You’ll want to rid your property of foxtail grasses, and this is not impossible if you are persistant. Hand-pulling the entire plant before the foxtail dries is the best method. Hoeing when the grasses are small and before they produce seeds is also effective. Over a few years, you can conquer these pesky plants, and you and your pet will be more comfortable.

Lee Oliphant’s column appears the third Thurday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.

Tip of the Month

There is old saying “Pull when wet; hoe when dry.” This is wise advice when facing down weeds in your garden. After a good watering, or rain if it ever arrives, get some gloves, a sitting pad or low bench, and a small tarp for pulled weeds. Use a fishtail weeder to pry up tap-rooted weeds.

Under these dry conditions, weeds can be sliced off just below the soil line with a sharp hoe. Without nourishment from the sun, the roots will shrivel and die. An old steak knife can be used to sever weeds from their roots. Mulching will help keep weeds from returning.