A month and a half ago my first patient of the night, a young terrier cross, came in with a complaint of bloody urine. I questioned the owner for a bit to get some more background. The dog, a male, had been previously healthy. On the date in question he abruptly begun to bleed from the area of his penis. He was able to urinate without difficulty.
I got down to examining the dog. A vet should always perform a full exam; if the patient is stable I usually try to look at the area of concern last to reduce the risk of missing something somewhere else. He was bright, alert, and friendly. His eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat appeared unremarkable (that’s veterinary speak for “normal”). His heart and lungs sounded good. Palpation of his abdomen revealed no obvious masses, painful areas, or organs that were too big or too small.
In general it’s a breach of etiquette to do what I did next without first buying the dog dinner, but I did it anyway. Vets aren’t exactly known for etiquette. It was time to look at the dog’s privates.
Sure enough, there was bloody fluid at the tip of his prepuce (the sheath that covers the penis). I extruded the penis for evaluation; it was covered in the same bloody fluid.
There had to be a foxtail in there somewhere.
Foxtails, also known as grass awns, wreak havoc on dogs in many parts of the country this time of year. They are ubiquitous in California — I have found foxtail plants growing in sidewalk cracks in downtown San Francisco, and I have found individual foxtails in grocery stores and high floors of skyscrapers. Just what havoc can they wreak? Read on.
I applied some lidocaine jelly (a numbing lubricant) to an instrument that allowed me to visualize the area between the dog’s penis and his prepuce. After a few minutes of searching I found it: a big, bloody foxtail. I was able to remove it without difficulty.
Foxtails, when they are findable and removable, are quite satisfying for vets. The affected dog has a definite problem that almost certainly will get worse with time if it’s not treated. Removal of the foxtail cures him. Problem solved.
What would have happened if this dog hadn’t gotten veterinary care, or if I hadn’t been able to find and remove the foxtail? It would have migrated, or moved around in the body. And it would have caused irritation and infection wherever it went. Most likely it would have migrated into the skin near the prepuce where it probably would have caused an abscess. However, I have seen cases in which foxtails migrated into the urethra where they caused godawful pain and discomfort. From there they can migrate into the bladder, causing perpetual bladder pain and infections. Foxtails are no joking matter: If this foxtail hadn’t been removed, the dog may ultimately have died.
How does a dog get a foxtail in his private parts? Foxtail plants happen to produce awns that are situated at just the right height for it to happen. If a male dog lifts his leg (or if a female squats) in just the right way on a foxtail plant, a foxtail can stick in the area of the genitals and then migrate deeper.
If you want a nasty dilemma, try to imagine which would be worse: a foxtail in the genitals or one in the eye.
A very nice Golden Retriever came to my office with a sudden onset of eye pain on the left side. He was noted to rub his left eye with his left front foot. His physical exam was unremarkable except for his left eye, which was too painful for him to open. When I tried to open the eye I could tell that the membranes around the eye were severely swollen.
My team and I applied topical anesthesia to the eye, which allowed for more thorough evaluation. I used a cotton-tipped applicator to gently probe the eye, and I found a big, wet foxtail underneath the bottom eye lid. I was able to remove it without difficulty. When the eye was stained, a massive corneal ulcer was discovered. This is common in dogs suffering from ocular foxtails. The ulcer was painful, but the prognosis was good once the inciting cause was eliminated. The foxtail, if not removed, may have perforated the eye and caused blindness on the affected side. But removal of the foxtail also removed the problem, and most eyes heal within a few days if the problem is caught and treated early.
The cases have been unrelenting. A Husky mix with a painful swollen foot and enlarged lymph node came to my office. The first symptom of trouble had been increased licking of the foot. Swollen lymph nodes are often caused by cancer, but not in this case. We probed the foot and found (and removed) a foxtail; I spoke with the owner not long ago and the lymph node and foot are back to normal.
A young Pit Bull came into the clinic suffering from sudden onset of pain in his right ear. I tried to evaluate the site but it was too painful for this normally stoic dog to tolerate. After a dose of a powerful narcotic I was able to use an otoscope to find a foxtail in, and remove from, the ear.
A seven-year-old Shiba Inu suffered from sudden onset of sneezing while on a walk with the owner. The sneezing stopped after a while, but would recur when the dog became active or excited. Squinting was noted in the left eye when the dog sneezed. General anesthesia was necessary to explore the left nostril, in which a big, wet, bloody foxtail was found. It took several tries, but I was able to remove the foxtail eventually (nasal foxtails sometimes embed themselves really firmly).
All of these cases ended well thanks to the quick action of the owners, their willingness to allow me to search for a foxtail, and a bit of luck. I, like all vets in California, sometimes come up empty handed after searching for a foxtail.
But if your dog displays any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is best to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. The best chance for removing a foxtail is soon after it embeds, before it has migrated substantially. Each of the dogs in this article could have suffered major complications such as a preputial abscess, an eye that needed to be removed, a relentless infection in the leg, a perforated eardrum, or a raging sinus infection, if the owners had not sought care rapidly.
Your best bet is to stay far, far away from foxtails. But if that fails, don’t let your dog suffer. If you see symptoms that might be consistent with an embedded foxtail, go to the vet as soon as possible.
Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:
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