How to Keep Your Cat Safe From Foxtails This Summer · The Wildest

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Foxtails Are a Hidden Danger for Cats—How to Keep Them Safe Outside This Summer

Adventure cats, beware: This plant can be seriously dangerous.

by Sio Hornbuckle
June 24, 2024
Cat outside in a field of grass.
Nils Jacobi / iStock

If you have an adventure cat who likes to spend time outdoors, even on-leash, it’s important to be aware of a summertime danger: foxtails. The pesky plants — which look like the bushy tail of a fox, hence their name — can be extremely harmful to cats, not just dogs. They can cause pain, swelling, and (if untreated) serious infections. In extreme cases, the seeds can cause death.

Here’s everything you need to know about foxtails and how to keep your cat safe this summer. 

Why are foxtails dangerous to cats?

A foxtail is a type of grass that grows clusters of spiked seeds; foxtails are found throughout the United States, but they’re most common in the West. During the summer, the grass and seeds dry out and harden. The seeds of the plant are designed to burrow into the ground and disperse by hitching a ride on passing objects — which is where the trouble starts for pets. 

“The hardened, dry seed cluster is small, light, and spiky. This means that it gets into places it shouldn’t pretty easily, such as the ear canals, inside the nose, under the eyelids, and under the skin,” veterinarian Dr. Jacqueline Brister explains. “Because of the spikes, these little sharp foxtail seed clusters can easily get stuck.”

While foxtails are often caught in the fur, they sometimes burrow more deeply — which can be painful for cats. “Foxtails are handled by the animal’s body as a foreign object (i.e., imagine how badly your own body reacts when you have a splinter),” Dr. Brister says. “Swelling, redness, discharge, and pain are often associated with the affected areas.”

In more extreme cases, foxtails can cause serious bodily harm. Although it’s very rare, foxtails can be fatally dangerous for pets. “Sometimes, they migrate through the skin or into the airways and other body cavities, which can cause infections that won’t heal, even with antibiotics, as well as significant discomfort,” Dr. Brister says. 

How to keep cats safe from foxtails 

The most surefire way to keep a cat safe from foxtails is to keep them indoors, especially during the summer months. Dr. Brister recommends that if cats go outdoors, they should not be let near areas with foxtails. She also recommends trimming your cat’s fur to reduce the chance of a foxtail clinging to them. 

You should always check your pet’s fur carefully (including in their ears and between their toes) after they go outside — this can help you spot foxtails, as well as other summer dangers like ticks. “There are also some protective devices (i.e., OutFox® Field Guard) that some veterinarians recommend, which can be worn to prevent foxtail seed cluster attachment, although I have not personally used them,” Dr. Brister says. 

What to do if your cat encounters a foxtail 

If you spot a foxtail seed in your cat’s fur, you can use a comb to remove it before it burrows any deeper. But keep a close eye out for signs that a foxtail has burrowed into their skin — and if any symptoms show, take them to a vet.

“If it’s ‘foxtail season’ and your cat develops a swollen, oozing lump under the skin, a swollen, oozing sore between the toes, swelling around one eye, or they start shaking their head and scratching at one of their ears, take them in for a checkup,” Dr. Brister recommends. 

Symptoms can vary based on the location where the foxtail has been buried. For example, if there’s a foxtail in your cat’s paw, they may lick their paw excessively, or there may be a bubble on their paw. Other signs of a foxtail obstruction in the eyes, nose, and throat include extreme sneezing, difficulty swallowing, coughing, gagging, and difficulty breathing.  See your vet immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.

A vet can treat your cat with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. Certain medical interventions like endoscopy, ultrasonography, or computed tomography (aka CT scans) may be necessary to find where the foxtail has migrated, Dr. Brister explains. “Surgery is sometimes needed to remove foxtails that are inside body cavities or under the skin,” she adds. “Once removed, medications for pain and antibiotics are commonly prescribed to treat discomfort and any bacterial infections associated with the foxtail’s presence and migration.”


Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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