Calgary vets seeing lots of dogs this summer due to prevalence of foxtail barley

Calgary vets are seeing lots of dogs this summer due to a prevalent prairie wild grass.

Foxtail barley is a wild grass that has wispy ends that resemble the tail of a fox — and are full of tiny seeds that can spell big problems for dogs.

“They are nasty, and they can be fatal,” said Danny Joffe, national medical director for VCA animal hospitals.

“Foxtail is a weed-like grass and the seeds, especially with warm weather when they dry out, they can get stuck in different parts of the mouth, in their gums, behind the teeth. But where they really like to go is the tonsils.”

Joffe said the barbed seeds can also cling to fur and migrate beneath the skin.

“They are about a centimetre or a centimetre and a half long, and what happens is they have little barbs on them. So if a dog is running in an area or brushes up against foxtails, first of all, those seeds can get stuck in the fur,” Joffe said.

“They only move in one direction, so they only move in. They never move out. So if a pet parent doesn’t find these and doesn’t remove them, they can migrate under the skin and cause a big abscess. We’ve seen them in the lungs or we have seen some that move into the chest cavity and cause a severe infection called a pyothorax.”

They can also end up in the ear canals, face and head of dogs.

“We’ve seen them in eyes and in behind the eyes,” Joffe said.

City can’t enforce cleanup

Shane Keating, councillor for Ward 12, said his office has fielded lots of foxtail-related calls recently.

One constituent complained her dog required emergency surgery, which cost about a thousand dollars.

“Foxtail grows in disturbed soil. It doesn’t really grow on developed lots of landscaped yards and gardens,” Keating said.

Keating’s ward has more neighbourhoods still under construction compared to other parts of the city.

He said more vacant lots mean more foxtails.

“It’s not as prevalent in established areas, but it is in newer areas, and is mostly on lots that have been graded. So the sidewalks and roads have been put in and then the lot is sitting idle,” Keating said. 

Keating said other than warning dog owners about the dangers of foxtail barley, there isn’t much the city can do.

“The difficulty looking into this is they are not regulated by Alberta Environment, so there’s nothing the province can really do, and they don’t grow too high so they don’t hit the community standards bylaw,” he said.

“So, even though it’s a concern, it doesn’t qualify under any regulations in which we could go out and say, ‘Clean up your lot.'”

Best advice, vigilance

Keating said he has taken to social media to warn dog owners and lot owners of the dangers posed by foxtail barley.

“We are hoping that landowners will also take a bit of responsibility and go out with a whipper-snipper and try to hack it down. So that’s the two-pronged approach of what we are doing,” Keating said.

Keating advised dog owners not to let their dogs roam on private property to lessen their chances of encountering foxtail barley.

Joffe said even if you keep your dog out of foxtail territory, Fido should get a good once-over after every walk.

“The best information for pet parents is just be vigilant and wipe your dog down, or ideally use a flea comb and comb them down, because that’s the best way to remove these from the fur and the best way to prevent problems,” Joffe said.

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