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The Mystery of the Dog's Sneezing Fits

The fact that dogs are shorter than us and carry their heads low, as they go on their sniffing adventures, makes them prone to sometimes inhaling foreign particles that may irritate their airways.

dog sneezing foxtail

Thankfully, when irritating particles are inhaled, the dog's body does a pretty decent job in trying to get rid of them through forceful sneezing fits.

Those involuntary and powerful expulsions of air coming from the lungs in many cases are successful in dislodging mucus which has trapped the foreign particles from inside the nose. However, things can be tricky sometimes.

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There is a certain type of grass, that, because of the design of its spikelets, will make it particularly difficult for the dog to expel despite a dog's repeated snorting and violent sneezing. Can you name what type of grass this is?

A: Spear grass

B: Tall Fescue grass

C: Perennial ryegrass

D: Kikuyugrass

The correct answer is:


The correct answer is: A, spear grass, better known as foxtail grass.

What are Foxtails?

foxtail danger to dog

Every late spring and early summer, vacant lots, hiking trails and fields fill up with herbaceous plants that produce foxtails. Also known as spear grass, a foxtail is produced by many types of plants, the most common species being AlopecurusHordeum, Stipa (black oat grass) and Setaria.

The original purpose of foxtails are not to be harmful; their spikelets are simply meant to attach to the fur of animals passing by so their seeds can be dispersed and implanted into the soil.

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In wild animals sharing the same habitat with the foxtail, the fur is generally short enough so that eventually the foxtail dislodges and successfully disperses its seeds.

Problems start though when the foxtail burrows itself in places it shouldn't. Once burrowed, the foxtail's barbs cause it to migrate in one direction (always forward, never backwards) where it creates a multitude of problems.

"They are sharp enough to enter tissue and have barbs that cause them to migrate in one direction if they enter the body."~Dr. Zwingenberge, veterinary radiologist at the University of California-Davis.

Foxtail extracted from dog's nose

Foxtail extracted from dog's nose

In dogs, the foxtail may lodge in the most inconspicuous places. They may lodge into the dog's nose, into the mouth, inside the ear canals, under the eye lid, and even under the skin such as the skin between the toes or the armpit and rear ends areas.

The foxtail's tendency to migrate once under the skin, wrecks havoc in the dog's body triggering inflammation, infection and pain. In some cases even death.

For instance, a foxtail that ends up swallowed by the dog may lodge in the dog's pharyngeal area causing gagging, coughing and swelling in the neck.

A foxtail that's inhaled by the dog, may cause sneezing and respiratory distress, and if it reaches the brain, it can cause seizures and if it reaches the lungs it can cause pneumonia.

When the foxtail reaches the ear, the dog may be repeatedly scratching, shaking and tilting the head.

A foxtail lodged in a dog's eye requires immediate attention. It can cause pawing at the eye, squinting and redness.When the foxtail lodges under the skin, for instance in the webbing between the toes, the dog may be seen repeatedly licking an area and it may cause local swelling and limping.

"Any kind of plant awn could potentially be a problem, but the classic foxtail seems to be the worst." ~Dr. Catherine Dyer

As seen, foxtails are a big problem for dogs! The best thing to do is to avoid areas where these grasses that produce them grow (especially when they are dry) and carefully groom the dog after an outing to make sure that none have attached somewhere.

Make sure you check the ears, the nose, between the toes, the armpits, under the tail and rear end/genital areas! If you suspect your dog has a foxtail anywhere, consult with your vet at once. As the saying goes" an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."


  • DVM360, A Guide to finding foxtails, by Dr. Allison Zwingenberger, retrieved from the web on March 29th, 2016
  • The Whole Dog Journal, Beware of Foxtail Seeds This Summer, by C. C. Holland, retrieved from the web on March 29th, 2016

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