Worst weeds for dogs? Foxtails are just a start
A romp with your dog in the garden or park should be a happy thing. Life-affirming! Usually it is, until your dog encounters the wrong plant. Then it can swiftly become pain and suffering, first for the dog, then for your bank account. Inspired by my recent emergency room visit with terrier after what seemed like a Kodak moment in a meadow, this column is what amounts to a dog owner’s Most Wanted list of plants that gardeners should remove.
At the top of my list and also the lists of veterinarian Nancy Kay and UC Davis weed scientist Joseph DiTomaso are foxtails. Depending on where you live, foxtails might be any number of grasses with needle-like seed heads. After a spectacularly wet winter and a mild, unusually long growing season this year, foxtails are still standing -- and at their most deadly: dry and brittle. The seeds are primed to embed themselves in your dog. In Southern California, DiTomaso said common foxtail-type grasses are wild barley, Hordeum murinum, and ripgut brome.
Ripgut is right. The shimmering head of needles that makes foxtails so lovely when backlit can tear through the insides of an animal. The needles, or “awns,” which the plants produce to latch onto the fur of passing animals, are meant to drill down into soil. But they also burrow into the eyes, noses, mouths, paws, tails and armpits of dogs, particularly long-haired ones. Dogs tracking scents inhale them. Dogs panting as they gallop swallow them.
“They’re horrible! They’re a nightmare!” said Kay, who estimates that in summer, the emergency room of the animal hospital where she works in Northern California might see 60 to 90 cases a month involving foxtails.
The problem with foxtails is that once they become embedded in your dog and begin traveling through it, they don’t break down, Kay said. Rather, the hooking design that enables foxtails to burrow in soil keeps them moving forward in animals. Some foxtails might enter the paw and eventually pop out the elbow. Foxtails that go up the nose might be swallowed and safely pooped out, but awns sucked in by a panting dog running full tilt with nose to the ground can end up in the lungs.
For those whose dogs are hiking partners, Kay likes a new safety garment: the OutFox Field Guard, a net that can be attached to a dog’s collar. It looks like a lost piece of canine costuming from "The Mosquito Coast" or "Outbreak." But for some it also could be smart. “It’s the invention of someone who loves dogs,” Kay said.
To protect the rest of the body, Kay recommends taking your dog to the vet or groomer and asking for a “foxtail cut” that trims fur away from paws, making them easy to inspect. Inspect, we should, she stressed, after every trip to afflicted areas. Check paws, armpits, tail, eyes, nose, eyes.
Signs that a dog has foxtails include compulsive licking of paws or convulsive sneezing, which Kay described as, “the kind where they hit their nose on their ground, they’re sneezing so hard.” If this happens, she urges the pet owner to get to the vet sooner rather than later. After imagining (wrongly) that my terrier’s sneezes were the product of a tour through pollen-laden flowers, I can speak from experience that later costs a lot more.
And if you are mowing a yard that has foxtails? “Mowing them down isn’t adequate because they’re dry," Kay said. "After mowing them, you have to rake and get them out of your yard.” Put them in your green waste bin rather than compost them at home. Municipal compost piles get much hotter than small domestic ones and therefore kill weed seeds more effectively.
Second on my list of plants to yank on sight, and also singled out by DiTomaso, is the common lawn weed California burclover, above. This masquerades as clover but is a multi-limbed weed that can evade the mower by lying flat in grass, eventually studding it with small, stinging burs. So much for the picnic, never mind the puppy.
For ouch value, add to the list puncturevine, or Tribulus terrestris, right, DiTomaso said.
Also add hedgeparsley, or Torilis arvensis. According to a scary-funny UC Davis extension sheet, hedgeparsley is also called “the Velcro plant” because “it produces small, about 1⁄4 inch, burrs with little barbs that can seemingly stick to anything.” The hooked spines on bur chervil, or Anthriscus caucalis, also deserve a name from the sewing box.
The upshot for gardeners? If you see these weeds, pull them. They're noxious. For dog owners? If you have dogs, protect them.
-- Emily Green
Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.
Foxtail photos: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times. Netted dog photo: John Perry/Marie Travers. Burclover photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. Puncturevine photo: J.P. Clark.