Wednesday, April 17, 2013
With the arrival of spring so do the foxtails. For non Californians, foxtails are the seeds of non native grasses brought over from southern Europe and northern Africa in animal foods in the mid 1800s. Slowly but surely they have taken over the grasslands of the state.
The grasses are beautiful when they are green so why are the seeds bad? They cause untold injuries in pets and wildlife. The seeds have one way barbs so once they get into an animal, like a fishing hook they can only go one direction-forward somewhere into the body. The seed carries bacteria and spreads infection where ever it goes.
As a veterinarian I have removed them from the nose, eyes,lungs, rectal,vaginal,prepucial regions and the abdomen. Once they enter an animal they slowly move forward into the body with their bacteria. If they are caught in the nose or eye they can be removed with sedation. More serious areas include the lung. Once they get into the lungs they either stay there and abscess the lung, requiring lung removal. Or they rupture the lung and spread into the abdomen, often ending up near the kidney.
Foxtails don't show up on xrays or CAT scans so the area has to be opened up and draining tracts followed to their origin. Many many times the foxtails have moved on and are never found. The body can not break them down so they continue spreading infection throughout the body.
Moving to California years ago I was not prepared for their damage. To date I have had three dogs with serious run ins although luckily none died.
My first encounter was with Shattab years ago. One spring she was out running the fields and having a grand time. Early the next morning she was struggling to breath. Radiographs showed a ruptured lung that wouldn't seal. Although the air was pulled out with a syringe it kept refilling immediately and she ended up in ICU with a chest tube for several days. The foxtail never was apparent. Months later she developed a huge abscess on her left flank which was surgically explored and cleaned . She had inhaled the foxtail running and it went into and though her lung into her abdomen and out into the body wall. After surgery she never had a problem again.
The next occurence happened several years later to her son Merlin. He was running my farm and one spring day spooked up a coyote. Off all the dogs went chasing the coyote until he disappeared. The dogs came back tired but happy. The next morning I heard a soft moist cough and noticed he had labored respiration. Radiographs showed a small spot of pneumonia in the back part of the lung that quickly responded to antibiotics. Within a few days though he was in screaming pain whenever he moved. Shortly afterwards a small abscess developed over his ribs. It was surgically cleaned and there was the foxtail in all its ugliness. He had inhaled it and it lodged in his lung. Then it kept moving and migrated between his ribs and to the outside of the body. Lucky it did as otherwise he would have lost his lung.
By this time I was understandable wary about letting the dogs run in spring. My last run in with them was with Apollo. At this point my dogs were always on leash spring time and to this day I don't know how he found the foxtail or it found him. One morning I noticed labored respiration and radiographs again showed a ruptured lung. At this point I pretty much knew what had happened. The lung rupture wasn't severe and I immediately started him on antiobiotics and waited. Sure enough a few weeks later he started crying when he would move. Ultrasound revealed a large retroperitoneal abscess(abscess around the kidney). Major surgery cleaned the area but the foxtail was not found. He lived on antiobiotics the rest of his life but at least it never caused a problem again.
California in the spring is lovely but can have deadly consequences.