Beware the Cereal Dog Killer

Bi-color German Shepherd Dog (Darcy) at 9 weeks of ageThis week’s edition of The Darcy Chronicles is a public service announcement about a distressingly common plant that can kill your dog (or cat), or at least drain your bank account. It is the also reason why we are teaching Darcy a full-body inspection routine for after romps outside. If you are distressed by graphic post-operative photos, even though the outcome was good, don’t click through past the introduction.

Instead, feast your eyes on the veritable puppy of the world to the left, three days short of nine weeks old, weighing in at 22 pounds now. Note the “lace” on Darcy’s chest and the gold dust on his lower legs: he’s an unusual bi-color, who usually simply have brown feet. (It’s hard to see, but there is a white tuft in the medial proximal aspect of each ear, too.)

Setaria: The Cereal Dog Killer

There’s a dog killer lurking in your neighborhood: a common weed, called foxtail. The many variants of the foxtail are not native to North America (with one exception), and many pet owners would gladly prescribe a Dantean punishment for the European immigrants—the Spanish in California where I live—who introduced the damned things to the New World. Native or not, chances are you see it every day during spring, summer, and fall and never think twice about it. But it’s out there, and if you don’t take appropriate precautions, it can kill your dog—or, at the very least, kill your veterinary budget. Here’s a story of one dog that came off second best in an encounter with the foxtail—but he lived another 8-1/2 years until cancer claimed him. Others have not been so lucky.

In April of 2004 my German Shepherd Dog, Oka, a healthy, four-year-old German-bred dog sired by the 2000 World Champion (Schutzhund), had a brief bout of coughing. X-rays showed some lung inflammation, but a course of antibiotics seemed to clear it and we thought no more about it. Then, one Saturday in early August, quite suddenly, he became increasingly lethargic and anorexic, and by Monday he was quite ill and spent part of each following day of the week at the vet as he went from bad to worse. We had noted some corneal ulceration the previous Friday, then he developed a hard mass on his side, with some signs of lung infection, then a high fever (107 degrees), then a seroma (a swelling full of serum caused by the protein imbalance of a severe inflammation) on his left side and at the base of his sternum, and finally, the following weekend, a stiff neck and apparent loss of vision. He’d already tested negative for any fungal infections (one of the few diseases that would explain the involvement of his eyes and lungs) and his blood work, except for an elevated white cell count, was normal. So we were really worried.

That Monday (a little over a week after his symptoms first manifested), during his workup, the vet found a soft spot high on his flank where the hard mass had been, and a needle probe brought up pus. Even though it was perilously close to his spine, we decided to go in immediately, with the understanding that if it was too close to the spine or had involved any of the bony processes that she would close up and refer me immediately to a surgeon in Santa Cruz, about 45 minutes down the road.

Fortunately, Oka’s spine was not involved, but what she found was pretty horrifying: an abcess that extended from his right shoulder to his left hip, crossing over his spine about midway down his body. A German Shepherd Dog’s fur is very thick, and their skin fairly loose, which had hidden the progress of the infection that apparently started getting serious last weekend when we found the hard mass. She didn’t find any foreign body, but cleaned it out and flushed it thoroughly with Ringer’s Lactate.

Here’s a shot of Oka about 4 hours post-op at home, being comforted by my wife, Deborah. He’s quite looped on Torbutrol, a powerful veterinary opiate.

dog with 3 feet of stitches

And here’s a close-up of the wound. The bits of plastic sticking out are drains—we had to flush them out twice a day with a dilute Betadyne solution to keep the wound healing cleanly.

close-up of dog with 3 feet of stitches

So what caused it? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect the Cereal Dog Killer, setaria sp., AKA foxtail.

This is the West Coast variant of the foxtail weed, which also happens to be the most dangerous. Foxtails awns (the seed package) are designed to work their way into the ground under the impetus of the slightest breeze, and will easily do the same to flesh under the urging of the animal’s slightest movement.. Their points are incredibly sharp, and the spines are covered with microscopic barbs that point backwards so that they only move one way: deeper, impelled by every slight muscular twitch or even mere breathing. Oka’s episode of coughing back in April may have been the result of inhaling a foxtail, which then worked his way out of his lung, through the pleural membrane, and into his subcutaneous layer. Mind you, a foxtail doesn’t have to be fully inhaled to cause this kind of damage: they often enter a dog’s body from between its toes, in its eyes or ears, through its nasal cavity, or even, in thick-coated dogs, through the skin.

I could have been better, and could have been worse. If it hadn’t been for the unrelated corneal ulceration,* which suggested mycosis, we might have zeroed in on the hard mass sooner and discovered the abcess before it got so big. As it was, the bill came to over 75 SVUs (Standard Veterinary Units: $100). That’s right, $7500. Our credit card company was very happy with us for some time afterwards.

On the other hand, it could have taken a slightly different course, into Oka’s abdominal cavity, with resulting peritonitis or major organ damage (a neighbor lost a cat to a foxtail that punctured her pancreas), or even into his heart. The bacterium involved in his case, hemolytic staphylococcus, responds well to a common, inexpensive antibiotic. Furthermore, the abcess didn’t damage any muscle tissue.

So, if you live in an area where foxtails are common, take this lesson to heart: they are deadly dangerous, especially on the West Coast. If your dog goes places where foxtails are common, inspect the animal carefully and frequently (teach it an inspection routine if you can, as we are doing with Darcy). You can’t do much to avoid inhalation or ingestion (a favored lodging place in the latter case is the tonsil vaults), but you can stop the other ways in which a foxtail can burrow into the dog’s skin and wreak havoc with its health and your budget. Best, if you can, to keep the dog away from areas with lots of foxtails, but if not, the price of your dog’s health is eternal vigilance!

* We later realized this was one of the first signs of pannus, a genetic disease that causes just that, and is (was) easily controlled by steroids.

A slightly different version of this story was originally published at


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


Beware the Cereal Dog Killer — 7 Comments

    • He got over it, but ever after, whenever he saw the vet (except the last time, at home, when he was too sick to care), he’d give this awful disappointed moan.

  1. I have a Beagler friend who makes “bubble heads” for her dogs–mesh full-cover head gear to protect their eyes and ears from foxtails. We hates foxtails, yes we do…

    (Full body searches…also good for ticks!)

    • That would make part of a great steampunk costume for Darcy. Except that it would have to be huge: his head will be close to the size of a beagle’s body with that long nose.

  2. This is a continual worry. Our previous dog Morena had several, the worst being the one in her vagina. Kali is fenced in a non-foxtail area from 6pm to 6am, but otherwise enjoys the run of our 13 acres. I try to check her, but I know I can miss one, especially in the winter when her coat is so thick.

  3. Dave:
    There are several genera of plants commonly called foxtails, including Setaria. But the photo of the grass you show is not Setaria; it looks more like Bromus or Hordeum, wild barleys. It also appears that Setaria species are not the foxtails that are dangerous to dogs, the culprits being instead Hordeum and Bromus species. For one thing, Setarias are awnless, while it is Hordeums and Bromus that have barbed awns. The use of common names for plants often leads to this kind of confusion. I’m sorry for Oka’s ordeal and I’d like to help others avoid his suffering by offering a more precise identification of what plants needs to be avoided. Unless you have a confirmed identifaction of the grass seed that caused this problem, I am confident that it was not Setaria.