A guide to finding foxtails
The species of grass awn varies across the United States, with Hordeum common in the west, Stipa and Seteria in the south, and Avena reported in parts of Europe. Foxtails are the common name for the grass awns seen in the Western United States. They are sharp enough to enter tissue and have barbs that cause them to migrate in one direction if they enter the body. Working dogs with long hair and opportunity to come in contact with grass awns are most commonly affected.
Some of the most severe clinical signs occur when the grass awns are inhaled into the airways. The patient can produce signs of coughing and respiratory distress. A foreign body located in an airway causes local inflammation and pneumonia. They can also migrate outwards to the pulmonary parenchyma and pleural space, causing pyothorax and pneumothorax (Image 2). Foxtails originating from the lungs have also been found in the mediastinum, the thoracic wall, the retroperitoneal space and lumbar musculature.
Foxtails are commonly found embedded in the soft tissues of the distal limbs. Ultrasound is the primary method of imaging diagnosis and does an excellent job of localizing the foreign body prior to surgery. The granuloma may be extensive depending on how far the foxtail has migrated after entry. This tissue appears very hypoechoic on ultrasound (Image 3), and a tract with gas echoes may or may not be visible. The foxtail itself should appear oval in shape and hyperechoic. It may also be surrounded by anechoic fluid.
In cases of suspected migrating foreign body, choose the most appropriate imaging modality for the presenting clinical signs. More than one may be needed in some cases to determine the extent of the pathology and to locate the foreign body for removal.
Dr. Zwingenberger is a veterinary radiologist at the University of California-Davis.
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