Foxtails and fleas are safety issues in summer

When pets are outdoors more, problems may pop up


As we look forward to nicer weather and spending more time outside of our homes as California reopens, it’s important to keep our pet’s health and safety in mind. Two of the most common summertime problems we encounter at the San Francisco SPCA Veterinary Hospitals are foxtails and fleas. In this month’s column, I will address reader questions about both of these issues.

During the summer, I often see foxtails in some of the San Francisco parks where I walk my dog. What can I do to keep her safe? — Robert N.

Foxtails are the bushy-shaped grass-like weeds that are common in California. They’re soft and green during the cooler months, but in warmer months the seed heads become yellow, dry and with a pointy stiff tip. The individual foxtail structures are barbed and have sharp points at one end, so they can easily burrow into an animal’s skin and once embedded can be very difficult to find or remove. Dogs and cats can get foxtails caught literally anywhere; between their toes and long-haired pets often get them caught in their coats, in their ears, eyes and noses.

After being outdoors, if your pets suddenly begin violently sneezing, pawing at their nose or ears, shaking their head, gagging, squinting or closing their eye, these are all signs that a foxtail could be lodged in that area. If a foxtail gets stuck in your animal’s ear, nose, throat or eye, it needs to be treated as an emergency — get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible. As a reminder, in your phone contacts you should save your veterinarian’s phone number and the phone number of your nearest emergency clinic. You can reach the San Francisco SPCA at (415) 554-3030.

Be alert for areas with grasses and foxtails when you’re out walking your dog or letting him off leash. Pets who have been outdoors should be brushed and checked for foxtails daily, and don’t forget to check between their toes. It can also be helpful to give your pet a short haircut in the summer, which can make foxtails easier to spot and remove.

Finally, consider using a mesh hood foxtail guard, like OutFox Field Guard, which is a safe and easy prevention measure. Dogs can drink and play ball while wearing it, and most dogs get used to it easily. My dog does not leave home without it.

Pets with long hair can have a particularly tough time with foxtails and fleas. (Courtesy photos)

Pets with long hair can have a particularly tough time with foxtails and fleas. (Courtesy photos)

I recently adopted a new kitten, and this will be our first summer together. I’ve heard that fleas are more common in the summer. Is that true, and if so, what should I do now to prepare? — Jennifer C.

External parasites like fleas and ticks are a big nuisance in the Bay Area, especially during the summer. They’re not only irritating, figuratively and literally, but they can also pose some very serious health risks. Many animals are allergic to flea bites, causing inflammation of the skin that can develop into rashes, infections and hair loss. These external parasites can also cause internal issues; tapeworms are easily transmitted to dogs and cats by ingesting the fleas while grooming or licking. A heavy flea infestation can even cause life threatening anemia in weak or young or smaller animals. The bottom line is that flea prevention is critically important for your pet’s health.

While ticks are more seasonal, fleas are a year-round issue in temperate climates like San Francisco, and they can be especially problematic during heatwaves. The flea life cycle is short but relentless, and an adult flea can lay hundreds of eggs in a very short time. Fleas live in the environment and only get onto an animal to feed, so if you see one flea on your pet there are many more nearby.

Fortunately, there are flea prevention and control options that can help, including both topical and oral medications. Many products combine flea and tick prevention and some even include other diseases such as heartworm and intestinal parasites.

Some topical over-the-counter flea treatments can cause serious side effects. To find the right product for your pet, speak with your veterinarian about the best option for your specific situation. Always follow the instructions of your veterinarian and read the label carefully!

Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, is senior vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. Email behavior and medical questions to

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