If you live west of the Mississippi, you may have seen foxtails, those weeds with sharp tips that look, well, like a fox's tail. Foxtails thrive in dry areas. Here's why they can pose a problem for your pooch: The weeds have a pointy shape, and if the dog steps on, brushes by or inhales them, they can stick themselves into the dog and become embedded inside his body.

Foxtails are not always easy to detect once they’re inside your dog. “It can be misdiagnosed,” said Jill Pomrantz, DVM and medical director at the ASPCA Animal Hospital in New York. Pomrantz did her residency at the University of California, Davis, and treated a lot of dogs that came in with foxtails. “If the foxtail is embedded into the dog and the owner doesn’t see it, then that dog may be treated with antibiotics, which temporarily take care of the infection, but don’t get to the problem of removing the foxtail.”

Pomrantz suggests checking for foxtails the same way you would check for ticks. Look at your dog’s paws, ears or anywhere else foxtails might stick to the dog. "Remove [the foxtails] immediately before they burrow in," she says.

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If your dog is in distress and you don’t understand why, Pomrantz says to give your veterinarian a thorough history. “Maybe you noticed he started sneezing or coughing when he was outdoors,” she said. “He could have inhaled the foxtail through his mouth or nose. If it is lodged inside, you may not notice it.”

Foxtails have been found in a dog’s nose, ears, eyes, brain, lungs, spinal cord, urinary tract and abdomen. They’ve also been known to migrate up the inside of a dog’s leg. You may think if your dog steps on a foxtail, he would yelp. That’s not true. While foxtails are incredibly sharp, their points are a lot like a well-cared-for knife. You know being cut by a dull blade is more painful than being cut by a sharp one. So, your dog may not notice it at first.

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Tips for preventing foxtail problems

1. Keep away from areas where you know foxtails grow.

2. If you unexpectedly find yourself in areas where foxtails grow, keep your dog on a short leash away from them.

3. If you have a long-haired dog, keep her coat short during the summer and fall — especially on her legs and feet. Foxtails can get caught in her fur.

4. After you are in areas with foxtails, check your dog’s entire body, especially the legs, paws, pads of his feet, mouth and gums. If you see foxtails attached to your dog, gently pull them out using tweezers.

5. If you suspect foxtails are embedded in your dog’s body or if your dog is acting like he is ill (sneezing, coughing, shaking or squinting) or hurt, call your veterinarian. Let her know your dog has been in an area with foxtails. Surgery may be required to remove foxtails embedded inside your dog’s body.

6. Check your backyard for foxtails and remove them completely, roots and all.

Cats can get foxtails, too

If you have an outdoor cat, check him when he comes inside. Foxtails aren’t usually found in a cat’s nasal cavity because it is too small. However, he may step on foxtails, or they could get caught in his fur.

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Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, FamilyCircle.com and other leading publications. She blogs at Pet News and Views.