Seasonal Menace Stalks Los Alamos, Threatens Pets

  Elymus elymoides, one of the perennials referred to as “foxtail” is spotted Tuesday at a residence in White Rock. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/

Los Alamos Daily Post

Spring is here and unfortunately that means it’s time for seed production for foxtail barley and cheatgrass.

What makes these plants a menace? They threaten the health and safety of pets, livestock and wildlife.

According to Carlos Valdez, director of the Los Alamos County Extension Service, these plants are dangerous, because part of their reproductive strategy is the attachment of their barbed seeds to the coats of animals. The animals lick their fur and lodge the barbed seeds in their ears, noses, eyes and mouths where it causes sores and infections

 “We have both foxtail and cheatgrass here in Los Alamos County,” Valdez said. “It’s a problem every spring.”

White Rock has an especially heavy infestation of both foxtail and cheatgrass this year. Ask anyone who walks regularly. Many of those folks are walking with dogs.

“We are starting to see a lot of dogs with the seeds embedded in mouths and noses,” Kathleen Kearn of the Animal Clinic of Los Alamos said. “The seeds can be really dangerous because of the barbs. They can cause infections and sores, and animals can swallow them and have digestive problems as well.”

Drooling and lack of appetite caused by the mouth of the animal being impacted and inflamed by hundreds of barbs are signs of trouble, she said.

Foxtail (Hordeum jubatum) and Elymus elymoides are a short-lived perennials, nicknamed “foxtails”.  They are  attractive plants and gardeners may be tempted to let them become part of their landscape, but they pose a real threat to animals and also spreads easily. Cheatgrass or downy brome (Bromus tectorum) is not nearly so attractive, but also poses a threat and spreads easily. Cheatgrass seed heads are more upright than those of cheatgrass, which is spindly and has drooping seed heads. Cheatgrass looks like wheat. Foxtail is larger and looks like barley.

According to materials provided by the New Mexico Extension Service, there are several ways to get rid of these plants. In fields and lots, fire will work, but it’s unlikely you want to use this method in your yard and burn up your landscape and maybe your house. Pesticides will work, but applying them in a large area can be hazardous and they can kill the surrounding plants in your yard. The best method is, sigh, to dig them up.

Cheatgrass is easy to dig up because of its shallow roots. Foxtail is more of a challenge because it’s a perennial, but is still relatively easy to dig out. It’s a bit late to avoid seed distribution, which will help solve the problem of more of these pests appearing next year, but it will still help and your neighbors will thank you for not allowing them to spread to their yard. Next year, mowing down these plants before they develop seeds will help get rid of them. Another strategy for next year is to fill your landscape with healthy plants of other types, so there’s no room for these weeds. Because there are many open areas in White Rock and Los Alamos, eradication may be impossible outside one’s own yard but people walking dogs in suburban areas will thank you too.

Dog walkers should not allow their pets to investigate these plants if possible, but that probably won’t entirely work. Check your dog for these barbed seeds after a walk and remove them from its fur. Outdoor cats should also be examined, especially long-haired cats. Be sure to check ears and noses!

Foxtail and cheatgrass will be with us every spring, but pet owners will thank you if you help keep their numbers to a minimum.

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