Q: My neighbor just brought home a dog from the shelter. She took a long walk with her new dog and came home to find cockleburs throughout the dog’s coat. What should she do?
A: Once you discover cockleburs on your dog, you need to remove them as soon as possible. The longer they stay in the coat, the deeper they will dig in, making it more difficult to get rid of them. The best way to remove them depends on how many your furry friend has picked up. If there are just a few, you can usually remove them with a coarse brush or a stainless steel comb. If some are already stuck in, you can try splitting them with scissors to make brushing them out easier. Do this very carefully; always point the scissor’s tips away from the dog’s body to avoid injury.
Detangling spray or coat conditioner will make it easier to remove the cockleburs. You’ll be able to work them out without tugging too much on your dog’s coat. In a pinch, a little vegetable oil will also do the trick.
You’ll need to bathe your pet after using any of these products. Any good pH-balanced pet shampoo will do, but if the coat is extremely oily, you might want to use de-greasing shampoo or Dawn dish detergent followed by a soothing crème rinse or conditioner. After the bath, brush and comb the coat to make sure you haven’t missed any cockleburs. Check your dog thoroughly, including the pads of his feet. These tiny tanglers can find a home in any crevice, including armpits, ears and even the genital area.
When dogs loaded with cockleburs come to the grooming shop, we normally clip them down and start the coat over again. Even if it were possible to remove them with a dematting tool, it would be extremely time-consuming and painful for the pet. In fact, if your four-footed friend loves to romp in the woods and fields, keeping his coat in a short trim will help you to easily detect the burrs. When you are enjoying the great outdoors, avoid any areas that contain cockleburs. If they are growing on your property, remove them – wearing gloves, of course. Their prickly dry seedpods are usually visible on plant stems, protruding above other wild vegetation.
Another serious botanical hazard for dogs that romp outdoors is the foxtail, a hard seed-bearing structure on some kinds of wild grasses that contains sharp points at one end with microscopic barbs that allows it to embed like a fish hook. Like cockleburs, these become stuck in the hair, especially the paws and ears, and sometimes even in nostrils and eyes. If they work their way into the skin, they can cause serious infection. These grasses are common in weedy areas around roads, paths and woodland trails. As annuals, they are soft and green from January through March or April, but after the seed heads dry in the spring, they become dangerous, remaining that way throughout the summer and fall. Foxtails can cause severe injury, so if you uncover any on your pet, be sure to get all of them out with your brush and comb. If they have become embedded, take your dog to a veterinarian for removal.
One interesting cocklebur factoid: Despite their nuisance quality, they are responsible for an invention that has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral noticed that his wool socks, his jacket and his dog’s fur were covered with cockleburs after a walk in the woods. Observing them under a microscope, he noticed their hundreds of hooks and how easily they attached to fibers, especially if those fibers were looped. By 1948, he had duplicated this hook and loop configuration in nylon, naming his new creation Velcro.