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Why You Shouldn’t Let Your Dog Fetch or Chew Sticks

Believe it or not, chasing and chewing sticks can cause serious injuries.

 |  Jun 14th 2013  |   17 Contributions


Does your dog love to fetch and chew sticks? Lots of dogs do, right? You see it all the time at the park, on the beach, and in yards. I get nervous when I see dogs chewing and chasing sticks, because I know that sometimes my veterinarian colleagues will have to see those dogs. It's a matter of health.

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Me with my rescue dog, Wendy. I never let her play with sticks.

Were you aware that every year many dogs suffer significant pain and injuries from sticks, and that some dogs even die from their stick-related injuries? It’s true, and it happens far more frequently than you might expect.

Fortunately, with some simple preventive steps, you can protect your dog from such a fate. Here are tips on how to best protect your dogs from the many dangers of sticks.

How do sticks injure dogs?

Dogs typically sustain stick-related injuries in one of two ways: chasing or chewing. Stick-chasing injuries are typically more severe than the stick-chewing injuries. But stick chewers risk multiple problems, including wood splinters stuck under their gums (and other tissues in the mouth) as well as obstruction of their digestive or respiratory tract with wood. A list of some common stick chewing injuries include the following:

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Never pull a stick from your dog's mouth -- you could damage his teeth or jaw. Woman and collie by Shutterstock

  • Small wood splinters embedded in the tongue, laryngeal tissues, and under the gumline next to the teeth.
  • Large wood fragments embedded between the upper teeth and along the surface of the hard palate, or even embedded directly into the hard palate. This can result in severe enough damage to teeth or palate to require surgery.
  • Large wood fragments being swallowed, resulting in digestive tract irritation, bleeding, and possible obstruction.
  • Large or small pieces of wood being inhaled into the trachea, leading to possible obstruction, irritation, or infection of the respiratory tract. Such wood fragments can also lead to puncture of the trachea or lung tissue, resulting in a chest infection or even damage to the heart, nerves, or blood vessels.

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Dogs love to play fetch with sticks, but they can be dangerous. Woman and dog with stick by Shutterstock

Stick-chasing dogs frequently suffer more severe -- and more painful, debilitating, and expensive -- injuries than the stick chewers. These injuries typically happen when a thrown stick gets stuck in the ground and the eager dog either pounces or runs onto the exposed sharp end of it. These sticks cause significant puncture wounds and other damage. Common injury sites include the following:

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If your dog loves to retrieve, indestructible Kongs are a better option. Man throws toy for dog by Shutterstock

  • Eye: There is direct damage to the eye. If the force of the penetration is great enough, the stick can result in damage to your dog’s brain, too.
  • Mouth: Stick penetration in the mouth can damage a lot of important structures, including the tongue, laryngeal and pharyngeal tissues, palate (“roof”) of the mouth, teeth, esophagus, and trachea. These traumas can also damage the nerves or blood vessels within your dog’s neck, and, depending on the direction the stick takes, there can be significant damage to your dog’s sinuses or brain.
  • Chest: As you might imagine, with all of the important structures that are present within the chest cavity, the damage that a stick penetration in this area can be severe. Along with the heart and lungs, the chest also houses many large blood vessels and important nerves, as well as the diaphragm, trachea, and esophagus. 
  • Abdomen: Stick penetration in this area can easily result in damage to multiple important organs. Commonly affected organs include the stomach, liver, spleen, and intestines.

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Splinters may not show up during a vet checkup. Vet examines dog's eye by Shutterstock

To make matters worse, the initial damage caused by the penetration of the stick isn’t always indicative of the full extent of a dog’s injuries. Despite best efforts, it’s often possible for small fragments or splinters of wood to be missed during initial surgical exploration of such puncture wounds, because sticks shatter and splinter upon impact. Wood itself doesn’t necessarily show up on X-rays, especially small splinters of wood. 

What you should do if your dog runs onto a stick

Though the steps you should take vary with the area of penetration, the number of helpers you have, and your distance from the nearest pet ER, there are some steps that are important regardless of these influencing factors. Here are some general tips about what to do in cases of stick impalement:

  • Get your dog in for veterinary evaluation and treatment as quickly as you can. Delay doesn’t just prolong pain, suffering, and distress, it’s likely to increase your dog’s risk of death, too. If possible, call the hospital while en route to advise them of your impending arrival –- doing so can allow the medical team to be better prepared to more quickly care for your dog when you get there.
  • Avoid the urge to remove the stick. It’s typically better to leave the penetrating stick in place, so that it can be removed and its path evaluated by the vet. Sometimes the mere presence of the stick is the only thing preventing a massive loss of blood or a collapsed lung. Your default action should be to leave the stick in place.
  • Prevent the protruding end of the stick from getting caught on anything during transport to the vet. Try not to snap or saw the stick, as the jarring motion that can result from doing so can dislodge the stick or even cause further damage. Only cut the protruding end of the stick if you won't cause too much vibration or movement, and you won’t delay your arrival at the vet hospital.
  • Wrap the protruding end of the stick with a T-shirt, towel, or some other bulky material. This can help prevent the stick from migrating further into your dog and causing more internal damage.
  • If the stick has penetrated the chest, keep your dog lying upright, rather than on their side, during the drive to the vet. This will help by allowing the unaffected side of their lungs to work as efficiently as possible to compensate for the damage that is likely to have occurred to their lungs on the side of the stick penetration. 

You can find more info on my site, ThePreventiveVet.com, and in my book, 101 Essential Tips You Need to Raise a Happy, Healthy, Safe Dog, which is available online at Amazon, on my site, and at vet practices, dog-training facilities, animal shelters, and breeders across the country. 

Dr. Jason Nicholas, The Preventive Vet, is is a veterinarian and pet safety expert based in Portland, Oregon. He created ThePreventiveVet.com to help pet parents everywhere. 

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