Does your dog play with sticks?
Dogs and sticks go together like…well, cats and string. It’s hard to pull a dog away from a good game of finding and retrieving a thrown stick.
Veterinarians warn you not to throw sticks for your dog, so does this mean vets just don’t want your dog to have fun? Not at all. By way of a cautionary tale of how sticks pose a very real danger to dogs, here are a couple of real-life cases seen at my clinic.
A Sticky Situation #1
One morning I happened to follow a Staffie-cross named Tessy into the clinic. She looked sore, walking with a hunched back and moving as if every bone in her body hurt. In the exam room, Tessy was feeling as terrible as she looked on the street, and she was running a fever.
Tessy’s symptoms were strange and didn’t quite fit with my first impression of a slipped disc. I ran blood tests, and she had some weird shifts in her white cell count — which made meningitis a possibility.
The more I investigated, the weirder the picture became. Long story short, we decided to refer Tessy to see a specialist for an MRI scan of her spine.
The Dangers of Swallowing a Stick
What showed up on the scan caught even the specialist by surprise: A 6-inch long stick had migrated out of the dog’s gut (she had chewed and swallowed it) to lodge alongside her spine. The stick had created a large abscess (a pocket of pus), which was now bathing her spinal cord in poison.
Several hours of surgery later, and Tessy came out of the operation with a guarded prognosis. Everything possible had been done, and now it was a waiting game to see if she would make it or not. Happily, she went on to make a full recovery but racked up a substantial bill in the process — and all because of chewing a stick.
How could 1 stick do so much damage? Tessy had chewed and swallowed it. The contractions of her gut had pushed the sharp end through the bowel wall, where it had migrated up to her spine and lodged there.
A Sticky Situation #2
This second case is more typical of a stick injury: impalement.
Yes, it is as horrific as it sounds.
Have you ever watched a stick in flight and seen it cartwheel through the air? When it hits the ground it can continue to spin, and some dogs running at full throttle can run onto the end of the stick and impale themselves.
Beanie, a Border Collie, did just this. Caught up in the thrill of the chase, she fully ran onto the end of the stick where it pierced her body. Her family rushed her straight to the veterinarian.
The bizarre thing? The only part of the stick visible was a stubby end poking out from under her tongue. We went ahead and gave Beanie an anesthetic to investigate.
The stick was huge! It had entered under Beanie’s tongue and pushed all the way down her neck to reach the entrance to her chest. Very carefully, we pulled out the stick, which just kept on coming.
Dr. Greg Martinez, DVM, explains how a stick got wedged inside a dog’s mouth:
Beanie was incredibly lucky, and with a course of antibiotics and pain relief, she made a full recovery. Many dogs aren’t so lucky (if you can call Tessy’s and Beanie’s injuries good luck).
I can also think of an elderly weimaraner who presented with marked weight loss and foul breath. The family was convinced their dog had kidney failure. But a physical exam showed a stick wedged between the back teeth that had stopped the dog from eating and caused a deep, infected sore on the inside of the cheek. Not pleasant, granted, but a much better outlook than kidney failure.
Offer Your Dog Playtime Alternatives
A stick and a dog in full flight are a recipe for disaster. Even sticks that aren’t moving aren’t much better. I’ve lost track of the injuries to dog’s mouths I’ve treated where the stick splinters and embeds in the gum or between teeth.
Remember: Veterinarians are not killjoys — they’ve just seen things that make your toes curl.
Let your dog enjoy the thrill of the chase, just not with a stick. There are safer options available.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Aug. 21, 2015.