This is a topic that comes up again and again – but sadly, it is true! Over the last year or so, there has been a growing chorus from vets to warn people of the (very real) dangers of throwing sticks for dogs – sadly hindered by celebrities who should know better. Yes, it’s true that many dogs catch sticks every day of their lives and never have a problem, but how would you feel if it was your dog that became impaled, abscessed, or bled to death from a lacerated artery?
What are the risks?
There are four major risks from throwing a stick for a dog:
A short stick can easily become wedged between a dog’s top teeth, across the roof of their mouth (the hard palate). Most dogs find this very uncomfortable and paw and scratch at their mouths to try and get it out. Many people have seen this in their dogs and some are really quite adept at using pliers to hoick out the offending twig.
However, this can actually be a life-threatening situation – just inside the teeth on each side runs the Greater Palatine Artery. If lacerated, a dog can bleed to death from this vessel in a matter of minutes.
So, if you think your dog has a stick stuck, you’re best bringing it into us to be removed safely, rather than trying yourself – sometimes, that stick might actually be stopping the bleeding that it caused going in!
When a dog grabs something in their mouth, their first response is often to bite – to stop the “prey” from escaping. While many dogs (retrievers and other gundogs) have been bred for “soft mouths”, if the stick moves or twists, their instinct is still to bite so they don’t lose it. Unfortunately, a dog has a MASSIVELY powerful bite – up to 550 psi according to some studies – and wood tends to respond to that kind of force by splintering. The result is that your dog now has a mouth full of splinters, some of which can easily become deeply embedded in their gums, tongue, cheeks, and palate.
This is very painful (the mouth has more nerve endings than almost any other part of the body, after the eyes and genitals), and the penetrating splinters will carry infection with them. This leads to the formation of abscesses (pockets of pus) in and around the mouth, which can, if untreated, lead to blood poisoning. Amazingly, many such splinters are almost invisible – the tissues close over them, and they cannot be seen on X-rays (wood is roughly as transparent to X-rays as soft tissues are).
In some cases, the injuries may not be noticed until the abscesses start to drain, causing severe halitosis, but most of the time the local swelling and pain mean the dog is unable to eat, and sometimes even drink.
The treatment involves careful draining of ALL the abscesses and removal of any bits of stick left, under general anaesthesia – and it can be a really long job, to make sure we’ve removed all the bits.
3) Pharyngeal impalement
At the back of the dog’s mouth is a space called the Common Pharynx, where the nose and mouth join, and where the gullet (oesophagus) and voice box (larynx) open. It’s into this space, or rather the soft tissues around it and the jaw hinges, that many dogs manage to impale themselves. The main factor is that a stick is thrown, but manages to come to rest lodged with a pointy end sticking up. The dog opens their mouth to grab it and runs onto the stick.
Again, these can sometimes be really hard to spot – but there are a LOT of sensitive and delicate structures in that area (especially nerves, blood vessels and of course the larynx itself). If damaged, the result can be paralysis, bleeding, or infection and abscessation – damage to the gullet, for example, has a grave prognosis, with many animals not surviving the injury.
The usual symptoms are difficulty or inability to swallow, as well as local swelling, pain and often signs of systemic infection such as lethargy and fever.
Surgical repair is usually possible, but is a complicated job (there are too many delicate structures packed into a tiny space below the skull there), and often requires referral to a specialist veterinary hospital. These referral centres (of which there are many, across the country) are reportedly each seeing 2-3 cases a week of impalements too complex to be handled by general practitioner vets, so it’s hardly a rare occurrence.
4) Thoracic impalement
This is remarkably common – essentially, the scenario is the same as above, but at the last minute the dog realises they are putting themselves in danger and moves their head out the way. However, their momentum is such that they then run onto the stick, stabbing themselves in the chest.
Fortunately, in most cases the stick is deflected along the ribs or into the armpit, causing severe muscle and soft tissue damage and abscesses to form (as above) but not immediately life-threatening injuries.
However, it is possible for a stick to penetrate the open “thoracic inlet” – the space between the first two ribs, and actually enter the chest cavity. Here are the heart, the lungs, and the massive blood vessels joining them, all of which respond very badly to being stabbed – and equally badly to infection and abscesses. Repairing an injury here may require open chest surgery, which is difficult, dangerous and expensive.
So, the next time you’re tempted to throw a stick – why not get a dog-safe toy instead? One that won’t split, or splinter, and is soft enough not to impale your poor pet! Talk to one of our staff about the options.