Simple answer – do not throw sticks for your dog. Many pet owners are unaware of the dangers that stick throwing poses to their dogs. Dogs inherited the urge to play fetch from their wolf ancestor. Wolves had the drive to catch prey and return it to their families for feeding.

Some breeds enjoy a game of fetch more than others, such as the Labrador Retriever which was selectively bred for this trait. Whilst throwing a stick for your dog may seem like just a bit of fun, a simple game of fetch with a stick could have disastrous results.

It is far safer to purchase pet-specific toys, such as a tennis ball, for your dog to play a game of fetch with. Keep reading below where we will discuss the risks of throwing sticks for your dog, the symptoms of stick injuries and what to do if you think your dog has been injured by a stick.

What are the risks of sticks?

Sticks are pieces of wood that fall from a tree. Some dogs like to pick up these sticks in their mouths and carry them or try to entice their owners to play fetch with them. Do not be tempted to throw these sticks as when they are caught by a dog in their mouth, they may cause injury. 

Injuries

The types of injuries caused by stick throwing involve splintering of the wood in their mouths. This causes a foreign body reaction or puncturing of soft tissues in the back of their throat. The vital structures within the mouth and throat that may be damaged include the teeth, gums, tongue, blood vessels, windpipe (trachea) and food pipe (oesophagus). 

Other hazards

Chewing sticks may also pose a choking hazard. There have also been cases where dogs have become impaled on sharp sticks, so it is best to just avoid sticks altogether. 

Unfortunately, some of the injuries sustained by dogs by stick throwing can cause life-threatening internal injuries. This includes damage to the blood vessels in the mouth or neck, which may result in significant blood loss. Other life-threatening injuries related to stick injuries involve damage to the food pipe, which may cause leakage of food into the surrounding tissues of the neck or chest. Leakage of food outside the food pipe may cause life-threatening infections that need urgent surgical treatment.

Symptoms of stick injuries

With some stick injuries, it is immediately evident that an injury has been sustained to a dog from a stick. In others, injuries go missed at the time of occurrence. In the cases that are detected immediately, dogs may show the following symptoms:

  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Oral pain or pawing at the mouth
  • Difficulty eating or chewing
  • Drooling
  • Problems swallowing (if damage has occurred to the food pipe) 
  • Difficulty breathing (if damage has occurred to the windpipe)

In cases where the initial stick injury was not detected, and a period of days to weeks has passed, dogs may show the following symptoms:

  • Swelling or abscess in the neck region
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Pus discharging from around the face/neck
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing

Some dogs with stick injuries may show only a few of the above symptoms. The symptoms listed above are not unique to stick injuries, your dog may be suffering from a different condition altogether, so if you are concerned, contact your vet for advice. 

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What should I do if my dog has been injured by a stick?

If your dog has been injured whilst throwing a stick it is best to contact your vet, who will want to examine your pet for signs of injury. The investigation may involve giving your dog an anaesthetic and acquiring images with an x-ray or CT scan. It is much easier to see an injury or a splinter of wood shortly after the accident occurred.

In cases where an examination by a vet has been delayed, it may be difficult to see the original injury. Gums heal rapidly, which can cover up injuries. Unfortunately, if an injury is not visible during the examination of your pet, this does not rule out the presence of a foreign body.

If your dog has been injured by a stick and damage has been sustained, there is a higher chance of successful treatment if you seek veterinary attention quickly. When a stick is chewed or caught in the mouth of a dog, parts of it may splinter and break off. The tiny splinters of wood may puncture and damage the soft tissues of the mouth, neck and sometimes in severe cases, the chest.

If significant damage has occurred, it may be necessary to perform surgery to repair the damaged structures and/or remove the splinters of wood. It is much more difficult to remove splinters of wood that have been present for more than a week. This is because the gum or skin has often healed over the original entry wound and splinters of wood may migrate to another location. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best treatment for your pet’s condition.

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Summary

Dogs love to play a game of fetch with their owners. Unfortunately, many owners do not realise the serious harm that could be caused to their pet by allowing dogs to catch a stick in their mouths. Stick injuries can be serious and sometimes life-threatening. Do not throw sticks for your dog. Instead, purchase a pet-friendly toy to play a game of fetch with.

By using pet-specific toys you can ensure that you are not putting your dog at risk. If you are concerned about your dog having sustained a stick injury, contact your vet immediately for advice. Investigations and treatments that are started promptly are most likely to result in the successful treatment of your dog. 

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References:

Doran, I.P., Wright, C.A. and Moore, A.H. (2008), Acute Oropharyngeal and Esophageal Stick Injury in Forty‐One Dogs. Veterinary Surgery, 37: 781-785

Pratt, J.N.J., Munro, E.A.C. and Kirby, B.M. (1999), Osteomyelitis of the atlanto‐occipital region as a sequela to a pharyngeal stick injury. Journal of Small Animal Practice

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White, R.A.S. and Lane, J.G. (1988), Pharyngeal stick penetration injuries in the dog. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 29: 13-35