Dogs love this ‘toy’ — But it’s very risky

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog playing

Story at-a-glance -

  • A Labrador Retriever puppy in the U.K. swallowed a stick and her recovery required surgery and a lengthy hospitalization
  • The puppy’s parents vow never to play with sticks with her again, and their veterinary surgeon is warning dog owners to stop the practice
  • Many dogs love sticks, and all dogs are natural chewers, but the risks outweigh the benefits of allowing your pet to play with or gnaw on a stick

Recently, a story out of Wakefield, England involving a Labrador Retriever puppy and a stick gave me pause, and I thought I should spread the word to all you dog parents out there.

The puppy, named Corona, and her humans, Pauline and Pete Cook, were playing tug-of-war with a stick about the size of a cigar during a walk in the woods. At some point, Corona decided to swallow the stick. Later that evening, the dog threw up blood and the Cooks knew right away something was wrong and rushed her to a veterinarian.

A CT scan revealed the stick had punctured Corona’s esophagus, and a veterinary surgeon acted quickly. He removed the stick through an incision in the dog’s chest and repaired the damage to the esophagus. You can see Corona and her stick on the veterinary referral center’s Facebook page. She was hospitalized for eight days following the surgery and is now back home and doing well.

The Cooks vow never to play with sticks again with their dog, and the veterinary surgeon is warning pet parents not to throw sticks for their dogs, since the type of injury the Lab puppy suffered is relatively common and can be very serious.

“Corona suffered a very nasty injury from the stick,” Dr. Mickey Tivers told Metro News. “It was very serious, as the esophagus does not always heal well and there was significant risk of infection.”1

He explained that if a stick winds up inside a dog’s body at a certain angle, she can impale herself. Also, stick fragments can get lodged in the neck, leading to abscesses that form weeks or even months down the road.

Dogs and their sticks

Many dogs absolutely love sticks — big sticks, small sticks and every size in between. They love to chase sticks if they’re thrown, use them as chew toys and carry them around. I’m sure you’ve all seen at least one picture or video online of a dog carrying a stick he’s found that’s twice or three times his size, often trying to get it through a door, or into the car or some other tight spot.

To help solve the mystery of why dogs go gaga for sticks, veterinarian Dr. Audrey Wystrach offers a few likely reasons in an article for Animal Wellness magazine:2

  • Dogs are natural foragers — Their ancestral instincts, whether they’re out in the woods or at the local dog park, compel them to forage in the environment for food. When they come up empty-pawed, perhaps they grab a stick as a consolation prize.
  • They’re also naturally curious — Dogs are inquisitive creatures who explore their environment primarily with their noses and mouths. When a dog encounters an unfamiliar object, he smells it, and if it smells safe, he may pick it up in his mouth. Puppies are famous for this, but so are lots of adult dogs as well.
  • Chewing alleviates teething pain in puppies — As their deciduous (puppy) teeth fall out and their adult teeth erupt from the gums, pups tend to chew whatever’s available to try to relieve their discomfort. 
  • Sticks are nature’s chew toy — Unless they’re taught the difference, most dogs can’t tell a stick from a chew toy or a recreational bone. Sticks are often the same shape and size as actual chew toys, and they have a deliciously earthy smell and taste.

How to manage your dog’s love of sticks

As puppy Corona’s surgeon mentioned above, a big enough stick can actually impale your dog, and stick fragments that get lodged in the neck can cause abscesses. Splinters can lodge in the mouth, and small sticks can be swallowed, resulting in obstruction or infection of the respiratory tract.

Sticks that make it to the stomach or intestines can cause irritation, bleeding or obstruction. And if all that wasn’t enough to worry about, there are certain types of trees (e.g., red maple, black cherry, black walnut and yew) that can be toxic to dogs.

Given all the potential dangers associated with dogs and sticks, it’s a very good idea to reduce or eliminate your dog’s access to them if they’ve shown an obsessive interest in stick chewing. One commonsense step is to make sure there are no sticks lying around in your yard — especially if you happen to have a species of tree on your property that is potentially toxic.

Also use positive reinforcement behavior training to redirect your dog’s attention away from sticks toward appropriate fetch and chew toys. And needless to say, it’s important to never pick up a stick to throw for your dog or use to play tug-of-war. If she happens to pick up a stick, be prepared to replace it immediately with a tug toy or a treat releasing toy or another fun distraction.

“Chewing is natural behavior for dogs, and the occasional stick probably wouldn’t do him any harm,” writes Wystrach. “But it’s best to curb stick-chewing if you can, and replace sticks with appropriate toys or raw bones.”

Now that I’ve thrown a big wet blanket on dogs and their sticks, I’ll leave you with a little something to make you smile: