Why Are Sticks Bad Chew Toys For Dogs?
What owner hasn’t used a stick from the back yard to play a game of fetch with their dog? It’s almost a rite of passage. Most often the game is pretty uneventful, their bond continues to grow, and the dog and the owner get cheerfully tired out. And dogs just love to chew on sticks.
But there are the exceptions to the norm, when the stick causes some serious problems. Splinters from the chewed stick can become embedded anywhere along the alimentary tract, from tongue to intestines, leading to complications such as internal bleeding and infection.
But, at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, I’d like to share some information concerning additional dangers I learned about after reading an article in a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University called Your Dog.
While we don't hear a lot of instances of sticks causing major health problems, most veterinarians can probably recall some serious injuries from sticks that appeared in their clinic.
Splinters from the stick can penetrate the oral mucosa, or lining of the mouth, and migrate to areas of the neck or head. Once embedded, any movement of the dog’s mouth…such as panting, chewing or barking…can transport them on their journey through tissue to the neck or head.
When a splinter lodges in the neck, typically below the dog’s head on the underside of the neck, it causes a visible and firm abscess known as a cervical abscess. In this instance, the term “cervical” comes from the medical term meaning something “related to the neck,” as in “cervical vertebrae.”
The abscess will consist of a pool of infected fluid and pus caused by bacteria on the stick and from the dog’s mouth; bacteria that should never have found its way deep inside the dog’s neck.
Other symptoms can include fever, loss of appetite and lethargy... symptoms, by the way, which can be attributed to almost any canine medical condition other than “normal.”
To make sure that it’s an abscess and not a tumor, your veterinarian will likely perform an ultrasound. This will show a pocket of fluid within the swollen area. By inserting a needle into the affected area, they can usually aspirate some pus, and that will confirm that it is indeed an abscess and not a tumor.
The fix usually involves a little surgery. The veterinarian will make a small incision at the site to drain the abscess and cleanse the area. They’re not looking to remove the splinter because, by this time, it has usually dissolved.
A drain will remain in place for a couple of days, attached to a little bag worn by the dog, and a culture will be sent to the lab to aid the veterinarian in prescribing the right antibiotic.
But wait…there’s more!
A splinter can also migrate to a spot immediately behind an eye and form an abscess. Veterinarians call this a retrobulbar abscess…retro referring to “behind” and bulbar meaning “globe.”
In this case, the eye will look red and irritated and may protrude. The dog may be in pain and be reluctant to open his mouth because when he does, part of the jaw moves up, putting pressure behind the eye and worsening the pain.
The veterinarian may or may not order a CT scan, depending upon the individual situation. For example, if it’s a young dog and the owner says he’s a stick chewer, the veterinarian will often suspect an abscess and not order the CT scan. But, if it’s an older dog, they’re afraid it might be a tumor and will most likely order the test.
Veterinarians will often approach treatment conservatively, just trying a course of antibiotics first. If that doesn’t work, they’ll have to drain the abscess and cleanse the area just as they do with a splinter embedded in the neck.
If they drain the abscess, the incision is made behind the last upper molar inside the dog’s mouth. In this instance, a drain isn’t used because there’s simply no good way to put one in.
It’s not just the slivers that cause problems, either. A chunk of stick as long as an inch can migrate along the jaw and get stuck deep between the cheek and the jawbone, a very painful situation when the dog opens his mouth.
This presents its own diagnostic problems because sticks don’t show up very well on CT scans or X-Rays, so they need to do an ultrasound. Once the presence of the stick is confirmed, it requires a surgical solution. The big chunk of stick is rare, but the splinters are more common.
Another hazard that sticks and branches pose, and this is a tough one to contemplate, is impalement. A fallen branch or a stick protruding from the ground can impale a dog that is, say, running through the woods. The most common site for impalement is through the chest wall, where the chest joins the neck.
Should such a thing ever happen to your dog, don’t pull on the stick because you could sever nerves, blood vessels or other important tissue thus complicating an already serious condition.
Instead, just get the dog to the veterinarian immediately. This presents a surgical emergency, and a major one at that.
A game of fetch with a stick is certainly fun for you and also the dog; but it’s not without its dangers. Just sayin.’
Do you and your dog play fetch with a natural stick?
© 2015 Bob Bamberg