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Why Sticks Aren't Good Chew Toys For Dogs

Updated on October 1, 2015
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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, sometimes even more so than a favorite toy.

Do you and your dog play "fetch" or "tug of war" with a stick?

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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 I’d like to share some information concerning additional dangers I learned about after reading an article in Your Dog, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Splinters from the stick can also 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.”

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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 vet 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 vet 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 vet in prescribing the right antibiotic.

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But wait…there’s more!

A splinter can also migrate to a spot immediately behind an eye and form an abscess. The vets 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 vet 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 vet 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.

Often the vets will 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.

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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 vet 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.’

Are you now inclined to stop your dog from chewing or playing with natural sticks?

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    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 2 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      Wow! I never realised that a simple stick could be so dangerous. Interesting and useful. I will prevent my dog from chewing stick now.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Nice to see you, Dressage Husband, thanks for taking the time to read the hub and do the polls. I've been writing a weekly pet column for 21 years and from time to time reminded readers about the dangers of sticks, but the migrating splinters was new info to me. I thought it was worth sharing. Thanks for stopping by.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I don't have a dog but wow -- having just spent thousands of dollars on one of my cats who needed a specialty vet, it would be best to follow this advice. I pinned this for pet parents who need to know!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Never any more sticks! Who would have guessed it? I had a dog once I had to give away though for chewing down small trees. I never saw anything like it. Nothing would stop him!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      I had never thought about the fact that a splinter could migrate behind the eye. I have no pups at this time but will share this with friends and family who do. This is important information to know.

      Angels are on the way to you this evening. ps

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for commenting and pinning, FlourishAnyway. I have to wonder how many dogs have embedded splinters which haven't progressed enough to be detected yet...or ever will. I believe the number of dogs who chew sticks is high, so I'd guess that, statistically, there's probably a large number of them. Thanks for stopping by.

      Hi Jackie, nice to have you comment...that dog that chewed trees wasn't named Chipper, was he? :) Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Hello pstraubie48, glad you stopped by. It never occurred to me that splinter could migrate, and now that I think of it, I had a splinter in my hand years ago that I could never get out. It just finally disappeared and I figured it worked itself out. I wonder if it migrated elsewhere in my hand or arm? I appreciate the Angels!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      My goldens have always been inclined to chew sticks, even though we've never encouraged it and have tried to interest them in toys and other distractions. One of my current "kids" is just crazy for twigs, mulch... you name the wood product. I have continual anxiety about "UFOs" (unidentified foreign objects or obstructions). Thanks for sharing this important info! Voted up and sharing!

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 2 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Hi Bob! Interesting article, but I disagree, as usual. The odds of this happening are probably about as good as winning the powerball lottery. Yes, I know what they say, someone has to win. I will still pick up a piece of driftwood and throw it for my dog each afternoon, and hope that "lucky ticket" never finds her.(Only for my Schnauzer. When I throw a stick for Ajej she just looks at me like "You threw it, you go fetch it.")

      Thanks for this. Voted up.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Nice to see you, Heidi. Your dogs are right up there with the majority of dogs...sticks are irresistible. DrMark1961 points out, in the comment below yours, that the odds are in the dog's favor. I've never heard of it happening, but I'm sure there's a lot that happens that I've never heard of. I think it's info worth passing on. Thanks for taking the time to comment, vote and share.

      Hi Doc, I knew you'd disagree because I remember you writing about throwing sticks for your dogs. I keep warning you that you kids are going to put someone's eye out :)

      As I commented to Heidi, above, I've never heard of it in the 24 years I've been in the biz, but I just think, statistically, it must happen enough that people should be aware of the potential danger. Tufts apparently agrees.

      I wonder, also, how many splinters just remain benignly embedded. I think I have one in my hand that migrated. I couldn't get it out and it just disappeared, so either it worked itself out or it's embedded but being good about it. I have the tip of a pencil embedded in the heel of my left hand...been there since 1965...and it hasn't caused any problems.

      Ya gotta hand it to Ajej (mainly because she won't fetch it), she's my kind of girl. If she could speak she'd probably tell you, "fetch it yourself...and bring me a cow throat while you're at it." You go, girl!

      Great to have you stop by...we haven't chatted in a while. This is the first hub I've written in 6 months and I notice you haven't been as active either. My life got awfully busy a year ago and it's still going strong so who knows when I'll write another. I hope 2015 will be a healthy happy one for all on The Beach of Brazil.

    • BrandyMD profile image

      BrandyMD 2 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. I don't currently own a dog but was planning on getting one in the future. You helped this soon to be dog owner just become a little safer. Now if only I could get my stubborn parents to avoid this too!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hello, BrandyMD, nice to meet you. Old habits die hard, so like many dog owners, your parents have probably used sticks as fetch or tug of war toys for decades without incident. But, as the financial ads warn, past performance does not guarantee future results.

      May I suggest, as you search for a "fur kid," that you look to shelters and rescue groups? In 24 years of dealing with dog owners I can't count the times pet parents have told me that they've owned a number of dogs but the best one they ever had "came from the pound."

      Best wishes in your search and I hope you'll refer often to HubPages for information. The site provides many pet-centric authors who ably inform and entertain. Thanks for stopping by.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 2 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Thanks Bob. I hope things are going well up there too. Wow, a pencil tip since 65! You should complain about it and maybe your hand will make the New England Journal of Medicine. At least you should get a write up in the National Enquirer? (Well, maybe you would have to tell them that the graphite is acting as an antenna and you have been having daily visits by aliens!!!)

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Why didn't I think of that. It could have made me an international curiosity! Or, I could sue...for 50 years of pain, suffering and disfigurement since it's slightly visible beneath the skin. I can't count the number of times palm readers have recoiled in horror!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 years ago from USA

      Hello Bob, I was nodding my head in agreement as I was reading your hub about the dangers of sticks. Always best to "play" it safe and use more appropriate items for fetching. We have a Lab mix doggy guest that comes over quite often and she has that fetch stick-shaped squeaker toy you have posted and we play fetch for several minutes at at time. Voted up and useful.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Adrienne, nice to see you. As DrMark1961 pointed out, it's a rare occurrence, but I'll bet infected splinters happen more than we think. When I had my store, I sold a lot of those rubber sticks because I cautioned my customers about real ones. Thanks for dropping by, commenting and voting.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 19 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Hi Bob, Good advice for dog lovers. I have raised dogs for 50 years and do not let them play with sticks. My dogs are too busy chasing rabbits and squirrel. Nice Hub, Stella

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 19 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Stella, as a dog owner for over half a century...doesn't that make you sound old :)...you've pretty much seen it all, I'd guess. I've talked to people whose dogs got splinters; none that migrated, but no serious consequences, either. Thanks for chiming in, nice to see you again.

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