If your dog is anything like mine, they’ll eat anything they can get their mouths around! This means that every stick we encounter becomes a gourmet meal or a delicious snack.
Sticks are, in a way, synonymous with dogs. Most of us think nothing of tossing a stick for our four-legged friend when we’re in the park. We laugh when they get a bit over ambitious when choosing a stick, and we watch idly by as the chew on said stick.
However common it is to see a dog with a stick, there are health risks associated with sticks. We don’t mean just playing fetch. This is usually fine. The issues tend to arise when dogs chew on and eat sticks.
In this article we’re going to take a look at what drives dogs to eat sticks and how we can stop it. We’re also going to highlight the health risks and problems that can be caused by eating or chewing on sticks.
We think this is super important, as many dog owners are unaware how dangerous sticks can be. That wholesome image of a dog fetching a stick, blinds many people to the risk. We want to open owners’ eyes and minds.
Why Do Dogs Like Sticks?
There are a few reasons why your dog seems to love sticks. They might look boring and dirty to us, but to your dog, they are stimulating and useful tools.
Let’s start with chasing sticks. It might seem strange that your dog will happily run after a boring, brown stick, but this behavior actually has extraordinarily little to do with the stick.
Many dogs have a deep, primal desire to hunt, chase, and retrieve. This is mostly down to the fact that humans have bred them over centuries to do these things.
The golden retrievers that we know and love today have been bred from dogs that showed the best retrieval skills. Jack Russell’s terriers are descended from dogs that were excellent at catching rats.
These behaviors are hard wired into their DNA.
For dogs that do have a high prey drive, they chase sticks because the movement reminds them of prey. It’s why you’ll find some dogs who chase anything that moves including cars and bikes.
These dogs often derive pleasure from ‘hunting’ the prey before they eat it. They’ll be aware that the stick is not alive, but they know that they’re going to chew it when they catch it. The only thing better than chewing on something, is catching it first!
Some dogs are smart enough to realize that the stick is not prey. However, they still chase the stick because you’ve told them to.
The game of fetch is mentally stimulating as well as physically demanding. If you give them a fetch command, they’ll do it, and they’ll enjoy it because it pleases you.
For these dogs, it’s even less about the stick. You could be throwing a ball or a Frisbee, and they’ll be just as happy to fetch it.
Dogs love to chew. That’s why there’s a million-dollar industry built around making things for them to safely chew.
Generally, dogs chew for three different reasons.
First up is anxiety or boredom. Just like humans, dogs can become anxious, frustrated, or bored. Where humans might relieve that anxiety or frustration by squeezing a stress ball or chewing gum, dogs chew on whatever they can get their hands on to relieve their stress.
Naturally, we prefer if they chew on toys or bones. This saves our furniture and possessions from their powerful jaws.
If left alone with a stick, your dog may chew it to relieve any anxiety or boredom. This could be if they are left in the yard or if you stop to talk to someone mid-walk.
The second reason dogs like to chew is that it is stimulating. Chewing goes hand in hand with sniffing and tasting. It is one of the ways that dogs explore and learn about the world.
This kind of chewing is particularly common in puppies or adopted dogs. They are curious about their new surroundings, and they get to know it through their teeth and mouths.
When it comes to sticks, dogs may chew them as a way of analyzing their surroundings. They may chew sticks to check if they are, in fact, sticks.
Think about it, each stick looks slightly different and smells slightly different. Your dog needs to confirm that the stick is a stick, and they do that by giving it a bit of a chew.
As well as being a way of learning, chewing things is also fun. Your dog enjoys the sensation and, in many cases, the taste. This positive aspect is what reinforces the chewing behavior.
The third reason for stick chewing is dental care. Dogs like to chew on hard things because it helps them keep their teeth healthy.
As dogs can’t use toothbrushes, they chew on things to remove plaque and strengthen their gums and jaw.
Just like babies and toddlers, puppies often chew to relieve the pain of teething. They get their first set of teeth at about 3 weeks old and their second set at about 12 weeks. Over these weeks, you may notice your puppy chewing a lot of the time. This is their way of soothing themselves.
Chewing also encourages the flow of saliva. This saliva has some antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that keeps the mouth clean and free of germs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have breath freshening properties!
When it comes to eating sticks, most of the time dogs swallow them reflexively as part of the chewing process. They don’t always intend to consume the stick, but the results are the same.
In some, rarer cases, your dog might deliberately eat sticks. This could be related to medical conditions like anemia or stomach upset.
Anemia can trigger a condition called pica. This is a general term that refers to dogs eating things they shouldn’t be. It is different to your dog eating something out of curiosity or defiance. With pica, dogs feel driven to eat non-food items.
Stomach or digestion issues can lead your dog to stick to eating as a way of settling their stomachs. They may be uncomfortable, in pain, or nauseous to the point where they’re just trying anything to ease the symptoms.
Another reason why dogs may eat sticks is because they are lacking in nutrients. If your dog food is mostly filler, then your dog is not going to get the right level of vitamins and minerals from their food. In these cases, their body will encourage them to eat things that do provide nutrients.
It’s a similar process to pregnancy cravings, where the body just tries to get the right vitamins and minerals.
Finally, your dog might eat sticks if they are hungry. If they’re not getting enough food, they might try to fill the void with whatever they can get their mouths on. Sticks are easy to come by and are fairly palatable.
Are Sticks Good or Bad for Dogs?
When enjoyed under supervision, sticks can be fine for most dogs. However, when swallowed or chewed they can cause a lot of damage.
Let’s take a closer look at the good, the bad, and the downright ugly side of sticks.
The good thing about sticks is that they can be used to play fetch. They’re free and abundantly available outside which means you can play fetch wherever you are.
In this capacity, sticks are excellent as they encourage physical activity, instinctual behaviors, and mental stimulation.
Sticks make ideal toys if you’re playing fetch in water. This is because they float on the surface which means your dog can still retrieve them.
Another great thing about sticks is that they are lighter and safer than rocks. It might sound dumb, but a lot of dogs like to chase and fetch rocks. Sticks are a better alternative.
In terms of chewing, sticks are good in that they provide enough resistance and strength to make chewing fun. However, they can cause problems. As such, you shouldn’t let a dog chew a stick unsupervised.
Unfortunately, that’s where it ends for the good side of sticks.
Most of the problems in this category are caused by dogs chewing but not necessarily ingesting sticks.
The major issue with chewing sticks is that this breaks them down into small fragments and splinters. Even the larger bits of stick pose some danger as they end up with sharp and rough edges.
These edges and splinters can stick and cut dog’s gums, mouths, and tongues. The best outcome here is that your dog has a cut that stings for a few days. However, in the worst-case scenario, these cuts can become infected or form abscesses.
It is difficult for dogs to communicate where the pain is. This is how many cuts to the mouth and gums go unnoticed. The first sign is usually a dog refusing to eat.
When infection sets in your dog is at risk of losing their teeth or falling seriously ill. It’s not something you want to risk.
Another issue with sticks is that they can become lodged in the mouth. Dogs tend to hold sticks horizontally before they bite down. Sometimes, the stick breaks at both ends and the middle section becomes caught between the teeth.
If the stick is large enough, you’ll be able to see the stick when the dog opens their mouth. It will look like a beam or bar crossing the mouth. Smaller sticks, lodged across the roof of the mouth might not be so obvious.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you cannot simply pull the stick free. Again, this is down to the sharp edges that tend to happen when biting a stick.
Most of the time, a dog with something stuck between their teeth will paw at their mouth. If you notice this behavior, try to get a good look inside, especially if they’ve been chewing on a stick.
These conditions usually result from dogs swallowing or eating sticks. They don’t make for pleasant reading, but it’s important for you to know.
It might come as a surprise to know that poisoning is one of the major risks with sticks. Not all trees and bushes are safe for dogs to ingest.
Yew, black cherry, and walnut trees are all toxic to dogs. This includes the bark and the sticks that fall from them.
The other thing to be conscious of is that trees and sticks may have been treated with paint and chemicals. These contaminants might not be easy to see which means that you may not even know they’re present.
Signs of poisoning and toxicity include increased saliva and drooling, head shaking, vomiting, diarrhea, and dry heaving.
The other major issue with eating sticks is the small, sharp edges and splinters. We’ve already talked about the problems they can cause in the mouth, but things get worse the further into the body they go.
When sticks and splinters enter the throat and the rest of the body, they present two major hazards. First and foremost, they can cause a blockage.
Sticks can get stuck in the throat which can lead to asphyxiation and, unfortunately, death.
If your dog chokes on a stick or part of a stick they may try to hack up the blockage. This is a natural instinct that can save your dog’s life. However, the rough, violent expulsion of the blockage can cause cuts and bruising to the dog’s throat.
These cuts can occur even if your dog doesn’t choke. This is because the second hazard with sticks is the sharp edges.
These sharp edges cause problems all the way through the dog’s body. They can end up with internal lacerations or perforations. These are difficult to spot from the outside and are often only noticeable once they’ve caused significant damage.
Cuts or perforations to your dog’s stomach, intestines, and other organs can cause internal bleeding and eventually death.
What Should You Do?
If your dog has chewed and eaten sticks you need to keep a very close eye on them. If they start displaying symptoms of pain or poisoning, you need to contact your vet immediately. They will be able to advise you further.
How to Stop It
Preventing your dog from eating sticks can seem like an insurmountable task. After all, sticks are everywhere and some dogs seem to be magnetically attracted to them.
There are, however, a few ways to wean your dog off sticks.
The first thing you should do is make sure that they have plenty of safe alternatives to chew on. Ropes, balls, stuffed chews, and food chews are all engaging and enjoyable toys that should keep your dog’s mouth busy.
Make sure to reward them when they direct their chewing to the objects you want them to chew on. Try to reinforce the behavior by making chewing fun for them. Buy enrichment toys that keep them busy and engaged.
Another way to limit stick chewing, is to keep them on leash around sticks. If you’re walking through woods or forests and know that they like to pick up sticks, don’t give them the opportunity to pick up sticks.
This might mean that you need to choose different walking routes, but if it keeps your pup safe, why not?
Finally, if your dogs chew sticks when they are anxious or bored, you need to keep them calm and entertained. This could mean playing or training with them more or working on issues like separation anxiety.
If you’re struggling to break their stick habit, consider getting professional help. Trainers may be able to offer specific and tailored training programs that can help you get on top of the issue.
Before choosing a trainer, make sure you do your research. There are lots of different methods and beliefs amongst trainers. Make sure you find a trainer that fits your dynamic.
Dogs like to explore the world through their mouths. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead them into trouble.
Some things like chemicals and certain foods are always a cause for concern. Other things, like toys and chews, are totally fine to sit in your dog’s mouth. Sticks, however, occupy a gray area in that they seem harmless enough, but they can actually be deadly.
Most of the damage is done by the sharp splinters produced by chewing. These can lacerate the soft parts of the mouth and the internal organs causing significant damage or infection.
While we might be used to seeing dogs chasing and chewing sticks, it’s time we change that image.
If you are going to use a stick to play fetch, make sure you remove the stick before your dog starts chewing it. We also recommend that you do not let your dog play with a stick unattended.