It brings us joy to watch our dogs enjoying themselves on a hike or at the beach, proudly carrying a stick in their mouth and wagging their tail. There are plenty of funny videos online of dogs bumping into doors while carrying a big branch. Dogs also often pick up sticks in the yard to chew on.
But while toting small sticks is mostly harmless, oftentimes carrying, chewing on, and playing fetch with large sticks can be dangerous for your pet.
In this article, we’ll go over why dogs are attracted to sticks and whether or not playing with them is a safe activity.
Why Do Dogs Like Sticks?
Dog breeds such as Golden/Labrador Retrievers, Pointers, and Setters are predisposed or bred to carry objects in their mouths, as they were heavily relied upon during times of hunting. “Seeking out a stick and then chewing on it can be a way to carry out that natural behavior,” says Dr. Michelle Lugones, veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society.
Many dogs find fetching a stick entertaining, especially if their parents make the game part of playtime, adds Dr. Lugones. And you have probably seen some dogs carry sticks that seem way too large for them. Why do dogs like big sticks like this? According to Dr. Lugones, “They may enjoy the challenge, not see that size as a challenge, or they may just like how the weight of that stick feels in their mouths.”
Puppies especially enjoy picking up sticks for play. This is part of how they interact with their environment. “Puppies frequently use their mouths and noses to investigate their surroundings, which may lead them to discovering the appeal of sticks,” says Dr. Alison Gerken, a veterinarian who exclusively treats pets with behavior disorders at the San Francisco SPCA.
Why Do Dogs Like to Chew on Sticks?
Canines like to chew on sticks for a variety of reasons. Wild and domesticated dogs gnaw on bones as part of their natural behavior. Dogs enjoy chewing sticks because they resemble bones and the texture is appealing to nibble on or carry around in their mouths, according to Dr. Lugones.
Chewing on things, adds Dr. Gerken, also helps to remove plaque from teeth to keep them clean. “Chewing can also occur to alleviate tooth-related pain (such as from teething in puppies or dental disease in adults) as well as frustration, anxiety or boredom.”
However, praising your dog when they carry a sizable stick, or laughing at how silly your pup looks with a stick in their mouth, may cause them to think this behavior is acceptable.
Can Dogs Eat Sticks?
The fact is, chewing on and eating sticks can lead to problems. “Sticks can splinter into smaller pieces that can be swallowed. If these pieces are too large to pass through the gastrointestinal tract, a potentially life-threatening obstruction may develop,” says Dr. Gerken.
A stick splintering during chewing can also result in an infection or mouth pain. Or the stick could impale the tongue or the roof of the mouth during chewing, causing injuries. Sticks can also become wedged between the teeth, causing oral infections. Oral injuries are often some of the most common problems that land dogs in the emergency room.
If your dog is regularly seeking out sticks to snack on, it may be a sign of a condition called pica, which is the compulsive ingestion of non-food items. “The cause of pica can be anything from malnutrition, underlying diseases, gastrointestinal parasites, to stress or boredom,” says Dr. Lugones.
If your dog is showing signs of pica, bring them to the veterinarian for an examination and screening tests for any underlying issues. “If there isn’t a medical reason, they may discuss training and behavioral strategies to promote calmness, decrease stress, and prevent any further pica,” Dr. Lugones adds.
Is It Safe for Dogs to Play with Sticks?
While it may seem harmless to throw a stick for your dog to fetch or catch, Dr. Lugones says it can cause severe injury if the dog doesn’t land the catch or the fetch goes awry.
“Injury to the mouth, throat, face, and teeth can occur and a dog could accidentally be impaled with a stick when they accidentally land part of their body onto it instead of catching or fetching it,” she warns.
If your dog unintentionally runs into a stationary object, such as a gate or door with a large stick in their mouth, it could also cause damage, says Dr. Lugones. It may lead to lacerations or splinters in the mouth, throat, or face, neck injury, or fractured teeth. “These may sound outlandish, but veterinarians see and treat dogs in the emergency room for scenarios like these.”
How to Stop a Dog From Eating Sticks
Because of the dangers of chewing sticks, Dr. Gerken recommends that pet parents avoid playing fetch or catch using sticks. This includes keeping your yard free of sticks as best you can, and monitoring your dog closely on walks without distractions, such as phone calls or social media browsing.
“With so many other dog-friendly toys that can be chewed, fetched and carried, there is no need for pet parents to take the risks associated with permitting their dog to chew sticks,” states Dr. Gerken. She recommends carrying a treat pouch with your pooch’s favorite snack, or keeping a small toy handy when outside to distract them from going after a stick.
For dental-related chewing, it’s best to utilize dog chew toys or treats specifically designed for teething, or keeping teeth clean. Heavy duty toys, such as Kongs or West Paw’s Zogoflex, can provide your dog with enrichment and help with their chewing urges.
If your pet is excessively going after sticks, and it is hard to remove all small branches from the yard, Dr. Gerken recommends training your dog to wear a basket muzzle (that is not made of fabric) to prevent them from reaching for sticks.
“A basket muzzle allows a dog to pant, drink water and even accept treats, but prevents dogs from picking up items that they should not chew or ingest, including sticks. Muzzleupproject.com is a great resource for training dogs to wear muzzles.”