Dogs love to carry, catch or chew sticks and often actively search out a stick when on a walk. Most of the time this is harmless fun but stick injuries in dogs can be very serious.
When chewing up sticks a section can become lodged across the hard palate at the roof of the mouth and stuck between the molar teeth. Some dogs will immediately become distressed and paw at the mouth to let you know something is wrong. The stick can usually be easily seen on opening the dog’s mouth and can often be manually removed. Sometimes if it is really wedged, or if the dog becomes very distressed or aggressive, then sedation is required to enable removal.
Some dogs tolerate the twig stuck in the roof of the mouth and don’t show any symptoms; this can lead to an erosion of the hard palate and the first thing the owner notices is a horrific smell. When this occurs the stick generally needs to be removed under sedation as it is often well and truly stuck. The hard palate will usually repair itself over time but sometimes there can be irreparable damage to the molar teeth.
Sticks can also become embedded under the tongue or further back in the throat. The symptoms could include an initial yelp followed by excess or bloody salivation, gagging, pawing at the mouth or continual swallowing. This will usually require an examination under sedation or anaesthesia to diagnose as it is very difficult to examine under the tongue and impossible to look at the back of the throat in a conscious dog. The oral cavity is examined for tears, bleeding, swelling, splinters, or holes. Any stick is removed but most wounds would be left to heal rather than suture to allow any tiny splinters to drain out. Most dogs will require antibiotics and pain relief.
If you dog has run onto a stick and is in a lot of pain or seems depressed, then x-rays may need to be performed in case of a deeper penetrating injury. Although a stick would not show up on an x-ray, the air pockets that develop following an injury would. Other methods of diagnosis could be endoscopy (a small camera down the oesophagus to see if there are any tears or splinters) or CT or MRI scans (used to help identify any penetrating bits of wood). These would all require general anaesthesia and are costly.
Sometimes an abscess can develop weeks or months after the initial injury. This is often a fluid swelling under the skin, it can be painful and is often associated with a high temperature, so your dog may well appear depressed. The abscess can burst out onto the skin taking the foreign material with it, but some may require surgical intervention and exploration to try and locate a splinter or section of wood.
Stick injuries can be much worse than this and can be life threatening or fatal. There have been many cases of dogs getting large sticks lodged in their throats puncturing tongues, larynxes, and windpipes.
So, whilst our canine friends love to play with a stick it is a good idea to provide an alternative toy to play with on a walk.