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Appenzeller Sennenhunde outdoors with a stick in its mouth.

They can be more hazardous to your dog than you might think

Sticks and stones may break my bones, goes the schoolyard rhyme. But if you’re a dog, they can do even more damage than that.

Dogs are amazing creatures, not least of which for their ability to imperil themselves with seemingly innocuous objects. While it’s not likely that yours will hurt himself with something as seemingly benign as a maple branch or a riverbed pebble, it is indeed possible.

Watch out for Sticks

Karen Staudt-Cartabona of Swartswood, New Jersey, the American Kennel Club’s 2005 Hound Breeder of the Year, knows this firsthand. Recently, one of her Borzoi chomped on a stick that then lodged across the roof of her mouth, sticking like a rafter between the teeth on either side of her jaw.

“Usually, dogs will paw at their mouths a lot when there’s something stuck,” Staudt-Cartabona says, but she noticed nothing out of the ordinary. “Borzoi are so stoic they don’t let you know when they are in pain,” she explains. When she eventually glimpsed the pinky-wide chunk of wood inside her Borzoi’s mouth, it had already ulcerated the dog’s upper jaw.

Such errant pieces of wood “can be very dangerous,” Staudt-Cartabona warns, noting that she has also had Borzoi inadvertently wedge smaller sticks between their teeth; in one dog, this unwelcome toothpick rotted the tooth at the base of the gum, eventually requiring it to be extracted.

Working Kelpie in three-quarter view walking with a stick in its mouth.

When Sharp Objects Create Dog Emergencies

AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein of Chicago, who worked as an emergency veterinarian for 36 years, knows from experience that nature isn’t all chirping crickets and fluttering butterflies.

“Many times people would bring their dogs into the emergency clinic because they were at the park and a stick literally impaled the dog at the back of its mouth,” Klein remembers. While the stick was long gone, a huge laceration remained, “and most times the owners were unaware” of what was making their dog behave so out of sorts.

As they gallop and leap through the woods, dogs are also at risk of spearing themselves on dead tree branches that have fallen to the ground. Again, owners might not immediately notice the injury because it happened so quickly and the stick was immediately dislodged. (Sticks aren’t the only objects dogs manage to skewer themselves on, by the way: Klein remembers arriving at his clinic one day to find a canine patient waiting with a pitchfork in tow. Amazingly, he survived.)

What is Pica?

With the perils of sticks now thoroughly covered, let’s turn to the other half of that children’s rhyme. Dogs can develop a habit of eating rocks, a medical condition called pica, which means the ingestion of inedible items.

“Pica can sometimes be a sign of metabolic disturbance or illness,” Klein notes, adding that the condition is usually not a symptom of nutritional deficiency, although that might be the case with dogs that are fed homemade diets that have not been nutritionally analyzed. Regardless, a visit to the veterinarian is a must to rule out any underlying issues.

Boredom may be another cause of pica, which Klein notes isn’t limited to ingesting rocks. “Dogs love socks and lingerie,” he says, presumably because they carry their owner’s scent. “And it can be especially embarrassing when a vet has them vomit it up – and it’s not the owner’s panties.” We’ll leave you to imagine that car ride home.

Klein adds that certain breeds can be prone to pica, and others seemingly never give it a thought. As a breeder and judge of Afghan Hounds, which were once listed at the bottom of a much-publicized list of breeds ranked by intelligence, he points out that his dogs “never once ate anything that was inedible.” By contrast, other breeds, including some Sporting dogs, seem more predisposed to developing pica.

images of puppies

How to Resolve Pica

If there are no underlying medical issues and the pica appears to have a behavioral cause, increased exercise and mental activity may help resolve it. Supervision is important to ensure that the dog doesn’t continue to ingest these sedimentary snacks.

Some owners who have difficulty resolving pica teach their dogs to wear plastic “basket muzzles”, which permit free breathing and even drinking, but stop them from grabbing rocks. (Caveats: Basket muzzles are very different from nylon muzzles used at vet offices, which cannot be worn for extended periods. And if you turn your dog loose with unfamiliar canines, such as at a dog run, remember the basket muzzle will render him unable to defend himself.) Also new on the market are soft muzzles called Smuzzles that can also provide an effective barrier for pica dogs.

All of this isn’t to say that you should encase your dog in bubble wrap and not let him leave the confines of home.

After all, peril lurks everywhere. (To really boost your paranoia level, consider the documented stories of dogs that lost their tongues to paper shredders, or bolted out of elevators while on retractable leashes, only to have the doors close suddenly.)

Keeping Common Sense

While there is a risk to merely living life, no matter what your environs, Klein advocates simple common sense.

“While the reality is that the majority of the time nothing will happen, accidents do happen, and there is potential danger in nature,” Klein says. “People shouldn’t raise their dogs like hothouse flowers, but they have to be aware of what’s happening around them.”

So, let your dog enjoy the great outdoors, but don’t take safety for granted. Check your dog carefully after a romp in the woods or a game of fetch. In addition to finding lacerations or injuries that you might not otherwise notice immediately, you might also avert some potentially chronic problems, like Lyme disease transmitted by an infected tick.

And if your friends or family call you overprotective? Like the rhyme says, names will never hurt you. And your dog will thank you for it.

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