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Throwing sticks for dogs

Question: A friend told me last week that he had read a news article a couple of weeks ago, advising dog owners not to throw sticks for their dogs. Please would you explain why.

Answer: The statement to which your friend was referring was made by a leading vet called Professor Dan Brockman, who said “Dog owners are putting their pets' lives at risk by throwing sticks for them”. Professor Brockman claims a game of fetch can be anything but harmless, with dogs suffering as many injuries chasing and catching sticks as they do on Britain's roads. The problem lies in the fact that dogs run so fast that the thrown stick has often not settled to a halt, or may even be still descending from on high, when your pet reaches it open-mouthed. The dog can then impale itself on the stick either through the skin or most commonly through the mouth itself, where the tissues are much more delicate and soft and are only millimetres from major blood vessels, vital nerves and other important structures. Although an injury is often immediately obvious because your pet may show signs of distress, or start retching or even bleed from the mouth, there are many situations when nothing is obvious externally at all. These instances can be just as serious as those that appear more dramatic because outwardly there is usually no way for the pet owner to assess the extent of any damage, particularly if the dog has a very sore mouth. Owners are urged to use rubber throwing toys or a suitably sized ball instead.

Prof Brockman, from the Queen Mother Hospital of the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, said owners also risk thousands of pounds' worth of vet bills by throwing sticks.

He added: "For vets it is one of the most frustrating kinds of injuries. Many injuries are minor but some are horrific. They range from minor scratches to the skin or lining of the mouth, to paralysis of limbs, life-threatening blood loss, and acute and chronic infections.

"The problem is that sticks are sharp - and very dirty. That means that, as the dog runs onto them or grabs them in its mouth, the end of the stick can easily pierce the skin, going through it to penetrate the oesophagus, spinal cord, blood vessels or the dog's neck.

"Commonly, small or sometimes large pieces of stick break off and remain inside the neck. These sticks are usually covered in bacteria, fungi and yeasts from the environment." Prof Brockman led a study of both acute and chronic "stick injuries" in dogs.

He added: "Several dogs involved in the study died as a result of their stick injury and these deaths almost always involved resistant bacteria and infection that spread from the neck to the chest. What this research shows is that dogs that are allowed and encouraged to play with sticks can sustain serious injuries that result in bleeding to death, paralysis or acquiring infections that will kill them days or weeks later.

"For owners the cost can be huge. I have had dogs with stick injuries whose treatment has cost up to £5,000 - but which have ultimately died. The good news is that there are plenty of healthy alternatives to sticks. Rubber throwing toys, Frisbees or just a simple tennis ball - all will keep a dog just as entertained as a stick - and a lot more safely too."