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Dan Brockman, Professor of Small Animal Surgery at the Queen Mother Hospital of the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, speaks about the perils of throwing sticks for dogs.
For vets it is one of the most frustrating kinds of injuries. Every year my colleagues and I treat dozens of dogs injured while running to fetch sticks thrown by their owners.
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. In addition, the stick enters the body through a bacteria-laden site, the mouth, carrying those germs into the wound too. Unless the pieces of stick are all found and removed infection develops. Sometimes these bacteria can become very resistant to antibiotics – so-called superbugs – that eventually kill the animal.
A study of both acute and chronic “stick injuries” in dogs, performed at the Royal Veterinary College, has shown how serious these can be. Most dogs that were presented within 48 hours of the injury had surgical exploration of the neck and the majority were found to still have wood in their wounds. Spinal cord injuries were less common than oesophageal damage but the most lethal problem was infection. 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’s more, dogs that were not presented to the RVC until some days after the initial injury, typically had serious infections building up around a residual wood fragment. These were challenging to treat, required either computerised tomography or MRI scans to find the fragments and needing one or more operations to remove them.
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. What we have to recognise, however, is that dog owners love to throw sticks – and dogs love to fetch them.
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.