As a vet in the media, I often find myself writing about the many possible hazards to pets all around us. I write about the risk of heat stroke in the summer, chocolate poisoning at Christmas and Easter, and all year round, any time something risky to pets comes up, I'll be onto it.
There are good reasons to do this: many people just aren't aware of significant and easily avoidable sources of potential harm to their pets. Every time that I mention the fact that grapes are potentially poisonous to dogs, or that exposure to lilies can cause fatal kidney failure in cats, I am amazed at how many people are astonished: "I never knew that!" they tell me.
So I will continue to do the same job, even though I sometimes feel that I am repeating myself: as long as some people are unaware of certain risks, I'll keep writing articles with these important messages.
Which takes me to today's topic: the risks of sticks and bones to dogs.
Dogs love sticks and bones: they are natural chasers and chewers. A dog's ancestors would have run on plains, chasing down injured animals, eating carrion, which included bones. So it's part of our modern pet dogs' genetic heritage: they are born with a desire to chase and chew bone-like objects.
The problem is that there are certain risks attached to sticks and bones, and as a vet, I often see animals being harmed by them. This does not mean that sticks and bones should be avoided at all costs, but rather, owners should be aware of the hazards so that the risk can be minimised.
The most common danger is the risk from having long, pointy-ended sticks thrown for dogs to chase. Dogs often love chasing sticks like this, running after them time and time again, grabbing them and bringing them back to their owner to have them thrown again. And they may chase sticks for many weeks, months and years, with no problem at all.
Then one day, a long stick may lodge in the ground after being thrown, like a javelin. The dog runs up to grab it, as usual, but this time, the sharp end of the stick is directed diagonally upwards, facing the dog as it runs up to it. The dog grabs the stick as they are running forwards, and because it's stuck firmly in the ground, the sharp point enters the dog's mouth, pushing towards the back of the throat, and puncturing the soft tissues in this area. There are many vital structures here, including major blood vessels. I've seen several dogs die from serious bleeding after an injury like this. Even if they survive the initial injury, the ragged laceration caused by the sharp tip of a stick can be difficult or impossible to repair.
The simple answer is that people should never throw long, sharp sticks for dogs. Either choose short, blunt ended sticks, or buy a dog toy that has been designed to be a safe alternative to a stick. Even shorter, bluntened, wooden sticks can present a hazard to dogs that love chewing them: I saw a classic example of this yesterday. A small terrier had found a bundle of wooden twigs and sticks in the undergrowth, and had settled down to chew his way through them. He was having a marvellous time, and doing a good job of exercising his jaw muscles and cleaning his teeth.
Then the small crisis happened: one short length of stick, measuring no more than 4cm long, became lodged across the roof of his mouth, stuck between his back teeth, pressed hard up against his hard palate. This must have felt uncomfortable, and the little dog did his best to remove it. He tried to get his paws into his mouth to prise out the piece of stick, but of course his paws were too big and clumsy, and he couldn't do this.
He then started to panic: the piece of wood was hurting his mouth, and he was desperate to remove it. He started to scrabble at his face, with both paws, whining and yelping. His owner was close by, and when he heard the noise coming from the undergrowth, he rushed in to rescue his dog. He couldn't tell what was wrong, exactly, but he knew that the dog's mouth was sore, because the little animal kept pawing at himself. He brought him up to see me as an emergency.
This was an easy problem to fix: I opened the dog's mouth, saw the piece of wood lodged at the back of the hard palate, and removed it with a pair of forceps. Some dogs need to be sedated for this to be done, but the little terrier was easy to work with. He also needed cream to soothe the sore skin on the side of his face: he had hurt himself by scrabbling at his face with his paws.
It's common for short lengths of bone (like pork ribs) to get stuck like this too: the only way to prevent this is to stop dogs from chewing objects that can get stuck.
Bones can cause other problems too, because dogs like to swallow them as well as chew them. I've seen sharp ended bones stuck in the gullet, stomach and intestines. I've seen munched up bone fragments forming solid concrete-like masses in the intestines, needing surgical removal. I've also seen dogs with fractured teeth, broken after trying to chew on bones that are just too hard for them.
Sticks and bones have their place in dogs' lives, but they need to be used with care. Dogs need to have fun, but it must be safe.