It seems natural for dogs to chew sticks, but it can also be dangerous. Learn why dogs like chewing sticks, and how you can curb this behavior.
Chances are, your dog has chewed, and even eaten, a fair number of sticks. Whether you’re playing fetch with your pup or just out on a walk, if he comes across an attractive stick, he might lie down and start chomping away. Why are dogs so drawn to sticks and is it okay for them to chew them?
Why dogs are drawn to sticks
1. Dogs are foragers
Given that most of us treat our dogs like family, letting them sleep in our beds, or taking them to the groomer or doggie daycare, it can be difficult to remember that dogs descended from wild animals. Their ancestral instincts, whether out in the wild or at the dog park, draw them to forage through different environments to find suitable food. With no other food around (even though he may have a good meal at home an hour beforehand), your dog may decide that a stick is a good enough substitute.
2. Dogs are curious
Canines are also naturally curious creatures and explore the world primarily with their noses and mouths. When your dog comes across a foreign object, particularly in his own backyard, it’s natural for him to smell the item — and if it smells safe, to explore further by chomping down on it. While this sort of exploration is more common in puppies, older dogs also often rely on this one-two punch of sniffing and biting.
3. Chewing alleviates teething in puppies
As puppies begin to sprout new teeth, they often turn to chewing to help alleviate the pain. Dogs are indiscriminate, however, so they’re likely to chew on anything that’s available, from your favorite pair of shoes to a couple of living room pillows. In the face of such adorable destruction, seeing your pup gnawing on a stick in the backyard may seem like a saving grace. But while sticks may alleviate some of the teething pains puppies experience, they may also encourage puppies to reach for other wood items to chew on, including chairs, bookshelves or table legs.
4. Sticks are nature’s chew toy
It can be hard for dogs to differentiate between gnawing on a stick they found, or on a bone or chew toy you’ve given him. After all, sticks are similar in shape and size to many chew toys, and dogs are drawn to the earthy, natural taste of the stick. Even more confusing for your dog, is when you play fetch with a ball or toy one day and then use a stick the next.
Why sticks can be harmful
So it is okay for dogs to chew sticks? The answer depends on what your dog does with the stick, and what kind of wood it is. While chewing wood can alleviate teething pain, eating or swallowing it can have dangerous consequences.
Chewing on a stick that splinters can result in sharp points lodging in your dog’s mouth or esophagus and causing tears or infections. Sticks that are too small or swallowed completely can get lodged in the throat and result in obstruction or infection of the respiratory tract. Sticks that make it past the respiratory tract into the stomach and bowels can result in irritation, bleeding or obstruction. Additionally, certain trees such as black walnut, black cherry, yew or red maple can be toxic to dogs.
Train him to leave sticks alone
As with any other behavior issue, stopping your dog from chewing and eating sticks involves patience, vigilance and positive reinforcement.
- Dog-proof the yard: Remove sticks and cut foliage from the yard. This is especially crucial if you have tree species that might make your dog sick.
- Replace sticks with a toy: When you see your dog about to chomp down on a stick, use his or her favorite toy as a distraction.
- Come prepared with proper fetch toys: When taking your dog out for a walk or some exercise, bring along a fetch-appropriate toy so you aren’t tempted to pick up a stick to throw.
Chewing is natural behavior for dogs, and the occasional stick probably wouldn’t do him any harm. But it’s best to curb stick-chewing if you can, and replace sticks with appropriate toys or raw bones.
Veterinarian Dr. Audrey Wystrach has spent 18 years in companion animal private practice, and two years in corporate veterinary practice. She has developed, administrated and owned veterinary hospitals, and is currently co-founder of ZippiVet animal hospital in Austin, Texas.