Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Eat Sticks?
Dr. Ivana Crnec
When dogs eat sticks dog owners are often concerned about this behavior. Perhaps they are worried about their dogs choking on parts of the stick, hurting themselves as they chew on them or ingesting parts that may get stuck somewhere along their digestive tract. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana shares reasons why dogs eat sticks and what can be done to reduce this behavior.
What's Up With Dogs and Sticks?
Dogs are well-known for their low standards when it comes to chewable items. In fact, it is not until you own a dog that you will start to see how much of the world is actually edible.
The low standards combined with powerful teeth and chewing tendencies make dogs willing to chew and eat just about anything – from puppies chewing wood sticks to dogs eating pine needles, wood bark or sand. Some dogs also eat rocks!
Dogs are particularly fond of chewing and eating wooden sticks. And to be honest, we often depict dogs running on beaches or fields with a nice wooden stick in their mouths. But why is that?
Where does the dog’s urge to nibble on a wooden stick come from? Do dogs like how wooden sticks taste? Are wooden sticks dangerous? And finally, can eating wooden sticks be prevented? These are all great questions!
So Why Do Dogs Chew Sticks?
To put it bluntly, dogs chew sticks and even manage to eat wooden sticks simply because they can. Dogs like chewing and eating and since wooden sticks are readily available – why not feast on them?
However, there are several concrete reasons to why dogs eat wood sticks and generally they can be classified in three major groups: natural or instinctive, psychological and physical.
A Matter of Genetic Wiring
The modern dog’s wild ancestor lived in hostile environments and had to survive at times of scarce resources. For that reason, the wild ancestor often chewed and ate wood sticks and wood bark. Although our modern pet dogs have their kibble served in ceramic food bowls, they are still true to their wild heritage.
A Positively Reinforced Trait
We often throw our dogs wooden sticks in the park and tell our dogs to bring them back simply because it is a fun game. When the dog retrieves the wood stick we praise the retrieval. That way we reinforce our dog’s understanding that there is a link between games, fun time and wood sticks. So wood sticks become extra appealing.
Puppy's Teething Phase
During their teething phase, young puppies can devour almost anything and that includes wood sticks. The sticks have rough texture that alleviates the pain by gently scratching the irritated gums.
A Matter of Boredom
There is no limit to a bored dog’s imagination and creativity. A bored dog will do anything to keep himself well-entertained and busy. More often than not, that involves chewing on something that is not actually edible, for example, wood sticks. The fact that wood sticks taste great (in dog terms) only adds to the fun.
Easing Separation Anxiety
Dogs with separation anxiety usually find comfort in performing repetitive tasks or engaging in patterned behaviors. Focusing on something with an already known and positive outcome is comforting and serves as a good coping mechanism.
For some dogs, eating and chewing wood sticks are a good way of dealing with separation anxiety.
A Result of Pica
Pica is a health condition of unknown origin that manifests with eating otherwise non-edible items, including wood sticks. A dog with pica can be oriented on eating strictly wood items or combine items derived of different materials. It is believed that nutritional deficiencies can be a contributing factor to the pica’s development.
A Matter of Increased Appetite
Increased appetite (polyphagia) normally occurs in growing pups, pregnant or lactating females, in cold weather, and when dogs have increased exercise or are fed low-calorie diets.
Polyphagia is also associated with the use of several types of drugs, particularly corticosteroid drugs, anticonvulsants, antihistamines and progesterone.
Polyphagia is also associated with a variety of medical conditions, including brain damage, an overactive thyroid gland, sugar diabetes, and a variety of conditions affecting the digestive tract, including megaesophagus, and pancreas and bowel disorders.
The Dangers of Dogs Eating Sticks
Is eating and chewing wood sticks acceptable dog behavior? Sadly, the answer to this question is no. Chewing and eating wood sticks is not acceptable because it can be quite dangerous – dogs must not eat wood sticks.
Namely, the reason why dogs must not eat wood sticks is because wood sticks are prone to splintering and the splinters can potentially cause significant damage.
For example, if a splinter lodges in the throat, it will impair the dog’s breathing and if it is inhaled, it can fall down and finds its way into the lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia. Both complications are considered to be life-threatening and require urgent veterinary attention.
If instead of inhaling, the dog swallows the splinter, it may pierce the wall of the digestive tract and trigger a cascade of events that eventually lead to life-threatening inflammation of the abdomen.
Alternatively, if the dog swallows a bigger wood stick or several splinters, they may cause a gastrointestinal obstruction and require surgical intervention to have them removed.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that some woods hold toxic potential to dogs. For example, wood sticks coming from black walnut or cherry, yew and red maple are extremely toxic to dogs.
How to Stop a Dog from Eating Wood sticks?
When our beloved dogs put their mind on something, it is hard to stop them. They are stubborn, tenacious and wildly cute, which is why we find it hard to control them. However, when it comes to eating and chewing non-edible or dangerous things, there should be no exceptions. Here are some useful and simple ways of preventing wood stick chewing and eating:
- Do not positively reinforce the habit by playing fetch with a wood stick
- Make sure your dog has plenty of enticing, chew toys
- Enroll your dog in obedience class if nothing else works. It is perfectly acceptable to admit you cannot fix the issue on you own and seek professional help – that is why dog trainers and dog behaviorists do what they do.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.