Last Updated on April 2, 2023 by Becky Roberts
Dogs love to chew things. And they do it for three reasons: because they want to know how things smell and taste, they’re bored, and… they can.
So yes, your dog baby will need chew-toys and chew-proof beds throughout her life. But do her toys have to be artificial, man-made stuff? Can’t we just pick something up from the garden or forest for our dogs to chew on? For instance, can dogs chew on sticks?
You might be thinking, “Hey, wooden sticks are going to be all over my hike through the park today, so why not? They’re all-natural. And it’s free! My dog should be fine with chewing on them.”
Sorry, but that’s a potentially dangerous idea! Here’s why.
Wooden sticks can come from any tree, and come in all sorts of sizes and degrees of freshness or dryness.
So when your dog chews on a stick, it’s hard to predict whether it’ll be safe or if it will splinter up in your pup’s mouth. Tiny sharp pieces can pierce through her palette, cheeks, or gums.
Most dogs won’t even feel or mind when that happens. (They’ll just go on chewing.) But over time, any splinters that get lodged in a dog’s gums, mouth, or throat can wound the flesh in there and become infected. It will be a headache for you and your vet.
Don’t forget how many different types of trees and woody plants there are in the world – and how some of them are poisonous to dogs! And not all of us are expert botanists who can identify at a glance and remember which plant species are harmful to dogs.
Here are just a few examples of wooden sticks that are poisonous for dogs, which you might encounter outdoors:
- Black cherry
- American holly
- Red maple
- Witch hazel
Be sure to keep your dog away from these, to avoid having her accidentally ingesting some of the toxins (which can trigger anything from nausea and vomiting to neurological and blood flow problems).
Gut blockages or worse
Unfortunately, that’s not the worst that can happen with wooden sticks.
Some dogs can swallow whole chunks of wood that can get lodged deep down in their esophagus. They can choke immediately and die. Or if they don’t, they can sustain serious internal injuries that require surgery.
And even if the dog’s system were to somehow break the chunks down into smaller pieces, there would be enough material from the wooden stick to cause blockages in their digestive tract. (Again, requiring surgery at the animal hospital.)
Why dogs like to chew on sticks
But dogs will be dogs, and they will chew on any wooden stick they can find if you don’t keep watch over them. Why do they do that?
Dogs explore the world primarily through tastes, smells, textures, and sounds. (Their eyesight is excellent as well!) Like infants, they will chew on an item just to “know” or understand it.
Moreover, the dogs’ instinct to chew things that have an appealing smell or taste is something they inherited from their wolf ancestors. Habitual chewing of bones, leather, or wood helps wolves in the wild keep their teeth and gums healthy and clean. The same is true for dogs. Chewing is good for their dental health.
Also Read: Best Dog Dental Chews
But a dog may or may not have the same large throat, strong jaws, powerful teeth, or survival instincts that a wolf has. So a domesticated dog can mistakenly pick any wooden stick that smells good (toxic or otherwise), and literally bite off more than she can chew.
Alternative chew toys
The solution is to give your dog alternative items to gnaw on.
Instead of using random wooden sticks from the park or garden, it’s safer to use chew toys or natural chews. Here are a few examples you can use for your dog:
Chews for medium-sized to bigger dogs:
- Real animal parts: bones, tendons (i.e., bully sticks), hooves, horns, or antlers
- Rawhide, rope, or fleece bones
- Pig ears or pigskin rolls
Chews for smaller dogs:
- Himalayan chews (made of yak or cow’s milk)
- Beef jerky chews
- Dried sweet potato
- Digestible dental chews
There are still some safety issues with natural alternative chew toys.
Some dogs are so obsessed with chewing that they bite off chunks that are too large for them to swallow. (And they can choke on these pieces.) This tends to happen when dogs are in the presence of other dogs, which they instinctively see as competition. They start to chew and gulp down bits faster, to prevent other dogs from grabbing their treat.
So to avoid that, remember to:
- Pick the right type of alternative edible chew toy or natural chews for your dog’s size and habits.
- If she’s the competitive type, keep your dog away from the presence of other dogs while she’s chewing.
- You must be there to supervise your dog while she’s chewing. (Or at least be moving about in the same room, so you can keep an eye on her.) That way, you can stop or help her if she starts to gag or choke on a piece.
- Sometimes your dog doesn’t need a chew toy. She might just need more physical play or exercise. Alternative toys for her to play with (e.g., simple puzzle toys for dogs that contain tasty treats) are also good. These not only discourage her from getting too obsessed with chewing but also keep her from getting bored.
This is not to say that playing a game of fetch with a wooden stick is 100% a terrible idea. But if you are hiking outdoors with your dog and there’s nothing but a stick for you to play with, choose the stick carefully and monitor your dog closely. Once she starts chewing on it or holding it the wrong way, take it away from her immediately!
This precaution is applicable even when your dog has excellent retrieving instincts or is trained well for fetching. (For instance, don’t assume that because your dog is a Golden Retriever or Labrador, she won’t start chewing and swallowing what you throw at her.)
Better still, always come prepared when you go out to play with your fur baby. Use a frisbee, rubber stick, or balls. They’re much safer.
First aid for emergencies
In case your dog does swallow a huge bit of what she’s chewing, here’s what to do.
- Know what a choking dog looks like. A dog that has swallowed a huge object will act distressed. She will paw at her mouth, pacing back and forth, while trying to retch or vomit. Her chest might be heaving as if to gulp in great amounts of air, but you won’t hear any sound. If that happens, quickly examine her mouth and look for any obstruction.
- Know how to do the canine Heimlich maneuver. Don’t wait for an emergency like that to familiarize yourself with this. Ask your vet to teach you how this can be done for your dog’s particular size.
To sum it up: avoid using wooden sticks as a chew toy for your dog. Yes, you can play fetch with your dog with it, but you’ll have to supervise her closely. The risk of her getting injured or poisoned from chewing it is high!