Dear Dr. Thompson: My 5-month-old boxer is a terrible stick chewer. Is this a habit I should break her of and what could happen if she doesn't stop?
This is a common age for chewing behaviors to start to become a problem. Many puppies are part billy-goat, mixed with a little python, and demonstrate an amazing ability to get anything and everything down their throats. She is exploring her world with her mouth and has stumbled upon something she enjoys. Sticks are hard enough to put up some resistance but can be broken into pieces, so she feels some success. Many times they have a texture that dogs like as well. It may seem harmless and many dogs chew sticks their entire lives without any problems, but you should be aware of a few potential health risks.
The sticks may be small enough to be swallowed but too large to be digested or passed through the intestines. This may result in an intestinal obstruction requiring emergency surgery. Surgical removal of foreign bodies is the No. 1 cause of a major medical bill for most puppies and if not caught early enough could be life-threatening. Persistent vomiting is the typical symptom of a foreign body, so call your veterinarian if that develops.
I have had a couple dogs over the years develop large abscesses, or pockets of infection, from splinters lodging in the throat. These can be very challenging to treat because finding the wood piece in the esophagus is extremely difficult and long-term antibiotic therapy might be needed. Occasionally, an endoscopic exam with a fiber optic camera passed down the esophagus can help with the diagnosis.
Any number of trees can be toxic too. Black walnuts, crabapple, cherry, chestnut, and rhododendrons are some of the common varieties in our area. If you have a concern about whether or not one of your trees might be on the list, the ASCPA has a good list of poisonous plants on its Web site (ascpca.org).
Now that I have scared you with the worst-case scenarios, a more common concern is that your dog is using her mouth on inappropriate items. Keeping the yard free of sticks may be impossible depending on your yard, but you can teach her a "drop it" or "leave it" command and utilize this to get any number of things out of her mouth. Once she does that, praise her and redirect her to a more appropriate toy. If you do not address the behavior now, she could get into trouble in any number of ways.
With repeated correction, this behavior can get better, but watch out for any excessive vomiting, trouble swallowing, choking, or unexplained swelling around the neck area and call your veterinarian right away, because these could be signs of a problem. Good luck and hopefully she will get past this phase quickly and safely.
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