It feels so natural for dogs to pick up and chew on sticks, and most people have the image of a dog carrying a stick ingrained in their mind from a young age from cartoons or movies. Dogs are naturally drawn to sticks because they are foragers (hunters and scavengers), and it is a natural behavior for them to explore their environment with their mouth and look for things to eat.
Plus, we know that dogs love to chew! Puppies chew to relieve pain when they are teething, just like human babies. It’s a behavior that instinctively sticks- literally! For your older dog, it keeps their teeth clean and their jaw strong. A stick is a natural chew, similar to the size and shape of bones. However, sticks can be a danger to your dog’s health.
The most obvious problem with sticks is the possibility of splintering. Sharp points can get lodged into your dog's mouth or esophagus causing serious issues.
Unlike bones that may splinter or appear splintered or sharp, sticks are not not digestible.
Obstruction is a word that strikes fear in the heart (and wallet) of every pet owner. Foreign body obstructions can be deadly if not removed immediately. Depending on the size of the stick, an obstruction can occur in their respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract. You always want to be monitoring your dog, or making sure there is nothing available to consume when they are left alone. If you have a yard, you would want to dog-proof it just like you would your house, and clean up any loose sticks on the ground to prevent unwanted chewing or consumption. It’s especially important to dog-proof your yard from sticks if you have a tree that is toxic to dogs.
Toxicity Oak, Black walnut, Black cherry, Yew, and Red Maple can be toxic to dogs. More common backyard plants you want to look out for can be found: here.
Safe Tree Bark and Fiber
If your pup just can’t kick wood- there are also chews made of wood that are safe for dogs! Gorilla Chews are made from java wood that is odorless, and will not splinter. Of course, sometimes these chews are no match for heavy chewers! As always, dogs should be under supervision when chewing in case they break off pieces that can be choking hazards.
Slippery Elm Bark from Mountain Rose Herbs
There are also tree fibers that we use to supplement in a diet, for humans and for dogs.
Slippery Elm can be used as a demulcent. A demulcent means that it is an agent that lubricates the membranes of the digestive tract. It is helpful to have slippery elm on hand to treat diarrhea and rebalance the gut.
Larch is another tree fiber that can be used to help support a healthy gut. Larch is a soluble fiber that also has immune boosting properties.
Just like dogs sometimes eat grass as a way to satisfy nutritional deficiencies in their diet, it may be a natural urge to chew at wood fibers to fulfill their need for fiber.
Alternatives and Solutions
Even though a stick makes the perfect substitute for a ball or toy on-the-go, try to resist the urge, so that you are not encouraging your dog to chew on sticks.
You can always carry a ball or soft frisbee with you in your pocket or backpack. The Chuckit! Rubber Ball and Flying Squirrel are my personal favorites! They are lightweight and both can be used in water. Unlike the traditional plastic frisbee, the flying squirrel is made of a soft, but sturdy material that is easy on your dog’s mouth. A rubber ball is also preferred to a tennis ball, because the fuzz will wear away at your dog’s teeth. You never want to let a dog chew on a tennis ball for this reason. There are even rubber-shaped sticks with a faceted surface to mimic a tree stick.
Benebone makes a chew that is made with nylon and maple wood so that your dog can get the wood flavoring. However, I do not recommend Benebone chews. Most dog owners are unaware that they need to be replaced frequently and instead keep these chews for far too long. Nylon is not digestible, and very sharp edges are created while chewing that can tear the gumline. If you do choose a nylon based chew, I recommend close supervision, and know how aggressive of a chewer your dogs is because they are not recommended for heavy chewers.
If your dog is seeking teething relief or suffering from boredom, I encourage using food stuffable toys to chew, as well as natural chews or raw meaty bones. Providing an edible and nutritious food for them to chew is a much better alternative to a stick!