Who, What, Why: Is it dangerous for dogs to fetch sticks?

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The president of the British Veterinary Association has warned dog owners they could cause their pets "horrific injuries" if they play fetch with sticks. But just how dangerous is it, asks Claire Bates.

Dog owners who enjoy throwing sticks for their pet in the park have been told to stop. Vets are concerned that this simple pastime can cause painful injuries ranging from tongue splinters to the piercing of vital organs.

Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association, insists throwing sticks could be "potentially life-threatening". "We don't want people to stop owners from playing and exercising with their dogs. We just want them to know they can protect their pets by using safe dog toys."

But some dog owners have reacted with incredulity. Presenter Ben Fogle, who owns Labradors Maggi and Storm, said on Twitter: "We've been warned not to throw sticks for our dogs to prevent injury? I've thrown sticks for 35 yrs without a problem. Have sticks changed?"

One vet practice in Sandbach, Cheshire, which treats 3,000 dogs, reports seeing 20 cases of stick injuries a year. Vet Cameron Muir says the dogs have typically either been impaled or developed an abscess. "It's a risky business throwing sticks. We often have to put dogs under anaesthetic to remove splinters, and sometimes have them in for repeat surgeries."

Meanwhile, specialist hospitals that see the most serious cases have reported two to three referrals a month. The vet charity PDSA says it sees stick-related injuries across its 51 hospitals on a weekly basis.

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The latest warning came after a collie called Maya underwent emergency surgery to remove a four-inch long stick that had punctured her tongue and displaced her voicebox. Her owners initially didn't know what was wrong and sought help after she stopped eating and became subdued.

"We took her to the vet and they sedated her and then pulled out this long stick from her throat," owner Cathy Pryde told the Kirkintilloch Herald. "We had no idea that was the problem. There had been no blood or any other clues."

Vets say dogs can run on to sticks that haven't settled on the ground or have become lodged at an odd angle. The stick can then pierce soft tissues, shattering and splintering on impact. Common entry points include the mouth, chest and abdomen. Playing with sticks can also encourage dogs to chew on them. They may swallow large muddy splinters, causing serious infections.

Anecdotally, Labradors and border collies are the most likely to come in with injuries, as they are fast runners and enjoy games of fetch.

While the risk might seem low, some owners might find themselves considering switching to a ball or squeaky toy to avoid trips to the vet.

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