By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
It's a radiator, a water-lapper, a healer of wounds, a food conveyor, a register of tastes, a texture sensor, and a wet equivalent of a dog's handshake. A dog's tongue has more responsibilities than any other part of the dog anatomy -- excluding the brain. And oddly enough, for all its duties and actions, it is one of the most maintenance free structures of all the dog's body parts!
Let's take a look at this unique structure and see what we can discover.
On a recent photo shoot with one of my dog trainer/hunter friends, I exposed four rolls of film while he put this three black labs through some off-season training. When I placed the slides on the viewer I was curiously struck by how many action shots captured the charging subjects with their long, flexible tongues literally flopping out there in the breeze. (I'm talking about the dogs here, not the trainer!)
Almost every photo displayed the dog's tongue completely extended with mouth open wide, fully exposing the airway to the onrushing breeze. After seeing these photos, I was amazed that in my busy small animal practice I wasn't seeing more than just occasional tongue injuries.
With that fleshy, vascular flag waving around, frequent injuries should be expected -- but in 25 years of practice in an area pleasantly infested with hunting dogs, tongue problems are just not very common.
Nevertheless, it has happened more than a few times that I would get a frantic call at home from a hunter wanting to rush his gun dog in because "she's bleeding from the mouth like a stuck pig!" So I'd rush in to the animal hospital expecting to perform some heroic surgery only to find the bleeding had stopped and the owner apologetic about all the fuss. Upon examining the mouth, I'd find one or more lacerations -- sometimes not very substantial at all -- that had clotted and nicely sealed.
"Keep her quiet today - turn her loose again tomorrow," I'd say to the relieved owner.
What has happened in this situation is that at the time of the injury, whether the tongue was traumatized by thorns or accidentally pierced by a tooth, barbed wire or other sharp object, the tongue was expanded and engorged with blood.
A major source of heat loss for the exercising dog, the tongue's rich supply of blood vessels all dilate, causing the tongue to swell and extend. Even a tiny puncture at this time will reward the insult with a flow of crimson. And a deep cut can produce some truly scary amounts of blood.
When the owner sees blood "all over the place" the hunt stops, the dog cools off, the blood vessels constrict turning down the flow to normal and the tongue shrinks back to a resting state -- perfect condition for clotting to occur.
So, if you find yourself out in the field or marsh and your canine companion cuts his tongue -- stop the activity, cool the dog down with a short swim and allow a few seconds of a cool drink of water; and consider a trip to the vet if your judgment tells you the bleeding is pretty significant. And don't allow the dog to continue to drink!
All that tongue activity required to lap up the water will only delay the clotting. Plus, if some anesthesia and suturing is required, it is preferable to operate on a patient that has an empty stomach rather than to risk anesthesia-induced vomiting in an unconscious patient.