By Dr. Becker
It’s the oldest cliché in the book: Dogs love to chew on bones. But the FDA is warning that this time-honored tradition could be dangerous—and even deadly—for dogs.
“Some people think it’s safe to give dogs large bones, like those from a ham or a roast,” says Dr. Carmela Stamper, a veterinarian in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Bones are unsafe no matter what their size. Giving your dog a bone may make your pet a candidate for a trip to your veterinarian’s office later, possible emergency surgery, or even death.”
The FDA doesn’t make clear whether their warning extends to all bones or just cooked bones, so I’ll assume for purposes of the information I’m about to give you they’re discussing only bones from food that has been cooked.
Dangers of Cooked Bones
The cooking process makes bones more brittle, increasing the likelihood they might splinter and cause internal injury to your dog.
Cooking can also remove the nutrition contained in bones.
In their April 20, 2010 Consumer Update, the FDA lists the following risks associated with giving your dog a cooked bone to chew:
- Broken teeth. This may call for expensive veterinary dentistry.
- Mouth or tongue injuries. These can be very bloody and messy and may require a trip to see your veterinarian.
- Bone gets looped around your dog’s lower jaw. This can be frightening or painful for your dog and potentially costly to you, as it usually means a trip to see your veterinarian.
- Bone gets stuck in esophagus, the tube that food travels through to reach the stomach. Your dog may gag, trying to bring the bone back up, and will need to see your veterinarian.
- Bone gets stuck in windpipe. This may happen if your dog accidentally inhales a small enough piece of bone. This is an emergency because your dog will have trouble breathing. Get your pet to your veterinarian immediately!
- Bone gets stuck in stomach. It went down just fine, but the bone may be too big to pass out of the stomach and into the intestines. Depending on the bone’s size, your dog may need surgery or upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, a procedure in which your veterinarian uses a long tube with a built-in camera and grabbing tools to try to remove the stuck bone from the stomach.
- Bone gets stuck in intestines and causes a blockage. It may be time for surgery.
- Constipation due to bone fragments. Your dog may have a hard time passing the bone fragments because they’re very sharp and they scrape the inside of the large intestine or rectum as they move along. This causes severe pain and may require a visit to your veterinarian. Bones also contain a lot of calcium, which is very firming to the stool.
- Severe bleeding from the rectum. This is very messy and can be dangerous. It’s time for a trip to see your veterinarian.
- Peritonitis. This nasty, difficult-to-treat bacterial infection of the abdomen is caused when bone fragments poke holes in your dog’s stomach or intestines. Your dog needs an emergency visit to your veterinarian because peritonitis can kill your dog.
Are Any Bones Safe for My Dog?
Raw bones can be both safe and healthy providing you follow some guidelines which I’ll discuss shortly.
You’re probably aware your dog’s ancestors and counterparts in the wild have been eating bones forever.
Canines in their natural habitat eat prey, including the meat, bones and stomach contents. In fact, your pup has a biological requirement for the nutrients found in bone marrow and the bones themselves.
Dogs love to chew raw bones for the yummy taste, the mental stimulation, and also because all that gnawing is great exercise for the muscles of the jaw.
Two Types of Raw Bones
At my clinic, Natural Pet Animal Hospital, we recommend to all our dog parents that they separate bones into two categories:
- Edible bones
- Recreational bones
Edible bones are the hollow, non weight-bearing bones of birds (typically chicken wings and chicken and turkey necks). They are soft, pliable, do not contain marrow, and can be easily crushed in a meat grinder.
These bones provide calcium, phosphorus and trace minerals which can be an essential part of your pup’s balanced raw food diet.
Recreational bones – big chunks of beef or bison femur or hip bones filled with marrow -- don’t supply significant dietary nutrition for your dog (they are not designed to be chewed up and swallowed, only gnawed on), but they do provide mental stimulation and are great for your pup’s oral health.
When your dog chews on a raw recreational bone, especially a meaty one with cartilage and soft tissue still attached, his teeth get the equivalent of a good brushing and flossing. This helps to break down tartar and reduces the risk of gum disease.
Dogs in the wild have beautiful teeth and healthy gums. This is because the prey they eat requires a lot of chewing, and the sinewy composition helps to clean each entire tooth.
Guidelines for Feeding Recreational Bones Safely
The health risks listed above for cooked bones can also apply to recreational raw bones if your dog has unrestricted, unsupervised access to them.
The following are do’s and don’ts for feeding recreational raw bones (and yes, they have to be raw, not steamed, boiled or baked):
- Do supervise your dog closely while he’s working on a bone. That way you can react immediately if your pup happens to choke, or if you notice any blood on the bone or around your dog’s mouth from over aggressive gnawing. You’ll also know when your dog has chewed down to the hard brittle part of a knuckle bone, making splinters more likely. When the bone has been gnawed down in size throw it out. Do not allow your dog to chew it down to a small chunk he can swallow.
- Do separate dogs in a multi-dog household before feeding bones. Dogs can get quite territorial about bones and some dogs will fight over them.
- Do feed fresh raw bones in your dog’s crate, or on a towel or other surface you can clean, or outside as long as you can supervise him. Fresh raw bones become a gooey, greasy mess until your dog has gnawed them clean, so make sure to protect your flooring and furniture.
- Don’t give them to a dog that has had restorative dental work/crowns.
- Don’t give them to your dog if she has a predisposition to pancreatitis. Raw bone marrow is very rich and can cause diarrhea and a flare-up of pancreatitis. Instead, you can feed a “low fat” version by thawing the bone and scooping out the marrow to reduce the fat content.
- Don’t give a recreational bone to a dog that’s likely to try to swallow it whole or bite it in two and eat it in huge chunks.
My pit bulls tried to do this the first time I fed them recreational raw bones – they bit them in two and tried to eat both halves whole. So I got knuckle bones the approximate size of their heads, and they couldn’t open their jaws wide enough to bite down and crack off big chunks of the bones. Over time, I trained them to chew smaller femur bones less aggressively.
You should be able to find raw knuckle bones at your local butcher shop or the meat counter of your supermarket (labeled as ‘soup bones’). When you get the bones home, store them in the freezer and thaw one at a time before feeding to your pup.
I also recommend giving your dog a bone to chew after she’s full from a meal. Hungry dogs are more tempted to swallow a bone whole or break it apart and swallow large chunks. This increases the risk of an obstruction in the digestive tract.
- Don’t feed small bones that can be swallowed whole or pose a choking risk, or bones that have been cut, such as a leg bone. Cut bones are more likely to splinter.
- Don’t feed pork bones or rib bones. They’re more likely to splinter than other types of bones.
A Healthy Alternative to Feeding Raw Bones
If one of the above conditions prevents you from offering raw bones to your dog, consider a softer alternative: a high quality, edible dental bone.
A fully digestible, high quality dental dog chew provides mechanical abrasion to help control plaque and tartar, and is similar to the effect of eating whole, raw food in the wild.
Many popular chew bones cannot be broken down, and if your pup swallows one whole, or a large enough portion of one, there’s always a risk of intestinal blockage. In addition, most traditional dog chews contain unhealthy ingredients like gelatin, artificial sweeteners, and other additives and preservatives that are potentially cancer causing.
I highly recommend a high quality dog dental bone, that is 100 percent natural and contain absolutely no corn, soy, gluten, extra fat or sugar, or animal byproducts.
Whether you go with raw bones, a high quality dog dental bone, or a combination, the important thing to remember is your canine family member is designed to chew. She needs your help to insure she gets regular opportunities to brush and floss as nature intended, and to exercise those jaw muscles.