Dog Owners Beware: Ignoring These Rules Can Lead to Injury or Death

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  • When selecting a recreational bone or chew for your dog, you should ask two questions: Is it non-toxic? …and, Is it a good fit for my dog? Selecting non-toxic bones and chews involves learning the country of origin, the source of the product, and how it was processed. It’s important to look for “Made in the USA” on the label, and to feel comfortable with where and how the product was sourced. Selecting a bone or chew that’s a good fit for your dog means asking questions like, “Does it pose a potential choking or intestinal blockage hazard?” It’s also important to learn what nutrients the product contains, whether it contains additives, and whether there is potential for opportunistic pathogens.
  • Recreational bones and chews are different from dog treats and jerky products. The distinction is that a bone or chew is intended to be gnawed and “worked on” by your dog, whereas a treat is quickly chewed up and swallowed. Another difference is that recreational bones and chews often provide dental cleaning benefits – treats and jerky products, no matter how crunchy or chewy, simply do not. Recreational bones are also different from edible bones. Edible bones, which are primarily poultry wings, backs and necks, are bones that dogs chew up quickly and swallow.
  • If your dog is a scarfer, meaning he’s all about swallowing things as quickly as possible, big bones are the way to go – meaning bones at least as big as your dog’s head. Big bones are also ideal for aggressive chewers, but very hard bones are not. It’s important to be aware that an aggressive chewer can cause massive dental damage if offered the wrong type of bone.
  • You can tell the difference between a raw bone (which is what you want) and a treated bone by where you find it in the store. Raw bones should be in the freezer or refrigerator section; treated or preserved bones (steamed or smoked, usually) are sitting out on store shelves at room temperature.
  • Marrowbones are typically quite high in fat, which is fine for some dogs, but not for others. You can make a low fat version by removing the marrow and replacing it with canned 100 percent pumpkin. Antlers can be a great choice for gentle chewers – just make sure you pick the right size for your dog. Hooves are not generally a good idea because of the oral damage they can do. Veterinarians see more cut mouths from hooves than any other type of recreational bone.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I'd like to go over the dos and don'ts of offering bones and chews to your dog.

Two questions you should ask before feeding any bone or chew to your dog are:

  • Is it non-toxic?
  • Is it a good fit for my dog?

How to Select Non-Toxic Bones and Chews

Whether a bone or chew is potentially toxic has to do with the country of origin, the source of the product, and how it was processed. You'll want to look for "Made in the USA" labels on packaging, or feel comfortable about where the product was sourced, for example, from free-range herds out of New Zealand or Canada.

I never recommend feeding unlabeled bulk items out of bulk bins, because you really have no idea where the product came from, how it was processed, how long it has been sitting in the bin, or other similar concerns.

How to Select Bones or Chews That Are a Good Fit for Your Dog

Whether a bone or chew is a good fit for your dog has to do with common sense in most cases. Does the size of the recreational bone or chew present a potential choking hazard or intestinal obstruction? If a piece of bone breaks off and your dog swallows it, could it get stuck somewhere in the GI tract?

With regard to the consistency of the product – its density or hardness – you need to consider the health of your dog's teeth and gums.

You'll also want to think about the ingredients in the bone or chew. What nutrients does it provide? Does it contain additives? Does it potentially contain opportunistic pathogens that could pose a threat to your pet's health? For example, some bones are naturally high in fat, so you wouldn't want to offer those bones to a pet with a history of pancreatitis.

This video is about bones and chews – large items intended for chewing – not treats or jerky products. But while I'm on the subject, there are some really bad dog treats and jerky products on the market, and some really good ones. A composite meat-based treat that can be easily broken into pieces is fine, as long as the product is made in the U.S. and doesn't contain problematic preservatives. But don't assume your pet is getting any teeth-cleaning benefit from eating jerky-type treats. Just as, for example, crunchy granola doesn't clean your teeth, crunchy dog treats don't clean your pet's teeth.

Gnawing and repetitive grinding are the chewing actions that wear down plaque and tartar on teeth, which means big recreational bones or chews that are meant to be worked on by your dog over a period of time. Smaller treats that are chewed and swallowed in a matter of seconds or minutes provide no dental benefit for your pet. So there's a big difference between treats that your dog chews and swallows almost immediately, and big bones or chews that require effort and can help control plaque and tartar in your pet's mouth.

Bones for Dogs Who Are 'Scarfers'

Most importantly, you need to match the size of the bone or chew with the personality, size and health of your dog. Don't assume the bone or chew your neighbor feeds his dog, or the one you fed your last dog, will also work for your current pet. Small dogs may handle smaller chews just fine. Or not.

Some small dogs, and many large dogs, are scarfers. If your pet tends to scarf down every morsel he's offered, you'll need to be cautious about any size bone or chew you feed him, because there's a chance it could end up in his stomach whole. Or he may attempt to swallow it whole and fail, which can be just as disastrous. A scarfer's primary objective isn't to chew or gnaw, but to get the item into his stomach as soon as possible. So my safety tip for all sized scarfers is, go big. Whether your scarfer is a Labrador or a Yorkie, if you offer a recreational bone larger than the size of his head, it makes it nearly impossible for him to scarf. So that's an important tip to remember.

Bones for Aggressive Chewers

Next on the list of potential problems involves the aggressive chewer. These dogs have one mission -- to finish the bone! Aggressive chewers want to consume the thing in its entirety, as soon as possible. The problem many aggressive chewers develop is fractured teeth. They think nothing of creating multiple slab fractures in their mission to break the bone down as quickly as possible. These dogs get hold of a bone and chew like mad, fracturing or wearing down their teeth very quickly.

Aggressive chewers shouldn't be given really hard bones like antlers. Offering rock hard bones to hard chewers can create really significant dental trauma. The veterinary dentist I work with likes to say he has funded an entire wing of his dental suite thanks to antler bones and the wrong size marrowbones offered to aggressive chewers. So word to the wise!

Aggressive chewers also shouldn't be given narrow bones that fit nicely into their mouths, allowing them to apply a strong vertical bite force. What I mean by that is, for example, in my house we have pit bulls that are very strong chewers. They're not scarfers, so they don't have a desire to swallow bones, they're just really passionate about chewing. And they are rough chewers. If I were to offer them small, narrow femur rings or narrow antlers, it would be a very poor choice for my dogs. They've got big jaws, and giving them a slim antler bone that would allow a strong vertical bite force would very likely cause them to fracture their teeth. In their passion for chewing, they could create a lot of dental damage.

What I offer my pitties are big, raw knucklebones. Raw knucklebones are much softer than rock hard antlers and are gentler on the teeth. I also monitor their chewing very closely, because my dogs can whittle a very large bone down to the size of a ping-pong ball in about an hour. Once a bone is that small, it's too small to be safe, so I watch my dogs closely and when they've worked a bone down significantly, I take it away.

The Difference Between Raw Bones and 'Room Temperature' Bones

Real beef and bison bones come steamed, smoked, or raw. Steamed and smoked bones have been treated so they won't spoil at room temperature. Through that process, the chemical structure of the bone changes and it becomes more brittle. Brittle bones fracture easily, so these bones aren't appropriate for aggressive chewers.

Bones of all sizes can be preserved, so the way to tell the difference between treated bones and raw bones is you won't find the former in the freezer or refrigerator section. They'll be the ones sitting on open store shelves at room temperature.

Types and Sizes of Raw Bones

Bones come from a variety of body parts, and they come in a variety of sizes, but they're not appropriate for all dogs. For instance, rib bones are narrow and are fine for gentle chewers, but they're not what you want to give aggressive chewers due to the strong vertical bite force I talked about earlier. If I were to give a narrow bone to one of my pit bulls, he or she would start breaking it down into small pieces quickly and quite easily.

Raw femur bones and knucklebones or "soup bones" also come in a variety of sizes and you can usually find them in the freezer section of your local upscale pet boutique or grocer. Again, it's important to match the size of the bone to the size of the dog, so whereas a big beef knucklebone is fine for my dogs, a smaller venison femur would not be. I don't recommend giving small femur rings, which are often sold in packets of six in the freezer section (or, as another example, kneecaps), to large breed dogs, because they will attempt to swallow them whole.

So the bottom line is that you really can't offer a bone that's too big, but you CAN offer bones that are too small for your dog, putting her at risk of dental damage, choking, or intestinal obstruction.

Are Marrowbones a Good Idea for Your Dog?

Many raw bones contain marrow, which is sort of a creamy center found in long bones. Marrow is very high in fat. The risk of offering a dog a giant marrowbone is that instinctively she will focus on getting the marrow out of the bone, which can cause significant digestive disturbances in dogs that aren't used to consuming a treat that's 60 percent fat. Marrow is also a substantial source of calories, so while raw bones are wonderful, for pets already struggling with too much weight, I like to recommend a "low fat" option.

What you do is take a marrowbone, scoop the marrow out to make it a fat-free bone, replace the marrow with canned 100 percent pumpkin, then refreeze the bone. When you take it out of the freezer to offer to your dog, you've got a frozen, pumpkin-stuffed bone that has substantially less fat than a marrow-filled bone.

Recreational Bones vs. Edible Bones

Also, to clarify… if you're not familiar with feeding dogs an ancestral diet, there are actually two types of bones I'm talking about here. There are recreational bones, which is what I've been discussing in this video, and edible bones. Edible bones, which are primarily poultry wings, backs and necks, are bones that dogs chew up quickly and swallow. Edible bones are used by many raw feeders to balance the calcium ratios in homemade diets.

The recreational bones I'm discussing in this video, which are primarily the long bones of large mammals like cattle and buffalo, are meant to be gnawed on for oral health – not quickly chewed up and swallowed as a source of daily nutrients. Allowing your dog to chew a femur (recreational) bone daily does not provide enough calcium or trace minerals to balance a homemade diet. And although some dogs can and will break off chunks of the big, dense bones, or even consume the entire femur, allowing aggressive chewers to do this repeatedly will cause worn and potentially fractured teeth. In addition, it isn't an effective method for balancing your dog's diet.

Antlers Are a Good Idea for These Dogs

If your dog happens to be a soft chewer who just enjoys holding or gently gnawing on a bone, antlers are for you. Antlers are the world's strongest bones and they last forever. You can purchase elk, moose, or deer antlers, and they're very economical because they just don't wear down. Antlers come in a variety of sizes and can be split, cut or whole, but again, you don't want to give a small antler to a large dog because of the potential for tooth fracture. Giving small antlers to small dogs and big antlers to big dogs is a really good idea, but first you want to make sure they're gentle chewers.

Hooves Get a Thumbs Down

Let's talk hooves for a moment. Hooves are actually my least favorite bone to offer because they're sharp and brittle. Many dogs have suffered excessive oral trauma from chewing sharp hooves. Now, I know there are plenty of people out there who will say, "No, my dog does fine with hooves," and that's great. But statistically speaking, veterinarians see more cut mouths from hooves than any other type of recreational bone. If you do offer hooves, please feed your pet only American grown hooves to insure they're coming from non-toxic animals.

Stay tuned next week for part 2! I'll be discussing the pros and cons of the various types of dog chews on the market today.