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Should You Give Bones to Your Dog? Depends on Your Dog

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog bones for dental health

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recently, a news story reported on a dog in Australia who was given a bone to chew and did an impressive and very costly amount of damage to his mouth and teeth
  • It’s true that for some dogs, no bone is safe, but most can be offered raw bones as long as the pet parent is knowledgeable and closely supervises chew sessions
  • It’s important to know what kind of chewer your dog is so that you can select appropriate bones for her — some dogs are aggressive chewers, some are scarfers, etc.

You may have noticed that news stories about the dangers of offering bones to dogs appear with some regularity these days. For example, a recent piece published by an Australian television news station reported that “Some vets are pleading with pet owners to think twice about feeding bones to their dogs, saying they can cause shocking injuries that cost families tens of thousands in dental bills.”1

Apparently, a 12-year-old dog named Fred was given a bone to chew, which resulted in him facing “eight root canals, three extractions and 12 restorations,” and a five-hour surgery to remove “big shards of raw sharp bone” that were lodged in the roof of his mouth.

According to Fred’s veterinary surgeon, raw bones are a bad idea. "They don't clean teeth, they break teeth," she said. There’s no doubt that under certain circumstances (which I’ll discuss in a minute) recreational bones can break a dog’s teeth. But I disagree with the veterinary surgeon’s blanket statement that raw bones are a bad idea and don’t help keep dogs’ teeth clean.

There's a safe way to offer recreational bones to most (but not all) dogs, as long as two very important rules are followed. Number one, the bones must be raw, and number two, you must supervise your dog while he's chewing on a bone. “Supervise” as in, you don't let him out of your sight.

Why Raw Bones Are Beneficial for Most Dogs

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 intestinal contents. In fact, your pet has a biological requirement for the nutrients found in bone marrow and the bones themselves.

Dogs also love to chew raw bones for the yummy taste, the mental stimulation and because all that gnawing is great exercise for their jaw muscles. There are actually two types of raw bones: edible bones and recreational bones.

Edible raw 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 that can be an essential part of your dog's balanced, raw food diet.

Recreational raw bones are big chunks of beef or bison femur or hipbones filled with marrow. You'll find raw recreational bones in the freezer section of pet boutiques or the local butcher. They don't supply significant dietary nutrition for your dog and are for gnawing only, not eating.

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, as there is substantial mechanical abrasion that occurs during the gnawing process. This helps break down tartar and reduces the risk of gum disease.

Different Bones for Different Types of Chewers

It's imperative that you match the size of the bone or chew with the personality, size and health of your dog. I’d venture to guess that Fred, the subject of the news item above, falls into at least one of the following categories.

Scarfers — If your dog tends to scarf down every morsel he's offered, you'll need to be cautious about any size bone 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 fast as possible. So, my safety tip for all sized scarfers is, go big, or no bone at all. Whether your dog 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. And some scarfers are poor candidates for any bone of any size.

Aggressive chewers — Aggressive chewers want to consume the bone in its entirety, as soon as possible (looking at you, Fred). The problem many aggressive chewers develop is fractured teeth. Aggressive chewers shouldn't be given really hard bones like antlers. They also shouldn't be given narrow bones that fit easily into their mouths, allowing them to apply a strong vertical bite force. If you offer a strong chewer small, narrow femur rings or narrow antlers, you're asking for trouble.

Aggressive chewers are good candidates for big, raw knucklebones, which are much softer than antlers and gentler on the teeth. Commercially made, 100% edible "bones" (made with human-grade ingredients) are another good choice for aggressive chewers. Some aggressive chewers can only have edible bones, because they cannot be trusted with recreational bones (example: Fred).

As I mentioned earlier, it’s imperative that you supervise your dog's chewing very closely, because an aggressive chewer with big jaws can whittle a very large bone down to the size of a ping-pong ball in a short amount of time. Once a bone is that small, it's too small to be safe, so it's important to watch your dog closely. When he's worked a bone down significantly, it's time to take it away.

Soft chewers — If your dog happens to be a soft chewer who just enjoys holding or gently gnawing on a bone, antlers are a good choice. You can purchase elk, moose or deer antlers, 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 fine as long as they're gentle chewers.

If your dog is a soft chewer because of age, sensitive teeth or restorative dental work, it's a good idea to go with even softer "bones." Commercially available 100% edible "bones" made with human-grade ingredients are much more pliable than actual skeletal bones from mammals.

Dogs who shouldn’t eat bone marrow — If your dog is overweight, requires a low-fat diet, or currently has pancreatitis or a sensitive stomach, the high fat marrow in raw bones can cause significant digestive problems. Marrow is also a substantial source of calories, so for pets struggling with too much weight or who need to avoid fatty foods, there’s a lower fat option. Scoop the marrow out of the bone and replace it with canned 100% pumpkin and refreeze the bone.

Additional Recommendations for Feeding Raw Bones

1. When you bring raw bones home, store them in the freezer and thaw them one at a time before offering them to your dog. Don’t choose bones that have been cut lengthwise, such as leg bones. Cut bones are more likely to splinter. Don’t feed pork bones or rib bones, as they’re more likely to splinter than other types of bones.

2. Match the size of the bone size to the size of your dog's head. There's really no such thing as a bone that’s too big, but too-small bones can be choking hazards and can also cause significant oral trauma.

Don’t give a recreational bone to a dog who’s likely to try to swallow it whole or bite it in two and eat it in huge chunks. If your pet breaks off large pieces of raw bone, collect them before she has the opportunity to swallow them. Give your dog a bone to chew after she’s had a full meal. Hungry dogs (or dogs rarely offered bones) are more likely to swallow a bone whole or break it apart and swallow large chunks.

3. Edible bones (whole or coarsely ground) can be a good alternative to recreational raw bones for aggressive chewers. Choose non-weight bearing bones, such as wings, not legs.

If you have concerns about whether your dog will chew edible bones or swallow them whole, you can grip one end with pliers or a similar tool, forcing your pup to chew off bite sized pieces. Some people also use a mallet to fracture the bones prior to feeding, which minimizes the risk of swallowing them whole.

4. Raw bones can make quite a mess as your dog gnaws on them. That’s why many people offer them outdoors or on a surface that can be easily cleaned with hot, soapy water.

Again, always closely supervise your dog when he’s working on a bone. Don’t allow him to carry his prize off to a corner alone, without supervision. You want to be able to react immediately if he starts to choke, if there’s a large chunk suddenly missing from the bone, or if you notice any blood on the bone or around his mouth.

By closely supervising him, you’ll also know when he’s chewed down to the hard brittle part of a knucklebone, making splinters more likely. When the bone has been gnawed down in size, throw it out. Don’t allow your dog to chew it down to a small chunk he can swallow.

5. In multi-dog households, dogs should be separated before being given recreational bones. This rule applies to casual canine friends and BFFs as well, because recreational bones can bring out resource guarding instincts in even the most easygoing dog.

+ Sources and References