Could This Popular Chew Break Your Dog's Teeth?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

antler chews for dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • If your dog is an aggressive chewer, antler chews can pose a significant risk of tooth fracture and should not be offered
  • Anytime your dog chews on something that is harder than his teeth, he risks causing a fracture, as dogs can bite down with considerable force
  • If your dog is a soft chewer, however, he can safely chew on an antler and these are an economical choice because they last a long time
  • Soft chewers will hold the antler in their mouth and gently gnaw it, but not apply excessive force that would break a tooth
  • The antler should be large enough so that it cannot be consumed or swallowed (intentionally or unintentionally), and you’ll want to monitor chewing to ensure no pieces break off
  • If you have a large dog, do not offer a small-sized antler, no matter how gentle of a chewer she is, as it presents a choking hazard

In Chicago, IL, a 7-year-old shepherd mix suffered a cracked tooth after chewing on an antler chew. Her owner spent $1,500 in veterinary bills as a result,1 for a trauma that is far from unique.

Veterinary dentist Dr. Stephen Juriga told NBC 5 News, “They’re much like us chewing on ice cubes and subject to fracturing teeth, so we see antlers being a real problem in tooth trauma, as well as antlers that are sawed in half that are quite durable for dogs, but again, just too hard.”2 In reality, it’s true that antlers can be dangerous for some dogs, but they’re not always a problem.

The key to choosing the best chew or bone for your dog lies in knowing your own dog’s tendencies and choosing the correct size and hardness. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to chew recommendations for dogs.

Are Antlers Dangerous for Dogs?

Some veterinarians suggest that if you can’t put a dent in a chew toy with your fingernail, it’s too tough for your dog.3 This can be true, but it depends on whether or not your dog is an aggressive chewer. A veterinary dentist I work with joked that he has been able to fund an entire wing of his dental clinic due to dog owners offering antler bones to aggressive chewers.

The fact is, anytime your dog chews on something that is harder than his teeth, he risks causing a fracture, as dogs can bite down with considerable force. One pet dentist said that the most common tooth fractured by hard chews like antlers is the maxillary 4th premolar tooth.

This tooth receives significant stress when the chew ends up between it and the mandibular 1st molar tooth, both of which are pointed. The stress can lead to a slab fracture that can expose dentin under the enamel or even expose the root canal system.4 A fractured tooth is painful, but your dog may not show obvious signs of pain, leaving them to suffer in silence.

Eventually, a bacterial infection may occur or your dog may stop eating from the pain. In some cases, a fractured tooth can be saved by smoothing away the sharp edges, but in others the tooth will die, requiring extraction or root canal therapy. A better option is to only offer chews that are safe for your dog, which will significantly reduce the risk of a painful, and expensive, tooth fracture.

Which Dogs Can Safely Chew Antlers — and Which Cannot?

If your dog has suffered from broken teeth in the past or is an aggressive chewer, do not offer antlers or other hard chews. If your dog is an aggressive chewer, you probably already know it — these are the dogs that want to whittle down anything you give them with determination and speed.

If your dog is a soft chewer, however, he can safely chew on an antler and these are an economical choice because they last a long time. Soft chewers will hold the antler in their mouth and gently gnaw it, but not apply excessive force that would break a tooth.

You’ll need to be sure the size is correct, though. It should be large enough so that it cannot be consumed or swallowed (intentionally or unintentionally), and you’ll want to monitor chewing to ensure no pieces break off. If you have a large dog, do not offer a small-sized antler, no matter how gentle of a chewer she is, as it presents a choking hazard.

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Most Dogs Can Safely Chew Raw Bones

It’s no secret that dogs love to chew. It’s part of their natural instincts and offers mental stimulation and exercise for their jaw muscles. Your dog’s ancestors also consumed bones and bone marrow, and dogs thrive on the nutrients contained therein. To offer your dog a taste of this “wild” treat, recreational raw bones are ideal.

These are intended more for the sake of chewing than for nutritional purposes, but he’ll enjoy gnawing on them. Recreational raw bones are most commonly big chunks of beef, elk, venison or bison femurs that naturally contain marrow in the center of the bone. They’re found frozen at boutique pet shops and some local butchers.

Even friendly dogs can become possessive when chewing a raw bone, so separate dogs if you live in a multi-dog household, and always supervise chewing. The raw bone must be of the appropriate size as well, and take it away once it gets too small. Generally, bigger is better when it comes to raw bones, especially if you think your dog may try to eat it whole or bite off chunks to wolf down.

If your dog is an aggressive chewer, raw bones can be a good option; look for big, raw knucklebones, which are softer and gentler on the teeth (and take them away when they get too small). For dogs who have had dental work fully edible chews made from milk, cheese, human grade tapioca or potatoes (or compressed vegetables) can be a softer, safe alternative.

Know Your Dog to Find the Best Chew

The best type of chew for your dog depends on your dog’s unique chewing behaviors. If in doubt, or if your dog is newly rescued and you’re still getting to know each other, offer softer chews in a large enough, safe size. For softer chewers, antlers may be enjoyable, but avoid giving such a hard chew to an aggressive chewer.

Steve King, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, told NBC 5 News, “Some dogs have been given hard chews like antlers and bones for years without any issues. Other dogs with more aggressive chew behaviour need to stick with more flexible-type chews.”5

You know your dog best and can choose the appropriate hardness and size to keep your dog happy and safe. Always choose natural chews that are made in the U.S., New Zealand, Canada or Australia, and avoid those imported from other areas or sold in large bins, which may be spoiled.

That said, there are several types of chews I do not recommend, no matter the dog, and these include hooves, which pose a splintering risk, synthetic chews made of nylon, which contain questionable ingredients, and rawhide chews, which can contain toxins and pose a choking hazard.

+ Sources and References