Should you feed your dog bones?
Knick knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone. Now I don't know what that old man was up to, but I do know that dogs and bones are synonymous.
Since the dawn of time (or thereabouts), chewing on a raw bone has been a natural, normal and happy event for any dog. When I grew up we would throw a big bone into the backyard and our dog (Labrador) would joyfully disappear for a couple of days while she chewed the bone to nothing. She never had a problem.
The bone made for fabulous dental hygiene, great teeth and a very satisfied dog. Studies support the tartar removing and teeth cleaning properties of bone chewing.
In recent years, feeding raw bones to dogs has become more controversial. This is due to some health risks associated with bone chewing. Today, many pet owners are rightfully very cautious about giving bones to their dogs.
So what are the risks associated with raw bone chewing and ingestion?
There are five main issues associated with eating bones:
- Some bones contain a lot of bone marrow, which is very high in fat (~85%). Large amounts of fat can be hard for your dog's gut to process and might trigger problems such as gastroenteritis, pancreatitis or colitis
- Chewing on bones that are very hard or large can cause tooth fracture
- Chewing on raw bones has been associated with bacterial infection. Further to this, Melbourne Uni has published data suggesting that some bacteria in (raw chicken) bones may be linked to a neuromuscular disease called polyradiculoneuropathy (similar to Guillain-Barré syndrome in people)
- Eager dogs can swallow bones whole (especially chicken wings) which can get stuck in the oesophagus (usually where the oesophagus passes over the heart). This can be a life-threatening problem... but isn't common
- Bone may be broken up by the dog into shards and these can causes issues passing through the bowel causing gastroenteritis, constipation or bowel obstruction or penetration. (This is not a big problem with raw bones and is seen more with cooked bones)
Now, it's important to note that we're not saying you shouldn't feed you dog done. We just want you to have enough information to make a decision that you're comfortable with.
How can I reduce the risks?
If you decide to give your puppy or dog a bone, here are a few pointers to reduce the amount of bone ingested by your dog and therefore reduce your risks.
Bones are for grinding on, not crunching or swallowing. Bones with a very strong cortex (wall) like beef marrow bones can be very hard and increase the chance of tooth damage
Choose your bone based on the size of your dog's mouth and how keen they are at chewing. You would like the dog eventually to be able to enjoy 10–40 min with the bone but not to have made much impact on it (maybe just rounded off the edges and reduced its size a little). The aim is to provide a dental hygiene tool with limited ingestion of the bone itself.
- Small breed puppies – lamb cutlet bone, beef spare rib, chicken bone
- Small breed dogs – beef rib bone, trimmed lamb shank, lamb neck, chicken bone
- Medium–large breed puppies – trimmed lamb shank, beef brisket bone, beef rib bone
- Medium–large breed dogs – beef brisket bones are preferred
Whatever you choose
Whichever type of bone you choose, it needs to be raw (either fresh or defrosted). Never feed cooked bones.
A note about chicken...
Chicken bones like wings or necks offer a different sort of dental hygiene. They are a spongy, air-filled bone that does its dental work while chewing macerates it into a form able to be swallowed.
It is a more gentle form of dental hygiene. There are less problems with the softer bone being digested by dogs system and most dogs tolerate them well. Weaning on period is not necessary. Dogs that chew them very quickly (ie <5–10 mins) are probably getting very little dental hygiene from the bone and may do better on a different bone if they are accepted and tolerated.
Wean onto bones
Some dogs have a sensitive stomach and bone ingestion can cause gut problems. Start all newbies with only 10 mins chewing on a suitable bone. Then throw it away and monitor over the next few days to see if your dog's tummy is handling the exposure.
Signs that your dog is very sensitive to bone ingestion would be diarrhoea, a vomit, reduced appetite or lacking energy. If you get signs of sensitivity then raw bones may not be suitable for your dog. If all goes well increase the exposure time by 10 min each week checking for sensitivity each time.
Limit the exposure to 30–40 min with the bone weekly or twice weekly.
Bones are best given when you're around to keep an eye on your dog. This is especially important when you're doing the weaning on period and also when you're choosing a bone type for your dog.
You want to be around to intervene if they look like they are going to crunch up or demolish the bone you have chosen for them.
If you decide that bones are not right for your dog, you still need to do something about teeth cleaning. Options include dental chews, tooth brushing, dental diets and water additives.
Feel free to ask us about what dental cleaning options might suit your dog.