Make no bones about it: Feeding real bones to your dog is a controversial topic. Even veterinarians don’t agree on whether it’s okay for your dog to recreationally chew on a bone, although nearly all of them advise against giving cooked (baked, grilled, boiled or steamed) bones of any kind to your dog. So what’s a dog owner to do? Let’s take a brief look at both viewpoints.
A couple of definitions first
Before we consider pros and cons of offering real bones to our dogs, it may be helpful to review a couple of definitions to avoid confusion: edible bones and recreational bones.
- Edible bones are those bones owners feed dogs as part of a raw diet. These are the hollow, non-weight-bearing bones of birds, such as chicken wings and necks and turkey necks, that can be easily crushed in a meat grinder. Dog owners who feed a raw diet use edible bones to provide calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and trace minerals.
- Recreational bones are typically large beef or bison femur or hip bones that contain marrow. They’re intended for dogs to gnaw on only, not consume. These bones don’t provide much nutrition but may stimulate a dog mentally to minimize boredom and help keep teeth clean.
In this post, we’ll be referring to recreational bones.
All in favor for giving your dog real bones
Dogs love to chew, sometimes as much as they love to eat and often more than they love to run. Chewing is just part of a dog being a dog. Because so many dogs need to chew, it’s important to provide plenty of items for them to chew on. Without something to chew on that’s pet owner approved, a dog can become quite creative in making its own chew “toys” — an expensive pair of shoes, the legs of the dining room table, your favorite chair… you get the idea.
Advocates of real bone chewing believe large, raw and meaty bones (bones with pieces of meat still attached) are a viable option for satisfying a dog’s natural urge to chew. Gnawing on a recreational bone occupies your dog’s attention, keeps its chewing (masticatory) muscles strong, stimulates saliva production and helps clean their teeth.
Dog owners and veterinarians who support real bone chewing do not, however, recommend giving bones that have been cooked in any way. Cooked bones are known to splinter more readily than raw bones (although in the mouths of a large dog, raw bones may also splinter). If bone slivers or shards are swallowed, they can damage the esophagus (throat), stomach and intestines.
All those opposed to real bone chewing
Opponents of real bone chewing tend to believe it’s never a good idea to give dogs bones, whether cooked or raw, because the risks for harm outweigh any benefits. Veterinarians frequently see and treat a number of health issues associated with bone chewing, ranging from one or more broken teeth to a life-threatening intestinal blockage that requires emergency surgery. These bone chewing-related problems are why many veterinarians believe giving real bones to dogs is simply not worth the risks:
- Cuts of the gums, tongue or cheeks — Sharp bone edges, especially those associated with chicken, cooked, sawed and rib bones, can cut the inside mouth of a zealous chewer. While some cuts may be minor, others can be serious, requiring a trip to the veterinary clinic for antibiotics and, potentially, surgical care.
- Broken teeth — Your dog may not show obvious signs of pain, but a fractured tooth is often a painful tooth, especially if the pulp (which contains nerves and blood vessels) is exposed. A broken tooth is also susceptible to infection. Treating a fractured tooth requires general anesthesia to assess the damage, repair the tooth if possible or extract it.
- Choking (obstructed airway) — When a dog is having difficulty breathing, it’s a distressing situation for both dog and owner. Quick thinking and action are needed to remove a lodged bone — or seek emergency veterinary care. Sometimes pet owners can successfully dislodge bone at home, but sometimes they can’t. And owners have been bitten by their (understandably) upset dog in the process.
- Digestive system irritation — If a dog consumes small pieces of bone, the ingestion can lead to pain and inflammation of the lining of the stomach and/or intestines. An upset digestive tract can lead to decreased appetite, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
- Digestive tract perforation — Sharp fragments of splintered bones can cut and penetrate the wall of the stomach and/or intestines as they pass through the digestive system. This causes stomach or intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen and can lead to peritonitis, a life-threatening condition that needs immediate and aggressive surgical and medical attention.
- Gastrointestinal obstruction — Blockage of the stomach and/or intestines so that digesting food cannot pass is a life-threatening situation. Signs typically include vomiting, abdominal pain and an inability to pass stool. If a section of the digestion tract is blocked long enough, the blood flow to that area can be compromised and the tissues can die. Anesthesia and endoscopy and/or surgery is typically required to remove a gastrointestinal obstruction.
Ultimately, it’s your decision
Whether you treat your canine companion to real bones for recreational chewing is up to you. Many dogs gnaw on raw bones without incident. But many dogs also experience issues. Keep in mind, too, there are plenty of other commercially available chew toys and simulated bones that your dog can chew on that are safe for him or her. Your veterinarian can recommend a chew treat that’s safe for your BFF. If, after talking with your veterinarian, you decide it’s appropriate to give your dog a real raw bone, please supervise your dog when he or she is chewing on it (or any other pet-friendly chew toy) and use caution.