Are Bones Safe For Dogs?

This might come as a shock to all the dog owners feeding raw bones. Vets are starting to advise owners not to do it.

To find out why this is happening, we need to dive into the debate over bone safety.

Why Fewer Vets Recommend Bones

Vets in the USA and UK have a long history of not advising bones for dogs. Personally, I think it goes right back to the bad old days of dogs being given leftover roast or chop bones. However, for this to be true it would mean vets in these countries are confusing raw and cooked bones, so that can’t be the whole story.

I think it’s a bit like Bondi Beach. When I lived in Sydney, like many Sydneysiders I swam there regularly, but it appeared in national news for poor water quality. When my friends arrived for a visit from Adelaide, they flat out refused to go in the water. All they knew was the news, not the whole story.

Vets who don’t advise raw bones (especially if they live in whole societies that don’t do it) are only likely to hear of the bad things that happen. As some US vets I know said recently, “you can always rely on a bone picture to share on Facebook.” Like this one, which by the way is definitely the wrong type of bone.
bone in dog mouth

What adds a modern twist is the dominance of US-based information on the internet. Australian and New Zealand vets who recommend bones now have to explain to their clients why these pictures don’t tell the whole story.

The Rise Of Corporate Vets

Add to this the recent and dramatic ownership changes in vets worldwide. Mars Inc (yes, the guys that make Snickers) now own close to 10% of North American vets, often the larger hospitals. Read here about the rapid increase in corporate ownership of vets in Adelaide.

If you then read our guide to feeding bones to dogs, you’ll see the problem. Keeping every staff member of a large corporate structure ‘on-message’ is impossible, and the risks of feeding bones badly are real. I don’t think they have a choice but to protect themselves legally. If I ran a corporate veterinary chain I would do exactly what Greencross have done and make a blanket policy that raw bone feeding is discouraged.

Once enough people in a society don’t give bones to their dogs, the market disappears and those that want to do it can’t buy them. That’s what happened in the UK and why we wrote our guide to finding places that sell bones in Adelaide. Thankfully, up to this point, we still have a strong tradition of local butchers and pet food stores mostly absent from the UK.

How Bones Are Dangerous

Bones can be dangerous to dogs by:

  • Becoming lodged in the mouth
  • Being stuck in the oesophagus
  • Causing gastrointestinal upsets
  • Causing tooth breakage
  • Causing constipation
  • Causing dogs to fight
  • And possibly by causing choking if lodged in the throat

I have only seen the problem of splintering and intestinal obstruction with cooked bones. That’s why we never feed these.

If all these things happen, how common or serious are they?

  • Bones lodged in the mouth does happen at times and is very distressing until removed. It probably happens three or so times a year at our practice.
    Reduce by: choosing bones large enough that your dog can’t crack or splinter them.
  • Oesophageal obstructions occur at Walkerville Vet roughly every five years and it’s always been treatable in our experience.
    Reduce by: good bone selection. Avoid pieces of bone that are small enough to be swallowed whole, and raw poultry of any size.
  • Gastrointestinal upsets cause vomiting or diarrhoea.
    Reduce by: knowing that not all bones suit all dogs. Upsets can be due to a beef, lamb or pork intolerance, a marrow intolerance, pancreatitis or bacterial contamination, especially with raw poultry. Read more here about making raw diets safer.
  • Tooth breakage is also common and is in my view the greatest price to pay for feeding dogs bones. We probably remove a fractured tooth once a month at our clinic but of course, we don’t know exactly how each one happened.
    Reduce by: never feeding cooked bone. However, we also see it with raw bone. These are usually over-enthusiastic dogs like Labradors trying to break instead of gnawing a bone so if you hear cracking noises, stop!
  • Constipation occurs in some dogs.
    Reduce by: reducing the amount of bone offered per day if a problem. I know one dog that gets psyllium husk on bone days. Constipation is much more likely with cooked bones.
  • Fighting is very common when two or more dogs have bones. Just last week my pipsqueak Jack Russell used standover tactics to take away my older dog’s bone.
    Reduce by: keeping dogs with bones separate if there’s any risk. I’ll be doing this one day a week from now on.
  • Choking is extremely rare.
    Reduce by: avoiding chicken bones completely, breakable bones or anything small enough to fit in your dog’s mouth.

Of course, all these risks can never be completely prevented and are increased if you choose to give dogs bones unsupervised (as I do). It’s all about knowing the risks and knowing your dog.

How Often Do Dogs Choke On Bones?

I have been a vet recommending bones for thousands of dogs over 24 years. In that time, I have sadly seen one dog die from choking on bones. The dog in question was a puppy being fed raw chicken wings.

I have seen other dogs appear to come close to choking on raw chicken and do not recommend it for this reason. I suspect that these dogs choke when they attempt to swallow raw chicken without chewing it properly. I suspect this could also happen with turkey bones.

I have never seen a dog choke on raw lamb or beef bones, or in fact any similar type of mammalian bone. This is despite many people not choosing bones of sufficient size to prevent dogs from swallowing the bones whole. That’s why before starting, please read more about bone selection and bone safety here.

There must be other dogs who choke on bones, but the point I’m making is that if owners are careful it’s going to be rare. However, with all this risk it’s easy to see why it’s safer to be a vet who doesn’t recommend bones.

Are There Alternatives To Bones?

There’s no way we expect every dog owner to be happy to feed bones. Other ways to keep teeth clean include:

There are many other options tried by our clients, but I can’t see them working. It’s also important to point out that some dogs not given bones end up chewing on other more dangerous items instead.

Rawhide chews, for example, are not an alternative. They appear to do nothing for teeth and represent a real choking hazard. If you’re still not convinced, just look into how they’re made.

Other ways to keep dogs amused are listed on our page of safer dog chew toys.

The best way to supply calcium and minerals is to use a quality complete, balanced diet.

Are Raw Bones Good For Dogs?

We believe raw bones give dogs three key benefits that easily justify the risks:

  1. Cleaner teeth, healthier gums and a reduced need for dentistry (this is currently unproven)
  2. Behavioural benefits from ‘slow food’ that occupies time and relieves boredom
  3. Nutritional support, especially to dogs on homemade or raw diets

Right now we’re writing a paper based on some new data that came from our own patients. That’s right- some of your dogs! As soon as it’s ready I’ll share it with you.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.


6 Replies to “Are Bones Safe For Dogs?”

  1. Hi Andrew.

    Just bought a goat horn for my golden retriever. She’s having a fun time licking and chewing it but now I’m worried about her teeth cracking. What do you advise I do?


    1. Hi Casey. I haven’t seen goat horns cause any problems so you should be OK. I’m not sure of their benefits either but if it’s being enjoyed, that’s a start!

  2. Absolutely agree. Also 40 years in Practice seeing a positive difference in not only Oral Health but long term general health in dogs given raw bone. As Andrew has said important to know your dog and choose the right bone. Once weekly is good without wearing teeth and second best reason is the sheer enjoyment it gives .

  3. Great article Andrew. In my experience of being a vet and a dog owner for over 40 years I have always fed my dogs raw bones and recommended raw bones for my clients. Having owned Labradors who are enthusiastic chewers, I noticed with my previous ones that there was a lot of wearing down of the teeth with large marrow bones although no dental problems. My current Labrador who is 14 years old has only every received beef pelvic bones, nice and flat, unable to break off any chunks, needs to gnaw and less wear on the teeth. Perfect teeth and gums and never needed a dental. I think the adverse effects of not feeding boes far outweigh the adverse effects of feeding them. Since advocating feeding whole beef pelvic bones have not seen any adverse effects in terms of breaking off and swallowing chunks, of bones or breaking teeth. The bones are roundish making it hard to break off chunks which means they gnaw at the bone, there is little marrow so not fattening especially for Labradors. It is important to ask the butcher not to cut the pelvic bone in half as they want to do, otherwise a large dog may be able to break off a chunk.

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