Whether you feed your dog bones is without a doubt the most controversial and highly debated topic in dog ownership. For feeding raw bones to cats, click here.
Passions are high. In our guide to where to buy bones last week I mentioned how most vets in the UK (and many in the USA) strongly oppose you giving your dog a bone to chew. At all.
The internet is full of horror stories about bones splintering or getting stuck and many of these stories are true.
If these things happen, why do it at all?
Why do we give bones to dogs?
There are real dangers, and it’s up to each owner to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks.
At Walkerville Vet we believe that raw bones fed sensibly are an important part of the diet for most dogs. What are the benefits of feeding bones?
We can talk all we like about nutritional and dental care, but let’s be honest: we’re dog lovers. It’s the hopeful stares, the expectant face, the dance of delight, the total absorption in the task that motivate us more than anything else. Even the furtive burials and possessive growls only remind us how much the bone is a treasure beyond all reckoning.
There’s nothing more likely to keep a dog amused and self-reliant than having a bone to focus on. The satisfaction we get from watching our dogs’ enjoyment is reward enough.
Chewing raw bovine bones is an effective method of removing dental calculus in dogs (Marx et al, 2016). We vets see a clear link between feeding bones and the level of tooth and gum disease. I can look in a mouth and not only predict whether a dog gets bones but also how often (Occasionally I get fooled by dogs who respond well to dental chew treats; read our guide to the ways to keep a dog’s teeth clean here).
Certainly, I observe that a dog who gets to spend at least one hour a day chewing on a raw bone will almost always have excellent dental hygiene.
It’s probably not that important for nutritional reasons to feed your dog bones if you use a balanced commercial dog food. However, advice on feeding a balanced home made or raw diet almost always includes a source of calcium. Raw meaty bones are one of the best sources of natural calcium.
Is it safe to feed bones to dogs?
Bone feeding is not safe, that much is clear, and therefore it’s not for everyone.
- At least once a year I see a dog that needs a bone fragment removed from a mouth, oesophagus or intestine. Thankfully, although it can happen, I have never seen a death resulting from the correct feeding of bones. I have heard of several deaths from choking on chicken bones but we don’t recommend these.
- Even dogs that eat bones well at a young age may not be able to handle them safely when old.
- Bone feeding can also provoke serious fights between otherwise perfectly friendly dogs. Many (most?) dogs must be separated whenever they have access to bones. We suggest doing this as a routine on ‘bone day’ if you are not supervising closely.
- Teeth can be fractured by chewing, especially as a dog ages.
- Possessive aggression can become a serious problem, especially around children. Read about Resource guarding here, but ask for help early if it’s becoming a problem and never leave them unsupervised with kids.
- Some dogs don’t tolerate bones, and get diarrhoea or vomiting. This especially occurs with bones containing marrow.
- Although it’s normal for the faeces to be hard after chewing a raw bone, some dogs can get constipated
The decision to feed bones is an individual one. You will need to accept an amount of risk that suits your comfort level (I’ve also written this page on raw bone dangers if you want to read more). There are ways of reducing the risk, as I will explain below.
I hope this puts it in perspective: dogs can be injured or die from the consequences of events which occur during their exercise. They slip leads, they get attacked or pick up poisons. Despite this we would never dream of depriving our dogs of the stimulation that walks provide.
How to give dogs bones
Here’s how I recommend dog owners start feeding bones:
Ask The Vet
Before starting, ask your vet if there are any special reasons why your dog shouldn’t have bones. Examples include:
- Dogs prone to pancreatitis or gastroenteritis.
- Dogs with insufficient teeth.
- Dogs with pre-existing dental disease. Read what vets do for bad teeth here.
Buy bones prepared for your dog: don’t feed leftovers. Critically, the bone must be raw, completely defrosted and unprocessed in any way. Cooking, curing or smoking a bone is like firing clay into pottery; it makes it brittle and prone to breaking into sharp fragments. Bones leftover from our meals are the worst of all; not only are they cooked, but then cut into small sharp pieces. Many dogs still die from the ‘chop bone’.
Even when raw, I fear that a dog with a small bone fragment will sometimes get lazy and attempt to swallow it. Therefore, I don’t recommend bones below a certain size.
A simple rule of thumb is that the bone your dog chews should be at least as long as their head from nose to crown (if your dog has a flat face make it twice as long). There should be no smaller pieces attached to it; if there are, remove and dispose of them. The video shows something else that small bones can do.
What sort of bones are best for dogs? As you know, I never recommend chicken bones. They are too soft and only need to be chewed a few times before the gristly mess becomes a choking hazard.
Beef, lamb or kangaroo dog bones are all easily available at these places. I personally never recommend offering dogs rib bones as I notice these break more easily into ragged fragments (and I’ve taken a few out, too).
Every dog is different and you need to know which bones (if any) your dog chews safely. My dogs do well on either beef shinbones (marrowbones), lamb shanks or brisket bones.
Gillian Shippen is a local dog behaviour expert. Here’s her view:
I was told by an internal specialist that the only bones he doesn’t really recommend are the marrow bones because the way the bones are cut for the access to the marrow compromises the integrity and strength of the bone making it more prone to splintering – he advised this was the bone that he often ended up having to operate for the most to remove from intestines of dogs.
I’m not keen on chicken necks because I have seen dogs swallow them whole (including one of my own 3kg Chihuahuas).
Common sense is a rare and wonderful thing. Before feeding a certain cut of bone, try to think of the consequences. The less cutting the better. Osso buco – style bones with a complete ring often get stuck like this unlucky dog. Not hard for the vet to get off, but very distressing for the dog.
Many supermarkets and some butchers sell assorted bones in bags or trays. If you buy these it’s almost certain you’ll need to sort through them and throw the unsuitable ones away.
If your dog experiences gastrointestinal upsets from the marrow in bones try a bone such as brisket with less marrow, or try a different species of origin.
My gut feeling is that if you start early, your puppy will be more likely to eat bones properly. There is an instinctive method to eating bones; have a look at how Franklin has settled down to methodically work at the bone and you can see he’s not treating it like food. You need your puppy to think the same way.
Usually it helps to have just fed them so they aren’t hungry first. You should see or hear a rhythmic grinding as the dog gnaws at the edges, and the bone should slowly shrink. You should never hear cracking noises.
Dogs that break bones are either getting the wrong bones (see earlier) or are just too enthusiastic to be given bones safely.
Whenever I give a puppy a bone for the first time I deliberately give them an impossible task; a bone just too big to be broken up and swallowed. That way they have to work out another safer strategy.
My Loki came to me from the breeder at 8 weeks already with a supply of bones. Too young? Loki didn’t think so, but it depends on the dog and your ability to supervise.
Never leave a puppy alone with a bone. In fact, never leave any dog alone with a bone at all.
A good idea is to keep the bone in a plastic container in the refrigerator and only give it to your dog when you are watching them. That way, you can remove it if it gets too small or if you hear it being broken. If your dog does get it stuck, most of the time you can pull it out with your fingers (you may get bitten, though), or get to a vet straight away.
I will admit that I trust my adult dogs these days to be left alone with their bones. That’s a risk I’m happy to take for the compensation of knowing they’ve got something to do while I’m gone. I could instead only use treat dispensers while I’m away and save the bones for when I can be around. However, I feel I know my dogs well enough to do this. It’s a personal choice.
Know your dog
Not all dogs can or should have bones. I know plenty of dogs who will always try to break and swallow bones in dangerous pieces. They are just too enthusiastic, or fail to treat bones as a food requiring patience. Sadly, there’s no safe way these dogs can have bones in their lives.
Some dogs are very good with certain bones, and not with others. For example, here’s what Gillian finds:
Interestingly I have to be careful what bone types to give my Rotties….if they have the huge thick types they vomit them up, so the smaller off cuts work best for them….every animal has their own needs.
That’s exactly what I find as well. Some dogs are so careful they can safely chew bones far smaller and more fragile than we would normally dare to give, others only get in trouble with certain types of bones, and others just can’t be given any at all.
Establish a routine
The best way to make anything ‘normal’ for a dog is to make it part of a predictable routine. That way, the dog can look forward to it, and they will help by reminding you when the right hour or day arrives. Offering bones as a routine allows your dog to get the benefits of bones on a regular enough basis to make a difference.
When should you throw them away?
Fresh food spoils, and if meat is left on a bone, it should be thrown in the bin after 24 hours out of the refrigerator. Otherwise your dog will get sick.
However, most dogs remove the meat and fat straight away. We find that the remaining hard shell almost never causes gastrointestinal upsets. As you know most dogs will occasionally bury a bone and dig it up later with no serious consequences.
It’s still best to throw it away after 2-3 days once your dog has lost interest, or before the nub gets small enough to swallow.
Where to feed bones
It is possible to let dogs in the house with a bone. With patience you can train your dog to keep the bones on a designated plastic mat, or to keep to a part of the house with easy-clean floors. Just don’t turn your back or it will end up buried in the sofa!
How Often To Feed Dogs?
For dental benefits, it needs to be at least once weekly. The picture shows the teeth of my 13-year-old dog, Tinker who has chewed a bone most days. As you can see, his dental hygiene remains good but the tips of the carnassial teeth are worn flat. See the comments below for more information.
Remember, you don’t have to feed bones to your dogs. Read our other ways to keep dogs from being bored and other ways to keep dogs teeth clean. However, also bear in mind that dogs who chew bones unsafely may also swallow dangerous chunks of any chew treats.
Marx, F. R., Machado, G. S., Pezzali, J. G., Marcolla, C. S., Kessler, A. M., Ahlstrøm, Ø., & Trevizan, L. (2016). Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs. Australian veterinary journal, 94(1-2), 18-23.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.