Bones tend to be a controversial subject among dog owners. Some people swear by them, believing they promote cleaner teeth, better behavior and good nutrition. Others curse them, citing broken teeth, gastrointestinal upsets and visits to the emergency clinic. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Almost everyone agrees that cooked bones should never be fed to your dog (unless you pressure cook them into mush). Cooking makes bones brittle, which increases the odds that bone splinters will irritate or perforate your dog’s intestines as they pass along. So don’t put your holiday turkey carcass down for your dog to chomp on. Beyond that, the discussion can grow heated.
Dog Bones As Part Of A Raw Diet
People who do raw feeding tend to be strong proponents of feeding bones — think of a BARF diet (Bones And Raw Foods, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods). Most of these bones are chicken bones — legs, wings, necks and backs — that are fed raw. Most dogs above small size can chew up these meaty bone options fairly well. Small and toy dogs tend to stick to chicken wings.
So, what concerns are there for these bone eaters? Even these bones can lead to harmful splinters internally. A friend’s Doberman Pinscher had to have surgery for a chicken back that got stuck in her intestines. Raw bones are safer in some ways, but the risk of bacterial contamination is higher. E. coli and salmonella are the two most likely culprits. Dogs are more tolerant of these bacteria than people, but they may still have diarrhea and/or vomiting.
To include bones in the diet for the calcium, some raw feeders will grind up the bones. This is a safer way to feed them, although bacteria will survive the grinding.
Excellent food prep hygiene is important. If you have cut up a whole chicken, cleaning thoroughly is a must, as you don’t want to contaminate human food prep areas. It is best to avoid feeding raw bones if you have anyone with a potentially compromised immune system in the family. That includes infants, many elderly people and anyone with a chronic illness or immunosuppressive illness. Some pet therapy groups will no longer certify dogs who are fed raw due to the risks to patients in nursing homes that the dogs may visit.
Offering Dog Bones As A Treat
While the number of true raw feeders is not that big, many people feed what I call “recreational bones.” This means a bone as a treat or to keep your dog occupied. Most commonly these are large marrow bones from the supermarket. If your dog has a sensitive gastrointestinal tract or is prone to pancreatitis, consider avoiding these bones altogether. The fatty marrow can cause problems. Even for dogs without problems, it is often best to dig out a bunch of that marrow tissue before you hand over the bone.
Insist on “medium-long” cut bones. Many supermarkets like to cut the bones about an inch to 2 inches long. At the veterinary hospital I have massaged many a bone off a dog’s jaw, and in a few cases, had to sedate a dog and saw the bone off. If the bones are 4 inches or more long, you should avoid that complication.
Very long bones, such as 8 to 10 inches, can create problems of their own. Your dog won’t be able to get the marrow tissue out, so it will stay in the bone and may go rancid. Not a pleasant smell, and your dog’s diarrhea that follows isn’t pleasant either.
Veterinary dentists cringe at hearing that your dog frequently chews on bones. They are the ones who often have to deal with cracked molars and broken teeth. This is more likely to happen if you leave large marrow bones down for a while. As the bones dry out, they become hard and brittle. Some large and giant breed dogs can even crack these big bones. These veterinary specialists are not convinced that chewing on bones will help your dog’s dental health. They suggest a toothbrush instead.
Making Your Own Decision About Offering Bones
My dogs do get bones. They get 4 to 5 inch marrowbones, with some of the marrow removed. I use the bones for traveling in their crates on long trips or at home for a quiet evening. I pick up bones after a couple of hours and stick them in the refrigerator or back in the freezer. I might use a set of bones for two or three sessions; then they are discarded.
I don’t count on the bones for nutrition, and I know that there is a slight risk of a cracked tooth. So far, I have not had any problems. I am knocking on wood as I type this!
Some dog lovers promote large knucklebones in place of the marrow bones. They contain less fat and less risk of a cracked tooth. These can be hard to find, however. If you can find lamb knucklebones, they can be perfect for small and even toy breed dogs and mixes.
So, bones can be good, bad or ugly. If you choose to feed bones, use care in the bones you feed and how you feed them. If you choose to avoid bones altogether, they are absolutely not necessary for your dog’s health or happiness.