It is all about Them Bones!
The topic of fooding bones to dogs (and cats), is without doubt one of the most controversial and highly debated topics amongst vets and pet parents globally. Many vets across the globe, including South Africa, strongly oppose giving your fur kids a bone to chew on. It also does not help that the net is full of horror stories about bones splintering or getting stuck, unfortunately, many of these stories are true.
You could rightfully ask – if these things are happening, why do it at all?
The purpose of raw meaty bones
There are real dangers associated to giving your dog a bone, and it’s up to each pet parents and/or guardian to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. At Raw Food for Pets, we believe that raw bones fed sensibly and responsibly, are an important part of the diet for your pack. We discuss some of the risks, benefits and approach to feeding bones in greater detail in this article.
It’s the hopeful stares, the expectant face, the dance of delight, the total absorption and the singular focus in the task that motivate pet parents more than anything else to food raw meaty bones. Even the secret burials and possessive growls only remind us how much the bone is a treasure for our fur kids.
There is nothing more likely to keep your fur kids amused and self-reliant than having a bone to focus on. The satisfaction we, as pet parents, experience from watching their enjoyment, in our minds is reward enough.
Chewing on raw meaty bones is an effective method of removing dental calculus in dogs 1 . You just need to read Dr Lonsdale opinion on this specific topic. Many vets acknowledge that they see a clear link between feeding bones and the level of tooth and gum disease. If you read the blog articles from Dr Andrew Spanner BVSc (Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia, (see: Walkerville Vet (Article)) then he states “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.”
And what about cleaning a cat’s teeth? Before you throw your hands up in horror, here’s a secret: it’s easier than dogs! You just need to know how.
Firstly, some bad news. Everyone asks: do normal cat biscuits clean their teeth? Although they certainly do some impressive crunching, based on Dr Andrew’s experience, they see no difference between cats on soft food versus cats on regular hard biscuits. Equally inadequate in our minds.
Dogs will chew a bone just for sheer fun but surely cats aren’t so silly? A cat can be convinced to chew a bone if they think there’s something in it for them. Simply, bones need to be encased in a tasty body to make them appealing to cats. Like a mouse or bird for example. Of course, it’s neither practical or hygienic to feed mice to cats so the next best alternative is chicken necks.
Like many “real world” solutions, chicken neck feeding to cats is not risk-free, and requires weighing up the pros and cons together with your personal preferences.
Raw meaty bones are one of the best sources of natural calcium. It’s probably not that important for nutritional reasons to feed your fur kids bones if you use a balanced commercial dog food. For example, there is some research that says that small particle size of food is a risk factor in bloat, so regarding bloat, feeding large meaty bones would be less risky than feeding any kibble 2 .
Is it safe to feed bones to dogs?
One must understand that there are indeed risks in feeding raw meaty bones. As Dr Andrew states in his opinion pieces:
- “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.”
We believe that the decision to feed bones is therefore an individual one. Pet parents will need to accept an amount of risk that suits their comfort level, but there are ways of reducing the risk, as we explain below. Having said that, the consequences of events which can occur during outing and walkies, for example, could also result in injury or death. Fur kids can slip leads, get attacked or pick up poisons on outings. Despite these dangers, we would never dream of depriving them of the stimulation that walks and outing provide, right?
Cooking, curing or smoking a bones 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. According to Dr Andrew, many dogs still die from the “chop bone” after a barbeque (braai).
Two Types of Bones
In our minds, there are two types of bones:
Edible bones are hollow, non-weight bearing bones of prey (birds and small prey animals, typically chicken wings, chicken and duck upper-back carcass, chicken, duck or turkey necks). They are soft, pliable, do not contain marrow, and can easily be crushed in a meat grinder. These bones provide calcium, phosphorus and trace minerals which can be an essential part of your fur kids’ balanced raw food diet.
Recreational bones – big chunks of beef, lamb, game hip bones, shanks, shin bones or blade bones, typically filled with marrow. It is important to note that these types of bones don’t supply significant dietary nutrition (they are not designed to be chewed up and swallowed – only gnawed on), but they do provide mental stimulation and are great for oral health.
Keep in mind that even raw, a dog with a small bone fragment will sometimes get lazy and attempt to swallow it whole. We therefore recommend bones of certain size, and not below certain size, based on your fur kids’ breed.
We often say that it should be bigger than the head. This means from nose to crown, and if your fur kid is a “brachycephalic breeds” (flat face), make it twice as long. There should be no smaller pieces attached to it; if there are, remove and dispose of them.
What sort of bones are best for your pack? We prefer softer cartilage prey-based bones – and will never recommend weight bearing bones or ribs. We prefer shoulder blades, shin bones (marrow bones), shanks, brisket bones and tails. Rib bones break more easily into ragged fragments. However, each doggie is unique, and you need to know which bones (if any) you fur kids chews safely.
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. Ossobuco – style bones (Wikipedia) with a complete ring often get stuck. 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, 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.
Start Them Young on Bones
In our experience, the younger you start them on raw meaty bones, the more likely they will learn to eat bones properly. There is an instinctive method to eating bones, and this is a skill that needs to be acquired. Think of the puppy and his / her abilities in the same way.
You should see or hear a rhythmic grinding as your fur kid(s) gnaws the edges, and the bone should slowly shrink in size. You should NEVER hear cracking noises.
Dogs that break bones are either getting the wrong bones or are just too enthusiastic to be given bones safely. We recommend that when you give the puppy their first bone, you should deliberately give them an impossible task; a bone just too big to be broken up and swallowed. That way, he/she has to work out another safer strategy to eat the bone.
That way, you can remove it if it gets too small or if you hear it being broken. If your fur kid manages to get it stuck, most of the time you can pull it our with your fingers. Note however, you might get bitten in the process. Alternatively, get to a vet straight away.
Know Your Dog
We have made this point throughout our blog articles. Not all dogs can or should have bones. Many dogs 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 is no safe way these dogs can have bones in their lives.
Establish a Routine
Based on our experience, the best way to make anything “normal” for your fur kids is to make it part of a predictable routine. That way, your fur kids can look forward to it, and they will help by reminding you when the right hour or day arrives. Offerings bones as a routine allows your fur kids to get the benefits of bones on a regular enough basis to make a difference.
When should I throw them away?
Fresh food spoils, and if meat is left on a bone, it should be binned after 24 hours out of the fridge (review our notes on preparing raw meals). However, most dogs remove the meat and fat straight away. In many cases, the remaining hard shell almost never cause gastrointestinal upsets. Many dogs have secretive relationship with their bones; they will occasionally bury a bone and dig it up later with no serious consequences. Important to note that this activity keeps the bone from drying out, so there is less opportunity for splintering. Bones laying around the garden and drying out are dangerous and should be removed and binned immediately. Based on our experience, it is still best to bin the bone after 2 to 3 days once your fur kids lost interest, and before the nub gets small enough to swallow.
Where to feed bones?
It is possible to let your fur kids in the house with a bone, however, we do not advocate this practice for a variety of reasons. You could, with patience, train your fur kids to keep the bones on a designated plastic mat of sorts, or keep to a part of the house with easy-to-clean floors. Just don’t turn your back or it will end up buried in the sofa! We suggest a weekend routine, outside in the garden.
Remember, you don’t have to feed bones to your pack. There are other ways to keep your fur kids from being bored and other ways to keep their teeth clean. However, also bear in mind that fur kids who chew bones unsafely may also swallow dangerous chunks of any chew treats.
In summary, the following are do’s and don’ts for feeding recreational raw meaty bones.
- Do supervise your fur kids closely while he or she’s working on a bone. That way you can react immediately if your pup happens to choke, or if you notice any blood on the bone or around your dog’s mouth from over aggressive gnawing. You’ll also know when your dog has chewed down to the hard-brittle part of a knuckle bone, making splinters more likely.
- Do bin the bone when it has been gnawed down in size. Do not allow your fur kids to chew it down to a small chunk he or she can swallow.
- Do separate your fur kids in a multi-dog household before feeding bones. Dogs can get quite territorial about bones and some dogs will fight over them.
- Do feed fresh raw bones in your fur kid’s crate, or on a towel or other surface you can clean, or outside as long as you can supervise him. Fresh raw bones become a gooey, greasy mess until your fur kids has gnawed them clean, so make sure to protect your flooring and furniture.
- Don’t give them to a dog that has had restorative dental work / crowns.
- Don’t give them to your fur kids if he or she has a predisposition to pancreatitis. Raw bone marrow is very rich and can cause diarrhea and a flare-up of pancreatitis. Instead, you can feed a “low fat” version by thawing the bone and scooping out the marrow to reduce the fat content.
- Don’t give a recreational bone to a dog that’s likely to try to swallow it whole or bite it in two and eat it in huge chunks.
- Don’t feed small bones that can be swallowed whole or pose a choking risk, or bones that have been cut, such as a leg bone. Cut bones are more likely to splinter.
- Don’t feed rib bones. They’re more likely to splinter than other types of bones.
Articles and Videos
The following references and research will provide more insight into the topic:
- Bones Can Kill Your Dog – Find Out Which Ones are Safe, Dr Karen Becker (Mercola);
- 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. (Mercola);
- What bones are good for dogs? By Dr Peter Dobias (Dr Peter Dobias);
- Dr Andrew Spanner BVSc (Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia, Walkerville Vet (WalkerVille Vet) Are Bones Safe For Dogs? (WalkerVille Vet);
Nick Thompson – Raw Food Lecture Finland September 2019. Part 2: Bones
References and Research
- 2.Theyse L, van de, van S. Small size of food particles and age as risk factors for gastric dilatation volvulus in great danes. Vet Rec. 1998;143(2):48-50. doi:10.1136/vr.143.2.48