Are raw bones safe for dogs?

JULY 2019
This article is written by one of our in house veterinarians, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc (Hons)

Give a dog a bone! Or should you? ...

Dogs and raw bones are two images that often go hand in hand. For generations, 'man' has been giving his 'best friend' bones to devour. Back in the age of hunter-gatherers, it is likely to be one of the first behaviours that dogs and humans bonded over. It's easy to imagine - humans and dogs hunt together, human skins and cleans the meat, eats the best cuts, and finally rewards his hunting mate with the offcuts and bones.

But dogs have evolved a lot since their wolvish ancestors graced wide open plains and hunted alongside early humans. Our modern-day domesticated dogs are living longer, have developed a variety of different jaw shapes, and are very far removed biologically from early wolves. (It's hard to imagine a miniature apricot spoodle taking down a wooly mammoth!).

But does this mean that modern dogs have also evolved away from being able to chew on bones safely? The short answer is no... with a few caveats.

What are the risks? A Quick Look...

Let's first take a quick look at the risks associated with giving your dog bones. To understand how to make bones safe, it's important to understand what can go wrong. As a veterinarian, I have seen some truly devastating results from bone chewing. Almost every time, the sad consequences could have been easily avoided if the pet owner had only known about and followed proper due diligence.

Common health problems caused by bones include:

  • Bacterial contamination - just like any uncooked meat, raw bones harbour a lot of bacteria, including Salmonella and Campylobacter. Raw bones can easily cause gastro and food poisoning in dogs. Not only that, your dog can also shed these bacteria with no symptoms, potentially infecting family members and causing life threatening illness. For more read Raw Diets for Pets.
  • Broken teeth - this is a very common problem, and while it is more common in cooked or sun-dried bones, it can also occur with raw bones. Slab fractures of the carnassial tooth (the largest premolar) are a common result of bone chewing. If your dog gets a slab fracture, they will require a very time-consuming (and expensive!) tooth extraction under anaesthesia.
  • Foreign Body Obstruction - just like any object, if a bone is swallowed in pieces too large to pass through the intestines, it can become lodged and cause life-threatening blockage. This can occur as a result of feeding bones that are not the right size or shape for your dog. It is most often seen in 'greedy' dogs like labradors, who get too excited and swallow a bone whole. It is also often seen in dogs who are fed a misshapen bone, such as a vertebrae or soup bone, which allows them to break off and swallow large pieces. Typically, the bone you choose should be the size of your dog's head, so that your dog can't break pieces off or swallow the bone whole.
  • Splinters and injury - this is more of an issue when a dog eats cooked bones. While raw bones have a great spongy, rubbery texture which bends under pressure, cooked bones are much more brittle and prone to snapping or splintering. This can injure your dog's mouth, or cause life-threatening punctures in their chest or abdomen if swallowed.
  • Constipation - this is generally seen if you give too many bones to your dog. Small, gritty pieces of swallowed bone can form a dry plug and make it hard (or even painful) for your dog to defecate.
  • Pancreatitis - this is actually quite a common problem after feeding a raw bone with a lot of fatty tissue attached, or a sawn bone with exposed marrow. Marrow is extremely rich and high in fat, which is why dogs love it so much! However, in some dogs, ingesting this much fat in one sitting can be too much on their poor pancreas. Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is a common result, and can actually become life-threatening if left untreated.

What are the benefits of raw bones?

Now that we've covered all the bad points, let's talk about why bones can be beneficial for your dog! When given safely, chewing on fresh, raw bones does have many benefits.

1. Dental care - bone chewing can help with dentition due to its scraping action against the tooth surface. This helps remove tartar and plaque, sort of like a toothbrush. Keep in mind, that the dental benefit of bones relies on your dog's ability to chew them correctly. The 'tooth brushing' action only works if your dog is grinding all surfaces of their teeth against the bone, for a sufficient amount of time. Some dogs will only chew on one side of their mouth, especially if they have a sore tooth or missing teeth on one side. It's also good to be aware that this scraping action doesn't always help clear plaque from under the gumline. If your dog already suffers from advanced dental disease with gingivitis (inflamed gums), chewing on bones won't be enough to reverse this. Bones should therefore never replace regular examinations at your vet.

2. Anal gland health - For dogs with anal gland issues, chewing up and swallowing small pieces of soft bones can help bulk up and harden their faeces.

3. Beneficial nutrients - bone and marrow are a rich source of calcium and phosphorus. Cartilage is a great source of glucosamine and chondroitin, which can help promote joint health. There may also be a beneficial pre- or probiotic effect, as your dog will ingest some beneficial bacteria.

Safety tips for feeding bones

Ultimately, bones can have benefits, so if you do decide to feed your dog bones these tips may help to reduce the risk...

1. Only ever give RAW bones - surely this one goes without saying. Cooked bones can cause splintering and can quickly become very dangerous. There are no exceptions here - stick with raw only.

2. Always make sure bones are FRESH. Never feed old bones that have 'gone bad' and never leave bones out for more than 24 hours - or even shorter (12 hours) if it is a hot day. I typically recommend providing the bone in the morning, and removing it at night. If you want to, you can put it in the freezer, and feed it one more time the following day. Once your dog has had two days' worth of chewing, it's time to throw the bone away. (And don't forget to keep track of how many bones you've left out - if you forget about one, it can 'cook' in the sun over time and become hard, splintery, and dangerous!)

3. Always SUPERVISE - this one can be tough, as many people like to leave their dog alone with a bone to keep them occupied. The need for supervision does depend somewhat on your dog - for example, overzealous, food-gobbling dogs like labradors may need more supervision than gentler, slower dogs.

4. Choose a bone that is the right SIZE AND SHAPE for your dog.

What type of bone is safest for your dog? As stated previously, it's best to aim for a bone that is a similar size to your dog's head.

For small dogs, you might like try offcut bones, rib bones, or soup bones (which are typically made from cow vertebrae). Be aware that these types of bones can have a lot of marrow exposed or meaty tissue attached, so adjust their diet accordingly. Dogs with a sensitive stomach, issues with their weight, or history of pancreatitis should not be fed bones with excessive marrow or meaty tissue, as it adds too much fat into their diet. You can also give your smaller dog a larger sheep or cow femur bone, as there is no harm giving a large bone to a small dog (- they just might find it difficult to lug it around!)

For larger dogs, most vets don't recommend anything smaller than whole cow femur bones. And when I say whole - I mean whole. Many butchers like to slice large bones in half lengthways (pole to pole), exposing the whole of the bone's delicious, inner fatty marrow. As discussed before, your dog may love this, but unfortunately it really is just too much fat for one sitting and can lead to pancreatitis. Plus, it can really add a giant stack of calories into their diet! Whole intact bones are preferable, or at most, a slice in half width-ways (like a tree being chopped down) is ok, as it exposes only a small amount of marrow.

What about raw chicken wings or chicken necks? - for dental care, typically I don't recommend chicken wings or chicken necks, as most dogs eat them too quickly to be of any real benefit. Remember - bones help clean the teeth through extended periods of chewing, which ultimately mimics tooth 'brushing' via the grinding of the tooth surface against the bone. A quick crunch and swallow of a chicken wing doesn't provide the same effect as a good, long chew session. There's also the very real risk that dogs will try and swallow a chicken wing or neck whole which can cause an obstruction.

Ultimately, for most dogs, there can be benefits to raw bones - but they also come with risks. Don't forget that there are plenty of safer alternatives like dental treats, including many low fat, vegetarian options. These come highly recommended for dogs with sensitive stomachs, weight issues, or a history of pancreatitis.

If you have any questions about your dog and their suitability for bones, ask one of our vets - our vet team are always happy to help wherever they can!