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Bones – To Chew or not to Chew

What a Question!

By Dr. Marilyn Sthamann, CVH

There has been much debate about the pros and cons of offering bones to our dogs and cats. In the past, we have witnessed many dogs become quite ill after chewing on bones. We advised against offering any bones to our pets. We now recognize that the biggest reason for much of this illness is that the bones offered had been cooked. The cooking had changed the bones – making them brittle and lessened their digestibility.

In the past few years, since recognizing the health benefits of offering raw, fresh food, I have been recommending raw bones for our pets. The benefits of this practice are:

  1. The bones are a great benefit psychologically, i.e. a lot of fun! Dogs and cats carry the bones around, hide them, and exercise many muscles when they bite and chew on them. They take such a keen interest in their bones, making it a great way to occupy a pet’s day!
  2. Bones provide nutritious marrow, amino acids/protein, essential fatty acids, fiber, enzymes, antioxidants, and multiple minerals and vitamins in a usable form. Therefore, meaty bones are an integral part of many recommended homemade diets. If feeding raw frozen food from companies such as Urban carnivore and Spring meadows, the bones are present in a ground form.
  3. An excellent way of exercising teeth and gums. Tartar does not build up on the teeth as readily, therefore lessening the need for as frequent dental scaling.
  4. Bones provide beneficial nutrients but don’t contain carbohydrates in contrast to most dental treats on the market which are high in calories. Also, because energy is expended to chew the bones, a healthy weight is easier to maintain when bones are offered.

The concerns that have surfaced re: negative effects of eating raw bones:

  1. Possible fractures of teeth. This is a risk. To minimize this risk: Don’t give frozen bones. These are too hard and will contribute to fractures. There are 2 kinds of bone in the body – spongy bone and compact bone. Spongy bones are the non- weight bearing bones including the joints, ribs and vertebrae (back bones). Compact bones are the rock hard, strong weight bearing bones – marrow bones, leg bones. DO NOT offer compact bones as they are so hard tooth fractures are more likely to occur. Stay with the spongy bones as they are softer.
  2. Bone impactions in the gastro-intestinal tract. I have personally only seen this happen once – in a dog allowed continual access to a deer carcass over a period of weeks. The dog ate so much bone that passing it all became impossible. Having said this, anything eaten and swallowed could potentially cause obstruction in a dog or cat. In our practise, we see obstructions from all sorts of things: toys, string, plastic containers, rocks, etc. Some pets are real chewers, craving anything and everything. Would bones that are relatively digestible be a better choice?

NOTE: There are bones available at pet stores that sit on the shelf along with rawhides, etc. These bones are large leg beef bones that have been dried and then flavored.  The dehydration has caused these bones to act like cooked bone in a dog’s gut.  They can obstruct the GI tract, and cause intestinal upset because they can’t be digested.  One of our patients became extremely ill after a large ‘end’ of one of these bones lodged in the esophagus, and other large pieces were unable to pass through the stomach.  Surgery was required to remove them.

ALSO OF NOTE: Do not allow uneaten bone pieces to lay around the yard for days as they will dehydrate and render them indigestible.

So, are there risks involved with offering raw bones to chew? Yes. My best advice is to do what you feel comfortable with. You can try crushing the bones, offering bones appropriate for the size of your pet, letting him chew on it for an hour before taking it away. Then monitor his GI response – any upset or diarrhea? If your pet is so aggressive with chewing, and you’re concerned about him breaking teeth or swallowing large pieces, consider options such as turkey neck pieces, or using raw ground patties such as Urban Carnivore and Spring Meadows to supply needed nutrients, without any worry.