The debate over whether or not bones are good for dogs has raged on for an awfully long time. Camps are divided and there isn’t really a definitive answer. Not even to the most often asked one: can dogs eat pork rib bones or chicken bones? It really is a matter of weighing up the pros and cons and acting accordingly on the conclusions you make.
Before you do that though, you need to firstly ensure that your dog is able to have bones. Some dogs do not have the jaw bone structure to be able to chew or eat bones. These dogs are brachiocephalic meaning they have wide, flat skulls with short muzzles. Breed examples are pugs, boxers, spaniels and bulldogs. If you think this may include your dog, consult your vet before giving bones. Other dogs that should not be given bones include those that have had restorative dental work or crowns and dogs that are prone to swallow things whole and not chew.
Secondly it needs to be understood that there are two types of bones which can be given to a dog. The first is the edible bone which is usually a hollow, non-weight bearing bone of a bird such as chicken wings or neck. The second is the recreational bone which is meant to be gnawed and chewed on but not swallowed.
And last but not least you should never leave a dog alone with a bone. They should be supervised at all times. Dogs should also be separated to eat / gnaw bones if they are in a multi dog household.
The edible bone argument — for
When putting forward an argument for bones being an important part of a dog’s diet the loudest voice you will hear will be that of the BARF diet fan. A controversial but growing in popularity plan, dogs on the BARF diet are fed raw meat, bones, livers, kidneys, fruit, vegetables, raw eggs and some dairy such as yoghurt.
The main argument for this seems to be that as dogs are related to wolves, which in the wild eat raw meat and bone as the bulk of their diet, that it is automatically the best diet for our pet dogs. There is also good evidence that many of the commercial (cheap) foods we give our dogs contain twice the amount of calcium that they need. Excessive calcium can be detrimental to a dog’s growth and cause severe constipation.
The most popular meat on the BARF diet is chicken as this can be fed along with the bones raw. Chicken bone especially from the neck and wings is fairly flexible and does not tend to splinter. Chicken is also high in nutrients and low in fat.
Owners with dogs on the BARF diet claim that their pets have:
- Shinier coats
- Healthier skin
- Cleaner teeth
- Higher energy levels
- Smaller stools
And in defence to the opposing sides, claim that bones are harmful to dogs:
- Dogs can choke on kibble.
- Intestinal blockages can be caused by rawhide.
- Chemicals used in commercial pet foods are thought (by some) to be cancer causing agents.
You can read more about the arguments for and against bones in this great article on cooked bones for dogs.
The edible bone argument – against
The main reasons that people give for not feeding their dogs a BARF diet are a variety of possible health issues. The easiest to spot are those listed below which would become evident almost immediately.
- Broken teeth – gnawing on hard bone can crack or break a dog’s teeth. An expensive trip to the vet will ensue.
- Getting stuck in oesophagus – bone fragments getting stuck in the tube leading to a dog’s stomach will result in gagging. A trip to the vets is likely to ensue.
- Stuck in windpipe – accidently inhaling a small fragment of bone will result in a dog being unable to breathe and an emergency trip to the vets.
- Stuck in stomach – if a bone piece is too large to move out of the stomach and get to the intestines a dog may require surgery. A very expensive trip to the vets.
- Stuck in intestines – this will cause a severe blockage and surgery will be needed.
- Constipation – bone fragments can cause a dog to have trouble passing stools. This is incredibly painful for a dog as the fragments scrape the inside of their large intestine or rectum. A trip to the vets.
- Severe bleeding from the rectum – can be messy and extremely dangerous. An emergency, expensive trip to the vet.
- Peritonitis – a bacterial infection caused by bone fragments poking through holes in your dog’s stomach or intestines. This can kill and will certainly need an emergency trip to the vet.
With the potential health risk of feeding your dog bones being so high, you would think that the health benefits of bone feeding would be incredible and unsurpassed by anything else. This is not however true.
Nutritional value of a bone
The actual benefits of feeding a dog bone are low to non-existent. It is true that bone marrow, cartilage, fat and blood components are good for your dog but:
- Raw bones contain marrow – marrow IS NOT bone.
- Cartilage attached to bone – cartilage IS NOT bone.
- Fat and blood components are attached to bone – fat and blood components ARE NOT bone.
In fact the only component of bone that is vital to your dogs diet is calcium. In the right amounts calcium is extremely beneficial, in too high an amount it causes constipation and can effect a dog’s growth. The only way to ensure your dog receives the right amount of calcium is to buy a high quality food with ground bone in it in the right quantity. The marrow, cartilage, fat and blood components that are good for your dog will be included in this when ground.
As the most popular part of the BARF diet chicken wings etcetera may be the most flexible of bones and the least likely to cause harm but they can still cause damage including damaging the inside of your dogs mouth. They are not flexible enough to completely rule out ever having the need to make a trip to the vet.
The claims that dog are descendants of wolves and therefore best fed a similar diet cannot be proven. It is not known how well wolves truly do on the diet they consume. It is entirely possible that a high number of wolves are injured or die from the possible health risks associated with eating bones. We don’t do frequent autopsies on wolves, nor do they tend to visit a vet when sick. Therefore we really don’t know.
You can learn more about BARF and the raw food diet in this great article detailing the benefits of the raw food diet for dogs.
The recreational bone argument — for
Those who advocate giving bones as treats claim that bones provide minerals and other nutrients which help keep the skeletal system fed, regenerating and adapting. It is true raw bones provide marrow, fat and blood components, fibrous connective tissue, calcium and phosphorus.
More important though for the recreational bone advocate, is that the bone provides a dog with something recreational to do in the house. It isn’t really feasible to play ball or run around playing chase in the living room, activities need to be calmer but still stimulating. Chewing and gnawing on a bone is ideal and 99% of dogs will love them.
Bones are also good for hungrier dogs that beg for food in between meals. They can gnaw on a bone whilst receiving little in the way of actual food. It can also pacify habits such as excessive self-licking or scratching by taking the dogs mind off them.
There are also dental benefits to recreational bone gnawing such as:
- Stimulating saliva enzymes — when given for ten to fifteen minutes after a meal, gnawing a bone helps to remove trapped food particles from the dogs teeth.
- Preventing plaque build-up – gnawing can prevent plaque and gum disease especially at the back of the mouth where the molars are.
If you are considering recreational bones, you can learn which ones are the best to consider in this article about the best dog bones.
The recreational bone argument – against
The main arguments against giving bones to your dog for recreational purposes revolve around the same principals as edible bones. These are lack of nutritional value and health risks.
Dogs not fed on the BARF diet have no need of any nutritional value that bones may contain. They will already be fed a good quality commercial food that contains ground bone and therefore all the calcium, marrow, cartilage, fat and blood components that they need.
Though slightly lessened by the fact that recreational bones are not meant to be eaten, the health risks of giving your dog bones are still there. Bones can splinter whether cooked or raw and it only takes one being swallowed by your dog to cause it potentially devastating harm.
As a reminder potential risks are:
- Broken teeth
- Sticking in the oesophagus or windpipe
- Getting stuck in the stomach or intestines
- Bleeding rectum
All the above will likely result in a costly trip to the vet perhaps involving surgery and maybe even the death of your dog. People who do not believe in giving bones to dogs simply believe the risks are not worth taking.
As for the actual recreational value of bone gnawing, there are other ways in which you can entertain your dog in the home without putting them at risk. There are many varieties of chew toy out there that are intended for intense chewing, even various flavoured ones.
In conclusion it is up to you to decide whether bones are good for your dog or not. To decide this you only really need to ask yourself one question but before you do here are a few tips on giving bones that may lessen health risks and help you decide.
Bone giving tips
- Give bones at a proper time – after meals is the best time as your dog will not be hungry and will not be tempted to eat the bone rather than gnaw / chew.
- Only allow your dog to have a bone or 20 minutes a day – this again gives less chance of your dog eating, rather than gnawing / chewing.
- Ensure it is the right size of bone for your dog – as a rule of thumb the bone should be longer than your dogs muzzle.
- Pork rib and chicken bones should be raw if given – both these bones become brittle and have sharp splinters when cooked.
So, now for the question: do the benefits of allowing your dog to have bones outweigh the risks?