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Bones in Dogs

I am commonly asked the question, “What types of bones are okay to give to my dog?”  There are two angles to consider: bones offered as treats, and bones offered as part of a home-cooked diet.  From a risk vs. benefit standpoint, the short answer to both angles is: “None.”  The idea that it is natural for dogs to chew on bones is a popular one (and not a wrong one, either), however, giving bones to your dogs can be a dangerous gamble that can lead to injury, an expensive veterinary bill, and possibly death.  While yes, many pets can enjoy bones and never experience a problem, the fact remains that there does exist a real risk for injury (seen it, treated it). The overwhelming majority of owners who bring in their pets for bone-induced problems tell me, “they have been eating them their whole life and have never had a problem until now.”  It all boils down to this: I have seen bones cause so many problems, that because of this, I cannot in good medical faith advocate their use to others.

This is a real hot-button of a topic- just read the first few heated posts of any internet search about the subject.  Bones can certainly be part of a proper BARF (bones and raw food) diet, and it is not my intention to get on a “no bones soapbox,” but instead, to share with you my personal experiences regarding the risks and dangers that bones can pose, letting you come to your own conclusions and make your own decisions about risk v.s. benefit; there is no one perfect bone strategy for all animals.

Here are the most common complications that can occur with bones, and why feeding them is discouraged by many veterinary professionals; these aren’t urban legends of the badness bones can cause; each is something I have personally experienced and treated on many (emphasize: many!!) occasions throughout my career.

  1. Broken teeth: This may lead to the need for expensive veterinary dentistry.
  2. Mouth or tongue injuries: Tongue and mouth lacerations can be very bloody and they may require repair under anesthesia.
  3. Bone gets looped around your dog’s lower jaw:  This is a common occurrence with marrow bones and I can not tell you how many (emphasize: many!!) times I have seen this! This is both frightening and painful for your dog and it can also be potentially costly to you, as it requires anesthesia to remove the bone from behind the lower canine teeth.  Sometimes the bone becomes lodged so tightly that I literally have to cut the bone away from the jaw.  Having a bone looped around the jaw can cause problems with circulation to the skin in that area, severe swelling, and these poor babies can suffer significant trauma to their mouth.
  4. Bone gets stuck in esophagus: This is the tube that food travels through to reach the stomach, and bones- especially rawhides- tend to get stuck in here.  Chunks or large portions of rawhide are generally chewed off and become very “ooey and gooey” in the mouth and our pets generally just swallow those pieces whole; the problem is that these “sticky” chunks lodge in the esophagus and then continue to expand. You guessed it, another anesthetic procedure, or worse yet, surgery.  I have treated cases that have actually required surgery into the chest cavity to reach that part of the esophagus – not simple.  Some animals later develop scar tissue in that area of the esophagus, creating significant post-operative complications that have resulted in euthanasia.
  5. Bone gets stuck in the trachea: This is the “windpipe” or “breathing tube” and trouble happens if your dog accidentally inhales a small enough piece of bone. This is an emergency because your dog will have trouble breathing and immediate attention is needed.  I have also had dogs arrive to our hospital already passed away because a bone lodged in their upper airway, too far down for an owner to manually remove from the mouth, and taking away their capacity to breath. An inhaled piece of bone can also cause pneumonia, another potentially complicated condition to treat.
  6. Bone gets stuck in stomach: These are cases where it “went down just fine,” but the bone or fragment of bone may be too big to pass out of the stomach and into the intestines. Depending on the bone’s size, your dog may need surgery or endoscopy for removal.
  7. Bone gets stuck in intestines and causes a blockage: Yes, another surgery.
  8. Constipation due to bone fragments: Ohhh, this is the worst!  It is absolutely heart breaking to witness a pet straining to defecate for hours on end because a large bone fragment is stuck in their rectum and they cannot defecate it out!  Sedation, enemas, and manual removal are first attempted, but your pet may need surgery to remove it if those measures are unsuccessful.
  9. Severe bleeding from the rectum: This can happen as a result of the sharp bone fragments “scraping” along the inside of the intestines and causing severe irritation to the lining of the intestines as they move along. This causes severe pain and may require hospitalization to support them through this time.  The bone shards also cause severe discomfort when they are defecated out in their bloody diarrhea.
  10. Peritonitis: This is the worst complication of all and is life-threatening.  This is a bacterial infection of the abdomen that is caused when bone fragments “poke holes” through your dog’s stomach or intestines, leaking the intestine contents into the belly. This requires immediate exploratory surgery as peritonitis can kill your dog. Treating many of these types of complications can easily cost upwards of $5,000… not a “cheap treat.”

So, what CAN I give??

If you are thinking of bones from the angle of a treat source and sheer doggy enjoyment, I would recommend against offering any kind of bone, as there are countless other chewing options out there that do not pose the risk. Talk with your veterinarian about alternatives to giving bones to your dog as there are many bone-like products made with materials that are safe for dogs to chew on.  I personally use the food dispensing chew treats including Kongs, Food Cubes, Tug-a-jug, and Busy Buddy.  These toys safely satisfy the chewing component, as well offer the reward of a digestible treat (like a “safe bone”).  They are also great at offering mental stimulation and I like to rotate these different toys around.  And as a reminder, if you do give a chew product to your dog, always supervise, especially if it’s one your dog hasn’t had before.

If you are thinking of bones from the angle of diet, such as a BARF diet, to me it’s a matter of personal decision with regards to weighing risks vs. benefits, and just as important, being both mentally and financially prepared for any complications that may arise.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Updated the app a few days ago.

    May 18, 2015
  2. Thanks, Miguel! It is always great to read your comments :). You have “teeny dog, big bone” in your favor, and it is unlikely that they will ingest any pieces. Plus, you always observe them when they are enjoying the treat. What you are offering, how you observe them during chew times, and knowing you guys like I do, I think this will be just fine. The subject of bones being so controversial, is in part because it is so situational… just like anything in life, eh? It is difficult to summarize the whole subject- as well as all the pros and cons- in a little blurb. So, I just like to focus on the bigger picture of what can happen with hopes of fostering prevention.

    October 3, 2011
  3. Very sage advice, and now I have to sit back, talk it over with Sandy and decide what we do. The only bone we give our pups is cow shin bone, about and inch high and usually 1.5 to 2.5 inches wide. The only risk I see, given their size and the size of the bone is item 1, broken tooth. Those bones are hard and I don’t think (hope?) they can chip them. They love getting to the marrow and then they gnaw on them until they get tired. Then we throw them away. They get this type of bones maybe once or twice a month. Could these cause 2 or 3? And now to ponder… thanks for the advice

    September 29, 2011

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