Dog Bones and Treats
Original post The Hidden Problems With Many Dog Bones and Chews by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker on Healthy Pets
- Dogs are natural chewers, and among their very favorite things to chew are bones
- Dogs find chewing spectacularly satisfying; chewing also alleviates boredom and stress, cleans teeth, exercises jaw muscles and can help your dog learn to spend time alone
- There are many types of dog chews on the market, including pig ears, tendon chews, pizzles, and fully edible chews; two types I never recommend are rawhide and synthetic chews
- Raw recreational bones also make excellent chews for many (but not all) dogs; it’s important to know what kind of chewer your dog is so you can select appropriate types of bones (or no bones at all, depending)
- To feed any type of chew safely always follow commonsense precautions, and especially when offering recreational bones
Newsflash: Dogs love to chew bones! Okay, that’s not really a newsflash for all you dog-inclusive families out there. The fact is chewing is a favorite pastime of the species Canis lupus familiaris. Even dogs with few or no teeth, given the opportunity, will at least try to gnaw on a bone. It’s the nature of canines to explore their environment with their mouths, pick up objects to see how they feel and taste, and decide whether they might be chew-worthy.
It’s doggone satisfying! — “I sit watching one of my dogs chewing on a raw beef shank bone and wonder at how blissful the experience seems to be for him,” writes dog behavior expert Dr. Stanley Coren. “There appears to be no better canine sedative than a bone to gnaw on.”1
It’s a boredom and stress buster — Boredom and stress or anxiety are often triggers for humans who bite their nails. It can be an unconscious response you don’t even notice until it’s too late to save your manicure. For dogs, chewing on anything available can serve a similar purpose. Dogs who are chronically under stimulated physically or mentally are likely to do more chewing than their well-exercised counterparts.
It’s good for teeth, gums, and jaw muscles — Adult dogs chew to brush and floss their teeth, massage their gums, and work their powerful jaw muscles. Puppies and young dogs who are still teething often chew to relieve itching or pain.
Learning to chew the right things helps prevent your dog from chewing the wrong things. Since puppies and dogs are hard-wired to chew and will do so with or without your permission, the best way to preserve your own possessions (and your sanity) is to ensure your canine family member has plenty of his own approved items to chew.
In addition, “chew projects” can help your dog learn to spend time alone. Puppies and adult dogs who are regularly given a private spot and plenty of time to chew on a food-stuffed toy or raw, meaty bone learn to spend time alone, which makes them much less likely to develop separation anxiety.
Raw bones are a great way to speed along the crate training process, especially if your dog is stressed about spending time in the crate with the door closed. Since I always recommend that you supervise your dog whenever he’s chewing on a raw recreational bone, it’s important to offer only food-stuffed or treat-release toys when you leave him home alone.
Rawhide chews — Let’s start with the oldest chew on the market, the rawhide. A more accurate name would be processed-hide because the skin isn’t raw at all. These are among my least-favorite chews for dogs. Not only are they high in calories, but they're often found on lists of pet poisons and have other problems as well. To learn more about the dark side of rawhide manufacturing, watch this video describing the grisly process:
Pig ears — Pig ears are very popular dog chews, but my concern about them and ears from any mass-produced food animal, is that the ears are a very common location for hormone implants.
If this is the case with the ears you’re buying, your dog is consuming an abnormally high amount of concentrated hormone residues, which over time can be detrimental to her health. If you’re able to find ears from free-range, organically raised animals, then obviously you can avoid the problem.
Pizzles, snouts, chicken feet and rabbit ears — Dehydrated body parts have become incredibly popular as chews, including pizzles (which are penises, in case you were wondering), pig snouts, chicken feet and rabbit ears. All small body parts can be a choking risk for most dogs, so close supervision is necessary. I clamp one end of small chews with vice grip pliers to assure my dogs won’t attempt to swallow them whole.
Tendon chews — These chews come in varying lengths and densities, and many dogs love them. Like rawhides, tendon chews can become very soft and pliable as your dog works on them. Because they are ropey, and some are very small, long, and thin, they present a significant choking risk for most dogs.
These chews come from a variety of different animal sources, but the small ones are risky for even the tiniest dog. I recommend buying very long chews and when you can no longer see it sticking out two inches on either side of your dog’s mouth, clamp vice grips onto the remaining small piece or throw it out.
I also recommend buying tendon chews from independent pet shops, if possible, that have good product turnover and transparent sourcing. They should be labeled as to their origin and any preservatives added.
Fully edible chews — Some of the newer chews on the market don’t contain any animal parts at all. The healthy options are made with milk, cheese, human grade tapioca or potatoes (or compressed vegetables).
These are an excellent choice for pets who’ve had dental work, have tender mouths, or are scarfers (dogs whose primary objective isn't to chew, but to get the item into their stomach as soon as possible). These chews are designed to be consumed in their entirety.
If you’re trying to train your dog not to scarf, you can slow his roll by holding the chew by one end while he works on the other end. And if a small piece is chewed off, there’s no danger if your dog swallows it. I don’t recommend offering these chews to scarfers without someone holding the opposite end, because they will attempt to swallow them whole, which is obviously a choking and gastrointestinal (GI) blockage hazard.
Some of the edible dental bones on the market contain questionable ingredients. They’re typically sold in most big box stores. Read the labels on these chews very carefully.
Himalayan chews are made from yak milk (a cheese) that has been sun-dried to make it very hard. This is one of the more unique chews available on the market today and it can be a good option for dogs who can’t eat certain types of protein. There are also several other edible bones that are vegetable-based and appropriate for animals with sensitive stomachs.
Synthetic chews — There are a variety of synthetic chews made of nylon or flavored plastic that you’ll find in most big box stores. I’m not a fan of nylon or plastic chews. Common sense tells us that feeding synthetic materials to your dog isn’t the healthiest option available!
Most of these chews are manufactured in other countries and despite contacting these companies repeatedly, none of them will provide third party contaminant testing or results of chemical analyses. Because there are so many natural chews and bones available, there’s really no reason to go with a synthetic product.
When you’re at home with your dog and able to closely supervise her, a raw recreational bone is hands-down the healthiest, most natural way to satisfy her drive to chew, and reduce plaque and tartar (more than an 85% reduction2 in less than three weeks, according to one study!) if, and only if you can do it safely.
There's a safe way to offer recreational bones to most (but not all) dogs, as long as two very important rules are followed.
- The bones must be raw (therefore found in the freezer section) and of appropriate size
- You must supervise your dog while he's working on a bone; “supervise” in this case means you cannot let him out of your sight
Your dog's ancestors and counterparts in the wild have been eating bones forever, and in fact, your pet has a biological requirement for the nutrients found in bone marrow and the bones themselves. Dogs also love to chew raw bones for the yummy taste, the mental stimulation and because all that gnawing is great exercise for the muscles of the jaw.
There are two types of raw bones: edible and recreational. Edible raw bones are the hollow, non-weight-bearing bones of birds (typically chicken wings and chicken and turkey necks).
They are soft, pliable, do not contain marrow and can be easily crushed in a meat grinder. These bones provide calcium, phosphorus and trace minerals that can be an essential part of your dog's balanced, raw food diet. Edible bones are chewed and swallowed in their entirety.
Recreational raw bones are most commonly big chunks of beef, elk, venison, or bison femurs that naturally contain marrow in the center of the bone. You'll find raw recreational bones in the freezer section of pet boutiques or the local butcher. While the marrow provides a significant source of calories, these bones don't supply sufficient dietary minerals for dogs and are for gnawing only, not eating.
When your dog chews on a raw recreational bone, especially a meaty one with cartilage and soft tissue still attached, his teeth get the equivalent of a good brushing and flossing, as there is substantial mechanical abrasion that occurs during the gnawing process. This helps break down tartar and reduces the risk of gum disease.
Buy raw frozen bones and store them in your freezer at home — You should be able to find raw (not blanched, boiled, basted, irradiated, or baked) knucklebones at your local butcher shop or the meat counter of your supermarket (sometimes they're called soup bones).
When you get the bones home, store them in the freezer and thaw them one at a time before offering them to your dog. Bones that are not sold frozen have been processed to be shelf-stable, so I don’t recommend them.
Avoid bones that might splinter — Don't choose bones that have been cut lengthwise, such as leg bones. Cut bones are more likely to splinter and cause mouth trauma. And don't feed pork or lamb or rib bones to aggressive chewers, they're more likely to splinter than other types of bones.
Match the size of the bone to the size of your dog's head — Too-small bones can be choking hazards and can also cause significant oral trauma.
Don’t give bones to dogs who swallow them (aka “scarfers”) — Don't give a recreational bone to a dog who's likely to try to swallow it whole or bite it in two and eat it in big chunks. If your pet breaks off large pieces of raw bone, collect them before she can swallow them.
Dogs who try to eat marrowbones in one sitting are often not good candidates for knucklebones because they can't distinguish between an edible bone and a recreational bone. When the bone has been gnawed down in size, throw it out. Don't allow your dog to chew it down to a small chunk he can swallow.
Offer bones after meals for exuberant chewers — Offer bones when your dog is full from a meal if you have an exuberant chewer. Hungry dogs (or dogs rarely offered bones) are more likely to swallow a bone whole or break it apart and swallow large chunks. This increases the risk of an obstruction in the digestive tract.
Don’t give recreational bones to aggressive chewers — It's important to be aware that aggressive chewers can and often do chip or fracture their teeth on raw bones, so don't give them to a dog who has had restorative dental work or crowns. Veterinary dentists have many clients who offered raw bones to their aggressive chewers and wound up with a bill for expensive dental work.
Edible bones (whole or coarsely ground) can be a good alternative to recreational raw bones for some aggressive chewers. Choose non-weight bearing bones (e.g., wings, not legs). If you have concerns about whether your dog will chew edible bones or swallow them whole, you can grip one end with pliers or a similar tool, forcing your pup to chew off bite sized pieces.
Some people also use a mallet to fracture the bones prior to feeding, which minimizes the risk of swallowing them whole.
Always closely supervise dogs with bones — Don't allow your pet to carry a bone off to a corner alone, without supervision. You want to be able to react immediately if she starts to choke, if there's a large chunk suddenly missing from the bone or if you notice any blood on the bone or around her mouth from over-aggressive gnawing.
By closely supervising her, you'll also know when she has chewed down to the hard brittle part of a knucklebone, making splinters more likely.
In multi-dog households, it’s best to separate dogs before offering recreational bones — This rule applies to casual canine friends and BFFs as well, because recreational bones can bring out resource guarding instincts in even the most easygoing dog. After all, bones are the most delicious things on the planet to dogs and they don’t want to share! Pick up all bones after a chewing session.
Marrowbones can be a problem for some dogs — Bone marrow is fatty and can add to your pet's daily caloric intake. Dogs with pancreatitis shouldn't eat bone marrow.
Marrow can also cause diarrhea in dogs with sensitive stomachs, so I suggest scooping out the marrow until your pet's gastrointestinal (GI) tract has adapted to the higher fat treat. Another alternative is to offer bones with no marrow if your dog is battling a weight problem or needs a low-fat diet. You can also replace the marrow with fat-free pumpkin and then refreeze the bones.
Feed bones outdoors or on easy-to-clean surfaces — Raw bones can make quite a mess as your dog gnaws on them. That's why many people offer them outdoors or on a surface that can be easily cleaned with hot, soapy water.