No bones about it: risks vs benefits of meaty bones

Should we really give a dog a bone? Feeding raw bones to dogs, and to a lesser extent, cats, has again surged in popularity particularly with the rise of DIY BARF (bones and raw food) diets. Unfortunately, the evidence around feeding raw bones is not as clear cut as everyone would think; there’s a long list of risks associated with feeding bones, that many owners are not aware of, which we then see the results of in practice. It’s important we take into account the evidence around the benefits of feeding bones and if it is really worth the potential risks.

Bones are often touted as great for dental health, a good source of calcium and a species appropriate enrichment tool. However, is this actually the case?

Bones can be extremely dangerous from causing dental fractures to obstructions – how do we mitigate this risk?

First of all, what are the risks of feeding bones to dogs and cats?

Risks of feeding bones
– esophageal or instestinal obstructions
– foreign bodies
– dental fractures
– bacterial contamination (especially if the dog buries and digs up bones for later)
– bowel perforations and peritonitis
– constipation (impacted bone material)
– diarrhea (ingesting marrow)
– rectal injuries
– pancreatitis (if ingesting the marrow)

Are there any benefits to feeding bones? And are they supported by scientific evidence?

Dental health
The most common reported benefit of feeding raw bones is an improvement in dental health. There are only a handful of studies that have been done on this, one being a short study of eight Beagles given raw beef bones; this study showed a reduction in around 10% of the calculus accumulation on the teeth. Unfortunately given this study had an extremely small sample size, it’s difficult to draw conclusions here – not all dogs have the same chewing style therefore would not all receive the same benefit of the calculus being cracked off while chewing. Gallagher (2013) compared raw bones to other dental chews and products and there was no significant difference found between what was used – feeding a dental treat provided the same, if not better, dental improvements as feeding a raw bone, without the risk of fractures or other adverse events.

Source of calcium
It was incredibly difficult to find any quality studies or evidence on how bioavailable the calcium is from simply chewing on a bone – I couldn’t locate any studies looking into if pets actually can absorb calcium just from chewing on bone. To actually absorb the calcium, in the correct ratio to phosphorus, the pet needs to ingest the bone which the only safe way to do this would be in the form of bone meal, to prevent the risk of obstructions, bowel perforations and/or constipation. Bone meal is a common way calcium is supplemented in commercial diets and home prepared diets. Bones are not designed to be swallowed or ingested and allowing your pet to ingest bones is incredibly high risk, and potentially very dangerous.

Enrichment
“But my dog loves it!” I’m sure they do! However just because they enjoy something doesn’t always mean they actually need it or should have it! The enrichment benefit can be achieved by using puzzle toys, snuffle mats, licking mats, nylon chew bones, scatter feeding…the list goes on! These are much safer options, and are just as rewarding. With so many options available, there is really no benefit feeding a bone over using a safe replacement.

Feeding bones provides no benefit over using a safe alternative such as dental treats, nylon chewing bones, enrichment toys or supplements. Depending on your reasoning for feeding bones, I would always evaluate if there is a safer alternative that will provide your pet with the same benefit you are trying to achieve, and avoiding feeding bones where possible.

If you wish to still feed bones, how can we do this safely and reduce the potential risks?

For dogs:
– Always use a bone significantly bigger than the dog’s head
– Use leg bones that have the large joint attached and some meat
– Once the meaty parts are chewed off, remove the bone
– Do not allow your dog to bury bones
– Supervise your dog at all times when chewing bones
– Do not allow your dog to crunch on the hard part of the bone, or ingest the bone
– Do not use marrow bones or circular marrow bones as they can get stuck on the mandible
– Never, ever, use cooked bones as they can splinter
– Do not feed entire chicken carcasses or “frames”

For cats:
– Do not feed entire carcasses or frames
– Do not feed cooked bones
– Do not feed raw chicken necks (this is both an obstuctive risk, and a bacterial contamination risk, see the recent study from the University of Melbourne)
– Supervise your cat when chewing
– Offer meaty bone products such as wings or drumsticks
– Do not allow your cat to ingest the bones
– Do not feed “whole prey” items without supervision

To avoid the risks I’ve mentioned above, I’d strongly caution against feeding bones. By and large, they cause more problems than they solve and the benefits can be achieved in many other less risky ways.

Do you feed your pet bones? How do you mitigate the risks of feeding raw bones to your pet? Let us know in the comments below!

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References

Gruenstern J (2019) Recommending raw bones in the veterinary practice. Available online at: https://ivcjournal.com/raw-bones/

Marx FR, Machado GS, Pezzali JG, et al. Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs. Aust Vet J. 2016;94(1-2):18-23. doi:10.1111/avj.12394

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jessica says:

    I agree, I wasn’t able to find any research or evidence on the claim about it providing all the pet’s calcium requirements in the correct ratio. There’s nothing I can find that has defined how, other than in the form of bone meal, a raw meaty bone would be able to provide this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kristamboss says:

    Great read, thank you!! You mentioned the probability of not being able to assimilate the calcium and phosphorus in the raw meaty bone, since the dog would not be ingesting the entire bone. What about the Proponents of popular raw diets that (unfortunately) recommend the use of edible raw meaty bones and claim that this is all that’s needed to balance out the calcium: phosphorus ratio? I have always speculated whether or not dogs would even be able to break down and absorb the nutrients in that state. From what I understand, most ingredients need to be preprocessed to a certain extent in order for pets to be able to digest things optimally.

    Liked by 1 person

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