We've all heard the warning about feeding bones to our dogs, but are bones really that dangerous? Learn how to safely feed raw bones to your dog by picking the right bones. Your dog's safety is your first concern, and you need to know the risk in feeding raw bones just as much as the benefits.
Why Should You Feed Your Dogs Raw Bones?
Most dogs are no stranger to gnawing on a bone from time to time, but not every bone is safe. Furthermore, the benefits of feeding raw bones to your dog don’t always apply to every type of bone. If you are looking to improve your dog’s health by feeding bone, then make sure that you know what kind of bone will be safe and beneficial to your dog.
4 Benefits of Raw Bones for Dogs
There are many reasons to feed raw bones to your dog. We highly recommend raw bones for dogs that eat a raw diet, but they can be a helpful addition to any diet.
It’s a common myth that dogs can’t digest bone at all. The truth is, dogs can digest certain types of bones. These bones, called edible bones, are rich in nutrients and can aid in dental care, growth, and digestion.
Bone requires a very acidic environment to break down, which dogs have. Raw fed dogs have an even more acidic stomach environment than kibble fed dogs, making it easier for them to digest bone quickly and efficiently.
Kibble fed dogs should start with smaller, softer bones, like chicken necks. This will allow their body to adjust acidity levels to break down the bone. In time, they will be able to digest any edible bone.
For those looking for a longer lasting chew, recreational bones can be offered as well. Recreational bones are harder and not meant to be eaten, so the risks increase and the benefits go down.
1. Maintain Bone Density
Calcium is vital to bone structure. In most commercial diets, calcium is added to ensure that the calcium levels of the diet meet AAFCO regulations for a complete and balanced diet.
Every dog has different calcium requirements, so a food that may be suitable for one dog could be lacking this essential mineral for another. Calcium deficiencies, called hypocalcemia, although not common are severe and life-threatening.
Dogs require calcium for more than just bone structure. Calcium is needed for blood coagulation, muscle contraction, and has a significant effect on vision and heart function. Supplementing additional calcium during growth stages and in larger breeds is vital; use moderation though.
There is such a thing as too much calcium. Like most vitamins and minerals, it’s about balance. If you are feeding a diet that contains calcium or bone already, then additional bone should be fed in smaller portions and less frequently.
For a medium to large breed dog, feeding bones a couple of times per week is plenty. Try to rotate calcium supplementation from week to week. If your dog has already enjoyed multiple bones this week, offer a different type of chew, like a bully stick or a yak chew, instead.
Calcium supplementation must be balanced with phosphorus. Together the minerals maintain their skeletal structure. Muscle meat is the most abundant source of phosphorus, so it's present in your dog's diet already. If your dog is on a low protein diet, under 26%, or a diet that is lacking in animal protein, then you should be more cautious about feeding too much bone.
2. Dental Health
Chewing is a vital part of dental care. Today we have toothbrushes, toothpaste, food and water additives for dogs; all of which are designed to prevent dental issues for our pets. A consistent dental routine for your dog can save you thousands in vet bills.
Of course, your dog’s ancestors weren’t brushing their teeth, so they relied on things in their diets to maintain keep their teeth strong and healthy.
Beyond the bacteria-fighting enzymes in raw meat, chewing on bones and connective tissues helps to prevent plaque build-up and keep their gums healthy. Whether you are feeding your dog a raw diet or not, feeding raw bones is a great way to add to their dental care routines.
Puppies, seniors, and dogs with compromised dental health should avoid hard bones. Their teeth are more fragile and have a higher risk of being damaged. Avoid feeding bone and other hard chews until their adult teeth have come in.
You could also try something softer, like a tendon or a cow ear. You will still get a dental cleaning effect, but you won’t risk your dog damaging their teeth while chewing.
3. Mental stimulation
Bones are a great way to keep a bored dog happy. Chewing is a favourite past time for most dogs, and giving them a bone will help to keep them both physically and mentally occupied. Usually, chewing bones keeps your pup out of trouble and ensures that they are chewing on something healthy instead of your shoes or your baseboards.
Recreation bones, like beef femurs or marrow bones, are great for letting your dog work their jaw, but aren’t designed to be consumed. If your dog is a serious chewer with a powerful jaw, or has compromised dental health, stick to softer edible bones that are safe to consume.
4. Skin & Coat
Bones contain a variety of minerals that can aid in skin and coat health, and the marrow and cartilage are good sources of collagen. Bones with connective tissues attached are especially beneficial for skin and coat health. Raw meaty bones can be fed to dogs eating any format of food, but can specifically complement a raw diet perfectly.
Use recreational bones to make a healthy bone broth for your dog. Be sure to choose bones that contain marrow and connective tissues, as this will provide the most nutrition.
Discard the bone after it’s been boiled down. It will be cooked, brittle and has a high chance of splintering if your dog were to chew it again. The broth can then be used as a treat, a supplement, or a meal topper.
Raw Bone Safety
We’ve gone over all the good things about feeding raw bones, but let’s talk about the safety precautions and potential risks of feeding raw bones. I’d love to tell you that all dogs will do perfectly fine eating raw bones, but that is not the case.
Some bones are safer than others, and some bones should never be fed at all. As mentioned before, puppies, seniors, and dogs with compromised dental health may not be suited for raw bones or other hard chews.
Three types of bones are available for dogs: Edible bones, recreational bones, and cooked or smoked bones.
Let’s start with edible bones. An edible bone is a bone that is softer, usually hollow, and covered in cartilage or other connective or meaty tissues. Typically when we talk about edible bone, we are referring to poultry bones. There are some non-poultry bones that I would consider edible, but they are harder to find and way more expensive to source.
Keep in mind that not all poultry bones are safe to feed, even raw. These include weight-bearing bones. Weight-bearing bones are more likely to splinter. Splintered bone fragments can be very sharp and have the potential to cause damage to your dog’s esophagus, stomach, and intestines.
Here are some poultry bones that are safe for your dog to consume completely:
These bones are very soft. While they still have a crunch, provide dental benefits, and are high in calcium, they will not be a long-lasting chew for most dogs. Necks and backs are much meatier than wings and feet so they will be higher in calories and fat. Keep that in mind when feeding poultry necks or backs
Always choose a size that is appropriate for your dog. Chicken will be the smallest of the poultry bones, so they are well suited to small to medium-sized dogs. They can even be fed to cats. For larger breeds, look for turkey necks. They are much larger and will discourage your dog from swallowing them whole.
If you are watching your dog's weight or counting calories, then make sure you reduce regular feedings to accommodate for the increased calories in the edible bones that you offer. Edible bones can be part of their daily diet, but you will want to avoid giving them too much calcium.
For raw feeders, feeding edible bones with meals is a common and safe way to provide appropriate amounts of calcium in their diet, but if you already feed a diet complete with calcium, then limit edible bones to smaller portions and only as occasional treats.
If you are looking for larger edible bones for bigger breeds, then try a non-poultry bone. Safe non-poultry alternatives include:
- Lamb, pork, venison, and beef ribs
- Pork feet
- Ox and pork tail
Poultry bones have a higher calcium content than other bones, so if you are using edible bones to supply your dog’s total calcium needs, then try to incorporate some poultry bones into their diet.
If poultry is an allergy trigger for your dog, opt for lamb or pork ribs instead. They provide the closest amount of calcium to poultry.
A recreational bone are meant for chewing but not necessarily eating. These bones are much harder and should always be fed with caution and under supervision. They do have nutritional value, but because they are not meant to be consumed, they will not replace the need for edible bone in their diet.
The purpose of offering recreational bones is dental health, jaw exercise, and mental stimulation. It’s a nice treat, but is not technically a part of their diet. Dogs can eat these bones, but there are risks.
Don’t offer recreational chews to “gulpers.” They could end up choking or have an intestinal blockage. Both of these are life-threatening, so only feed bones that you know they’re properly chewing.
Some bones are harder than others, and this can affect the safety of the bone. A femur or marrow bone, for example, will be very hard. The risk of your dog chipping or breaking a tooth is much higher than it would be with a softer bone.
Certain animals have very dense bones, which can also increase the dental risk. Beef, bison, and other large bovine bones are among the harder, denser bones. While the risk is higher, this doesn’t mean that all bovine bones are off-limits.
Many dog owners still feed these types of bones to their larger breed dogs as a means of distraction and activity. It’s important to know the risk, but you know your dog best. How they chew and their current dental health are significant factors.
A healthy adult dog with appropriate chewing habits will likely do fine with the occasional recreational bone, but if you are concerned, then stick to edible bone only.
Red meat bones, usually bovine, will make up the majority of the recreational bones. Look for beef, bison, elk, moose, or deer bones. The sizes vary depending on the animal, so choose a protein source that is suited to your dog’s size and chewing habits.
Some smaller animals like goats, llama, lamb, and pigs also have larger bones that can be fed, but these bones tend to be trickier to find. Talk to your local butcher to find out what kind of bones they can source.
Here are some of the best recreational bones that you can feed:
- Hock bones
To use recreational bones as a chew, which is the intended purpose, allow your dog to gnaw but not eat. Once the bone has been picked clean of all bits and yummy flavouring, then take the bone away and discard it.
Power chewers will eat just about everything, so be very cautious when feeding these types of bones. Your dog’s stomach acids can break down bone, but only in moderation. If your dog has a habit of swallowing large chunks of bone, then recreational bones are probably not the right choice.
You may want to consider a different type of natural chew that can be broken down easier to prevent choking or digestive issues. Cow ears, tendons, and bully sticks may be better for aggressive chewers, and dogs that are not suited to recreational bones.
Instead of discarding the bone, you can use it to make bone broth. Check out our step by step bone broth recipe.
Customize it as to suit your dog's needs. Try different recipes to keep it fresh and exciting for your dog. You can also freeze the bone broth into ice cube trays. It's an easy way to portion it and add to any meal.
The last form of bone available is a cooked or smoked bone. I highly recommend avoiding this type of bone unless you are very sure that your dog is not consuming them and that they are chewing properly. There are a number of risks associated with cooked or smoked bones.
Bones that are cooked or smoked get brittle. The chances of splintering or breaking off into sharp pieces is higher in cooked bone. Pets consuming cooked or smoked bones can lead to sickness, vet visits, and sometimes death.
Pieces and shards of bone can do significant damage to their mouth, and there is a scarier risk of the bone fragments damaging delicate tissues along their digestive tract. Cuts or lacerations to the intestines, stomach, or esophagus are painful and life-threatening.
Cooked bones are more likely to damage teeth as well. Even an adult dog with healthy teeth can be at risk of cracking or breaking a tooth on a hard, cooked bone. While many dogs have been eating cooked bones for years without incident, tooth damage is still a constant risk.
There are very few cooked bones that I recommend for chewing, and none that I recommend as edible. Anyone that prefers cooked bones is probably concerned about the messiness of feeding raw bones, but trust me when I say that the mess beats risking your pet’s health and safety.
The only cooked bones that I have ever recommended for recreational chewing are knuckles and kneecaps. These bones are covered in connective tissues, like cartilage. These tasty little bits on the bone will keep your dog engaged and mentally stimulated.
The bone is also round, making it much more difficult to break off large pieces. A flatter or longer bone will crack and break into sharp pieces, while a round cartilaginous bone is much less likely to do that.
All that being said, I still recommend monitoring your dog and taking the bone away once your dog has cleaned it off. The risk of splintering or tooth damage is not gone, just reduced.
Tips for Feeding Raw Bones
Feeding raw bones can seem a little gross, especially if your dog likes to carry his chews around the house or chew them on the furniture or carpet. A raw bone moving around your home can pose a health risk to you and your family, as the bones will contain the same bacteria as raw meat.
To prevent your dog from spreading these germs around the house, here are some best practices to keep you and your pet safe:
1. Choose the right spot to feed. Giving your dog a bone doesn’t mean that they need free reign to move about the house with it. Choose a designated spot for your dog to chew, and make sure that it’s an easy place to clean after they’re done chomping down on their treat.
Feed in their kennel, on a washable mat, tile or linoleum, or outside. This may take some training, but be consistent. When you offer the bone, make sure you offer it in the designated area.
Try to use a vocal command like "spot" or "place" to help them connect the location with the fun of chewing on a bone. If they move from that spot, take the bone from them, walk them back to their place, and repeat the first steps. You may need to do this several times to help your dog understand.
2. In the summer, feed bones partially frozen. Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer day than a nice cold treat. Help your dog stay cool by offering them a frozen bone. It will take them longer to chew, and will keep them hydrated.
3. Use bones as a training opportunity. I learned this nifty trick from a co-worker years ago. If your dog is not keen on baths, feed the bone in the bathtub. It’s both an easy place to clean, and will help your dog associate the tub or shower with their favourite snack.
In time, you can try to pour small amounts of water on their feet and back to help them get used to getting wet in the tub.
Don’t feed a bone while bathing your dog though. You neither want them consuming the soapy water, or bathing in raw meat juice. Feed the bone after the bath as a reward for good behaviour.
4. Any surface that the bone has touched should be cleaned and sanitized. If you use a blanket or towel, throw it in the wash. Tile floor or kennel? Wipe it down. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant that can be diluted in water and used to clean surfaces. It’s great for cleaning up after your pet because it is non-toxic and safe if your dog licks the surface afterwards.
Most importantly, wash your hands after touching the bone. Avoid letting your dog give you kisses after chewing on the bone. They will likely have some blood, meat, or bacteria on their muzzle from chewing on it. Use a dog safe wipe or washcloth with warm water to wipe down their muzzle and paws. A quick wipe down will help prevent any residue from spreading around your house.
5. Don’t leave bones out. Edible bones typically have tissues and meat on them. Treat them like raw meat. Whatever your dog doesn’t eat in one sitting should be refrigerated. Proper storage will prevent the meat from spoiling, and limit the number of bacteria that are laying around your home.
For recreational bones, even if the bone has been cleaned off by your dog, the bone should be removed and discarded. Leaving a bone out will not only let the bone dry out, making it more likely to splinter or break, but it is also still hosting bacteria from the raw meat. Discarding the bone will prevent pathogens from spreading.
Have you had success feeding raw bones to your dog? Share your story in the comments below!
Posted by Krystn Janisse
Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channelling some crazy cat lady vibes with her five lovable, but rebellious cats.