What are Bully Sticks: The Facts, Myths, and Nutrition

Food & Nutrition

Bully sticks are a popular natural treat for dogs, but what are bully sticks, really? Are they healthy for dogs? Should you be feeding your dog bully sticks? Could they be potentially harmful to your dog (and you, too)? Read on to find out what bully sticks are and what benefits or harm they may cause for your dog.

What Are Bully Sticks and What Are They Made Of?

We're going to let the elephant in the room out right now: bully sticks are made from bull penises. Because of this, they are a single-ingredient product that is 100% natural and a safer alternative to rawhide chews. In terms of size, there are small (6”) bull sticks from steers all the way up to much larger bulls. 

Other Names for Bully Sticks: bull sticks, pizzle sticks, pizzles, bull pizzles, steer sticks

Keep Your Dog Busy with Bully Sticks

Being a longer lasting chew, similar to rawhide, bully sticks can come in handy for nearly any dog owner. Since they take a long time to break down, bully chews are probably not very good for training treats, which work best when they are small and quick to consume. But they are excellent as distraction treats. 

If you have a dog that acts out in destructive behaviour caused by boredom or anxiety, you should try giving him a bully stick. An almost universally appealing chew, pizzle sticks are distracting enough for any dog and provide a positive outlet for your dog while you are busy with something else. No more chewed furniture, no more whining - at least for a little while! 

How Are Bully Sticks Made?

How Pizzle Sticks Are Processed

Though manufacturing processes differ, bully sticks are generally drained of any fluids and then cooked in various ways. As with most things, manufacturers all have different treatment methods and standards. While they can be  prepared in a number of different ways, bully sticks are most commonly smoked or baked.

Bull sticks are available in a variety of different shapes and sizes to suit different types of dogs.  Even an odorless alternative is available to please both dogs and owners. 

Beef-free Bully Sticks

Need a beef-free bully stick for your dog with beef allergies or sensitivities? Bully sticks also come in bison and water buffalo. Due to their scarcity, these can be more expensive than beef bully sticks. Also, while a delicious chew for dogs, water buffalo bully sticks can have a stronger natural odour than beef or bison bull sticks.

Imported Bull Sticks

Some bully sticks from foreign countries such as Brazil must be chemically treated in a bleach-like solution in order for them to be exported to Canada and the United States. What this process does is make them odour-free or have reduced odour, as they’ve been cleaned and then bleached. However, these bully sticks are chemically-processed and in that process, the food value likely has been degraded.

Bully Sticks From Canada

Canadian bullysticks come in a variety of qualities. Some are odour-free and some are not. Most bully sticks from Canada have not been treated with chemicals, but these still go through the cooking process, which can vary between manufacturers. Certain manufacturers cook the bullysticks at a much slower rate, keeping the shape, colouration, and size of the bull stick more intact. However, you pay a higher price for the higher level of quality. Bull sticks that are cooked at a more rapid rate may become more shriveled and a little harder.

Are Bully Sticks Better than Rawhides?

There are definite advantages to choosing bully sticks over rawhide, especially in terms of safety:

  • Bully sticks are an all natural, long-lasting dog treat
  • Bull sticks can be consumed or chewed up and they disintegrate, rather than possibly being swallowed and causing swelling in the gut (as rawhide sometimes can). 
  • They're easier to digest than rawhide and many other commercial and natural chews, such as pig ears.
  • Bullysticks are very good for the teeth. In the chewing process, bully sticks cause abrasion of the teeth, which aids in removing plaque and tartar build-up on the tooth surface.
  • Bully sticks are very low in carbohydrates, because they are primarily protein. Because of this, bullysticks do not cause tartar build-up.
  • Bull sticks are low in fat. Combined with the high-protein content, this makes them an ideal treat for obese dogs.
  • Bully sticks are one of the most popular and safest treats available on the market.* 
  • Even young puppies, which are advised not to chew rawhides, can chew bully sticks.
*Since bully sticks are a natural chew, we highly recommend that you wash your hands after handling bully sticks for your safety.

Are Bully Sticks a Good Chew for My Dog?

Bully Sticks are a good chew for your dog if:

  • Your dog is underweight or overweight, or wants to maintain their current healthy weight. High in protein, bull sticks support muscle development and maintenance, as well as healthy weight loss.
  • You are looking for a quality chew, not just the cheapest chew you can buy.
  • Your dog has no beef sensitivities or allergies (see Beef-free Bully Sticks below)
  • You are looking for more ways to improve your dog’s dental health easily.
  • You are concerned about the safety of rawhide for puppies and dogs of all ages.
  • Your dog has no serious dental issues that might make chewing painful.
  • Your dog loves to chew!dogs chewing bully sticks

How long do bully sticks last?

No Dog is the Same

All dogs have different eating habits. Determining how long it will take for any one dog to chew through a bully stick depends on many factors.

Buy Your Dog’s Bully Stick According to Size

Dogs with more powerful jaws will have less trouble breaking down a bully stick - some only need an hour. The key is to buy the size and shape of bully stick appropriate to the size and strength of your dog.

A large or giant breed dog, or an especially powerful chewer, should be fed an extra large or jumbo sized bully stick to ensure that the bully stick will last a longer period of time. A small, medium breed, or senior pet might only require a thin bully stick to occupy them for several hours or even days.

The shape of the bully stick will also affect how fast it’s eaten. If the dog can’t get its jaw completely around the bully stick because of the shape, then it will take them  longer to break it down. Extra thick, braided, or curly pizzle sticks are examples of more difficult shapes. 

Are bully sticks safe for puppies?

Bully sticks are a safe and natural chew for puppies and dogs of all ages and sizes. Here are just some of the benefits of bully sticks for dogs:

  • Bully sticks are flavourful, making them irresistible to dogs.
  • Bully sticks are high in protein and low in fat.
  • Their composition makes them easy to digest for even the most sensitive stomachs.
  • Bully sticks are one of the safest chews for all puppies, topping popular rawhide chews. Although rawhides are all natural, they are much harder for dogs to digest. Swallowing a large chunk of rawhide could result in blockages, whereas bully sticks will break apart and pass through the digestive tract more smoothly.
  • Bully sticks are great for dental maintenance. The constant contact and abrasion against their teeth promotes healthy gums and even scrapes some of the plaque and tartar off of their teeth.
  • Bully sticks can aid the transition between juvenile and adult teeth, known as teething.

Are Bully Sticks Harmful?

You may have heard some unsettling things about bully sticks in the news or on the internet. While bully sticks have been the target of some concerned pet owners, many of these concerns can be remedied with appropriate use and additional information. 

Are bully sticks fattening?

Bully sticks are actually low in fat, particularly when compared with other natural chews, such as pig ears. Generally, they average at around 10% fat content, with about 75-85% protein, though this can vary a lot between brands (pig ears have around 30% fat). Certain brands, such as Puppy Love, claim their bully sticks have only 1.39% fat. This makes them a good choice for pets who need to watch their fat intake. However, it is still recommended that you watch your pet's consumption, as bully sticks are not low in calories and are irresistable for most dogs!

Bully sticks can have a lot of calories.  A study of 26 bully sticks found the average 6" bully stick to be about 88 calories, which would be a lot for a small dog or even medium-sized dog to consume in a day. If you aren't cutting back any of your dog's food and just adding on 88 additional calories, it's probably going to start showing in excess weight. However, with a little education, you can give your dog the right size bully stick so that he's not overdoing it on treats and packing on pounds.

Treats should account for no more than 10% of your dog's daily calories. Use this table to find out how big (approximately) of a bully stick your dog can eat in a day without going over that 10%.

What Size Bully Stick Should I Feed My Dog?   

Bully sticks are moderately dense in calories, but the quality of those calories is high. Bully sticks are predominantly protein, which dogs use as a primary source of energy. Bully sticks, while low in fat, do have between 9-22 calories per inch. So if your dog is eating more than he should per day, as with any treat or even his food, he will likely gain weight.

We've created a table for some of the most popular breeds and which bully stick we would recommend as a daily treat. In the study of 26 bully sticks, they were found to range from 9-22kcal/inch. We've averaged that to a mean of 15.5kcal/inch, but if you know the calorie content of your specific treat (use with any treat), you can simple divide your dog's daily treat calorie allowance by the number of calories in the treat you are feeding, and you get the number of treats you can feed your dog per day. Remember: This accounts for ALL treats fed to your dog in a day. 

Recommended Treat Calories and Bully Stick Portions Per Day Based on Weight

Breed Weight Range (lbs) Treat Calories/Day Daily Bully Stick Portion
Yorkshire Terrier, Chihuahua >7 17.5 1"/day
Miniature Dachshund <11 16-22 1-1.5"/day
Miniature Poodle, Shih tzu, Pug 9-18 23-38 1-2.5"/day
Standard Dachshund, Beagle 16-32 34-60 2-4"/day
Bulldog 40-50 50-75 3-5"/day
Labrador Retriever, Boxer 50-80 60-120 4-8"/day
German Shepherd 75-95 130-165 8-10.5"/day
Rottweiler 85-135 108-302+ 9-15" or more/day
Mastiff 120-180 156-305+ 10-20" or more/day

Other Factors That Influence Calorie Needs
This table is just an estimate for your adult dog's approximate treat calorie needs. There are many other factors that influence how much your dog needs to eat every day:

  • Pregnancy/Lactation: Bitches who are pregnant, particularly those after 4 weeks of pregnancy, and those who are nursing puppies can require between 2 and 8 times the resting energy requirements (RER) of average dogs. 
  • Puppies: Puppies, particularly those in the first 4 months of life, require between 2 and 3 the RER of average adult dogs.
  • Neutered/Intact: Neutered dogs require less energy than intact dogs.
  • Sick/Injured/Recovering: Dogs that are sick, injured, recovering from illness, or those who have certain medicial conditions often require more calories than healthy dogs for proper health restoration.
  • Seasonal:  Nutritional needs change with the seasons, particularly for dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors. Not as many calories are needed in the summer as opposed to the colder winter months. 
  • Working: Working dogs require anywhere from 2 to 5 times the RER of typical adult dogs, depending on their activity level. 
  • Weight Loss/Gain: Overweight and obese dogs need fewer calories if they want to lose weight. If you want your dog to lose weight, portion his calories based upon what his ideal weight would be. Obese pets may need to set a target less than their current weight rather than their ideal weight, and decrease portions slowly to maintain good health. Similarly, pets who are underweight should set their calorie needs based on the weight they want to reach, not their current weight. 

The Bottom Line
If you look at the big picture of your dog's health, as long as he is staying within his calorie requirements for the week, his weight maintenance should stay on track. For example, if your beagle eats a whole bully stick in one day, it should not be a major disruptor to his nutrition or weight maintenance if he's cutting back on other days in that week, or if you choose low calorie options for him such as whole, fresh veggies on the other days. Make healthy choices and practice moderation for your dog's best nutrition. The variation in his diet is worth it!

Are bully sticks contaminated with bacteria?

Like any natural treat, the risk of bacterial contamination is there. A scientific study with a small sampling of 26 different pizzles has confirmed the presence of bacteria (according to this press release) such as Clostridium difficile, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli in a minority of the bully sticks sampled. However, your dog's intestinal tract, being much shorter and of a different composition than ours, can handle a lot more bacteria safely than we can. Unless really ill, consuming these bacteria is unlikely to affect your dog. 

Should you be concerned about getting infected with these bacteria yourself? Truthfully, not all of these bacterial strains infect people (as stated by scientists conducting the study), and most do not pose a threat to healthy people. Many of the surfaces we use everyday, including our sinks, kitchen counters, sponges, cell phones, and even our skin are contaminated with the same bacteria, often to a greater extent. 

However, it is always recommended to follow proper sanitary practice to avoid infection. Always wash your hands before and after giving your dog a natural treat (or dog food, for that matter). Wash well, using friction between your hands, soap, and at least 20 seconds under running water for your best protection against bacteria. 

If you are immuno-compromised, including pregnant women, people on antibiotics, very young children or sick, elderly people, or those with immune-system compromising illnesses or conditions, get someone else to handle the bull sticks in your house, and have your dog enjoy his treat at a reasonable distance.

Do bully sticks contain animal by-products?

Bully sticks do not contain animal by-products, being a whole food source, but they are technically classified as animal by-products themselves. Many pet owners avoid buying foods with animal by-products in them for their dogs and cats, but many do not know the nutritional reasoning behind this choice. 

Animal by-products are not bad in themselves. Including such healthful, rich sources of vitamins, minerals, lean protein, and other nutrition, animal by-products can be some of the healthiest things you can feed your pet. Animal by-products are any part of an animal that is unfit for human consumption, including, but not limited to: beaks, feet, lungs, spleen

The problem with animal by-products in pet food is that they are inconsistent as an ingredient, and their nutritional value can vary greatly from batch to batch. Also, the by-products are often cooked at such high temperatures that many of the nutrients and proteins are no longer usable to your pet. This makes animal by-products in pet food (listed as by-products, by-product meals) a cheap, questionably nutritious ingredient.

But, on their own and minimally processed, animal by-products such as bull pizzles can be a nutritious addition to your pet's diet. 

Are Bully Sticks Safe to Chew?

Rawhides have been under fire a lot for their safety. Dogs can chew off pieces of rawhide, which can then become lodged in the throat or cause intestinal blockages which may require abdominal surgery to remove. While rawhide chews get most of the attention for this hazard, the truth is that nearly any chew, particularly natural chews, can carry this risk. 

The good thing about bully sticks is that they are nearly 100% digestible, which means that they will break down easier in your pet's system than rawhide will, making them less likely to cause any blockages in the stomach or intestines. There is still a choking risk if you have a dog that is a very powerful chewer and one who likes to quickly rip off pieces of chews. For the average chewer, the risk of any damage being done is low. Even if your dog does manage to break off a piece and swallow it, he will most likely digest it with no difficulty. 

That being said, it is always recommended to watch your dog with any chew. Remove the chew when it becomes too small to lower the risk that your dog will swallow a large chunk. Also, if you do want to give your dog only a bit of his bully stick at a time, it's best to give him the entire chew and simply to take it away when he's consumed his daily amount, or to break the chew into bite-size pieces and give it to him that way. Also, choose your dog's chew size appropriately. Don't give a large dog a small 4" bully stick that he could fit entirely in his mouth in one gulp. An excited dog will likely do just that. Bully sticks, and most other chews can be safe for your dog if you follow these recommendations.

Shop Bully Sticks

Posted by Amy Dyck

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