Give a Dog a Bone - Is it Safe?

Dogs have been fed bones for thousands of years, but I’m going to tackle the controversial subject of ‘is it a safe practice’?

Cooked bones

I would definitely not recommend feeding cooked bones to any dog. Cooked bones are harder, more brittle and splinter more easily compared with raw bones.  They are more likely to get caught in the mouth, break teeth, get lodged in the oesophagus, pierce the intestine or set like concrete in the large bowel to cause constipation. In addition, they are deprived of essential nutrients which are destroyed during the cooking process. 

The Pros of Feeding Bones

  1. Raw bones can act as nature’s toothbrush.  The chewing action of ripping off flesh and chewing on bones can help to remove plaque and massage the gums. Knuckle bones/joints are best as they are soft, and still have cartilage/meat attached providing an oral workout. Also, they will nibble at the bone to remove the meat and consequently floss their front teeth (incisors). Brisket bones are also softer and easier for dogs to chew at but do tend to be higher in fat.   Cannon bones and other larger bones, however, do not really help with teeth cleaning as they have less meat for the dog to scrape off, so dogs then spend most of their time trying to lick out the high fat marrow.  These hard bones can also split and splinter with chewing to create sharp pointed edges.   
  2. Bones can be a source of some minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus; some fat-soluble vitamins; fat as an energy source; and iron found in bone marrow.  Additionally, a protein source is found within the meat on the bones.
  3. Bones can occupy and entertain a dog for a long period of time preventing boredom, also providing a source of exercise making the dog work for his food.  This is especially good for dogs left on their own for long periods of time.


The Cons of Feeding Bones

  1. Some bones, especially hard beef bones (femur/humerus/cannon/shin) can fracture and break teeth - usually the large grinding carnassial teeth at the back of the mouth.  This is quite common, and I have had to remove numerous broken teeth from dog’s mouths after chewing on hard bones.  When a dog crushes a bone, it can also wedge inside the dog's mouth. They often wedge transversely between the teeth on the left and those on the right side of the mouth, or they can lodge over a molar tooth where they become stuck like a bulldog clip.  This causes excessive drooling and can cause extensive damage to the teeth and mouth if left unnoticed.   This is more likely with short pieces of bone.
  2. Bone marrow contains a high percentage of fat which can cause digestive upsets in some dogs eg diarrhoea, vomiting or even potential life threatening conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).  This high fat content can also lead to obesity.  If you feed your dog a bone you may need to exercise them more or only feed them a portion of their dinner that day.
  3. Constipation is often caused by feeding excess amounts of bone to a dog. The bone fragments do not absorb water and can cement the dog's droppings together to result in extremely hard faecal matter that cannot be passed. This problem is especially common with Bull Terrier breeds, as they have powerful jaws that can easily crush a whole bone that can be consumed in a short matter of time.  In contrast a dog with a less powerful jaw may take several days. It is not difficult to tell whether your dog is coping with the bones you are giving him.  Examine his droppings over the next few days and if he has difficulty in passing his motions, if his motions are excessively hard and dry, or if they contain visible fragments of bone, then he/she is consuming the bone too quickly and does not chew them sufficiently. In this case, either eliminate bones from his/her diet, or give bones much less frequently and when you do, give a smaller quantity, and select bones that are a softer type eg brisket bones.  Some dogs may have consumed bones their whole life with no problems, but then can start having problems as they get older as their large bowel works less efficiently.
  4. When you give your dog a bone, remove uneaten remains after 24 hours because they are likely to become fly-blown. If left to 'mature' in the sun, the bone may harbour numerous dangerous bacteria which may cause a bowel infection if your dog were to swallow them – although dogs are fortunately fairly resistant to many bacteria that would definitely lead to hospitalisation in humans!
  5. Small sharp pieces of bone may splinter and perforate the intestines, causing death or the need for life threatening surgery.
  6. I have also seen numerous dogs that have swallowed large pieces of bones that have obstructed in the oesophagus or the small intestine necessitating surgery to remove them if possible.  Oesophageal obstructions are more life threatening as it is a difficult area to both access and operate on.    
  7. I have also had at least 3 dogs die from swallowing large pieces of knuckle bones which lodged in the larynx and caused asphyxiation and death before they could get to the clinic.  This seems more common in the short nose breeds eg boxers, bull dogs.  


Wolves/wild canines eat the whole carcass of an animal with the skin and hair providing a protective covering to any splintered pieces of bones for the gastrointestinal tract – however, there is evidence that wolves choke to death or die from bone related complications in the wild.   In addition, bones are not the most prized piece of the carcass, with the abdominal contents and offal being consumed first.


Having experienced first-hand with my own dogs the many complications of feeding bones – such as broken teeth, constipation, diarrhoea and flatulence, I personally no longer feed bones.  Despite the numerous arguments for and against feeding bones to dogs, I can only relate to my own experiences as a veterinary surgeon, and have lost count of the numerous dogs I have seen with bone related injuries and conditions, some of which have proved fatal.  In summary, I know probably millions of dogs eat bones regularly with no complications, but you must judge for yourself.  If your dog just gnaws and nibbles at bones it may be fine – however, if you have a dog with a powerful jaw which tends to break up and eat whole bones rapidly, or in large pieces, I would definitely advise you not to feed bones.  

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