Don't Give a Dog a Bone

Published in the Huffington Post

Donna Solomon, DVM, Animal Medical Center of Chicago

Frequently, while shopping for my dog's food, I often overhear shopkeepers tell pet owners that dogs in the wild eat bones and therefore, it is not only necessary but also essential to give them to our pets. I cringe every time I hear this false myth. So below is my grand attempt at trying to set these salespeople straight and give pet owners valuable advice. My hope is that this new knowledge will save another dog or two from the misery of ill health due to the ingestion of bones and save pet owners hundreds of dollars in veterinary dental bills.

Feeding your dog bones is an extremely dangerous practice for the following eight reasons:

  1. Fractured teeth. Marrow, ham and knucklebones are just a few examples of bones that are too dense for your pet to chew on. Although technically not animal bones, I would like to add elk antlers and the new trendy Himalayan dog bones to this list of dangerous "bones" given to pets. Chewing on dense bones not only can fracture your pet's teeth but also can wear dental crowns down. Chewing on bones is like chewing on coarse sandpaper. Worn teeth can be highly sensitive to pressure and temperature gradients resulting in a painful pet.

Earlier this week I was forced to extract two upper fourth premolar teeth on a 2-year-old Labrador retriever after it chewed on a raw knucklebone and fractured them right down the center. Not only was this dog in dental pain prior to the oral surgery but also the loss of these two major teeth will adversely affect how he will eat food in the future. Wild dogs do chew on bones in the prairie -- but not the size of a cow bone femur. Wild dogs do fracture their teeth, succumb to illness and die young. Our pets live much longer -- 13 to 16 years for many -- and they would like to have a healthy mouth. They have been domesticated for over 2,000 years. They are not wild dogs living in Africa. Why is it so hard for people to accept the fact that nature did not provide a foolproof way for keeping a dog's mouth clean?

  1. Gum or tongue lacerations. The sharp edges of bones, especially chicken, cooked, sawed, and rib bones, can easily cut the tongue and gums of a zealous pet chewing on a bone. These lacerations can be quite serious to your pet requiring a veterinary visit for antibiotics and potential oral surgical care.
  2. Bones can get caught in the mouth or around the jaw. Years ago, my previous golden retriever was frantically running around my back yard with a cow's mandible caught in her mouth. How she got it I never found out. I imagine a neighbor thought it would be nice to give it to her or maybe a squirrel dragged it into my yard. It took me quite a long time to wrestle it out of her mouth. She was panic-stricken and I was quite frightened to say the least.
  3. Fragments of bones or small bones can get caught in the trachea or esophagus. I can't tell you how many clients have called us throughout the years screaming that their dog is choking on a bone. This can be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. These pets need immediate medical attention. Depending on the temperament of the dog and the position of the bone in the dog, I may instruct the client to try to open the mouth and try to grab it. If the bone has been swallowed I may instruct the pet owner to do a modified Heimlich procedure on their pet by repeatedly squeezing their pet's belly just behind the last ribs. Another method for retrieving a swallowed bone would be lifting the dog's back legs up and hanging the dog upside down while repeatedly squeezing the abdomen. Unfortunately, in many cases the pet needs to be sedated and the bone is retrieved either surgically or by inserting an instrument, called an endoscope, down your pet's esophagus to try to grasp it and pull it out.
  4. Bones caught in the stomach or small intestine. Sure small fragments may travel down the esophagus, but they can get lodged in the stomach or small intestine. These pets will present with a history of happily eating a bone and then, vomiting immediately or just a few hours after eating their next meal. These trapped bones can be extremely painful to your pet and may require surgical intervention or endoscopy to retrieve the lodged bone.
  5. Bones can cause diarrhea. Bones are not digestible in dogs. Ingested bone fragments can be very grating as they pass through the gastrointestinal tract and can cause diarrhea with or without blood. Just the other day I accidentally discovered one of my clients was feeding their little Yorkshire terrier, Lucy, dehydrated duck feet while I was doing a rectal examination. In Lucy's feces was a partially digested duck foot encased in mucous. The owners had given Lucy this treat after being told by a boutique pet storeowner that it would be good for her teeth. However, the storeowner did not tell them that if she ingested it, it could cause inappetance and diarrhea -- which symptoms Lucy had been suffering from for the last 24 hours.
  6. Bones can tear the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and cause peritonitis. Sharp fragments of bone can tear the lining of the intestine and cause leakage of intestinal contents into the abdomen. The spillage of intestinal contents into the abdomen, called peritonitis, is a life threatening condition that needs immediate and aggressive surgical and medical attention. Pets with peritonitis will be extremely painful, febrile and weak.
  7. Bones can cause straining to defecate and bleeding from the rectum. Bone fragments can be very sharp and scrape the lining of the intestine and rectum as it passes through. This is extremely painful to your dog and you may see blood in your pet's stool and witness your pet unsuccessfully trying to defecate. Please see your veterinarian if your pet is straining to defecate or/and is bleeding from the rectum.

Why do people believe that our domesticated dogs need bones? Is it because they believe that this is the best way to clean their teeth? Chewing on hard objects is not the correct solution to our pet's dental problems. Today, the professionals know better. Pet's teeth are just like ours. They need the proper care and attention, which includes brushing and professional veterinary oral care when deemed necessary. Chewing bones may decrease tartar on pet's teeth, but they also can fracture teeth and cause many problems as previously mentioned above that are simply not worth the risk. Veterinary medicine has advanced throughout the last 20-30 years to the point that dentistry is not a novelty but a part of our pet's accepted standard of health care.

Why regress in the care of your pet's teeth by giving your pet a bone when you can execute quality dental care at home by routinely brushing your pet's teeth with a soft toothbrush and pet approved dental paste. In addition, you can add additives to your pet's water (like "Healthy Mouth"), offer treats (like "Tartar Shield Soft Rawhide Chews for Dogs"), or diets (like Hill's T/D) that are designed to reduce tartar in your pet's mouth. For a more extensive list of tartar and plaque reducing dental products please go to the Veterinary Oral Health Council website.

A knucklebone may be natural but it's not healthy for pets. Don't fall victim to the glorified concept that what is naturally found in nature is a better solution to your pet's dental issue. Items found in nature are not always safe. We have progressed so far in veterinary medicine that it would be tragic to turn our backs on progress. If you're looking for an object for your pet to chew on for entertainment, look at purchasing a safe, indestructible rubber toy (like a "Kong toy") sold at most pet stores.

Wouldn't it be nice if the answer to solving dental problems were simply chewing on something hard? But it is not! Don't give a dog a bone. Brush your dog's teeth and consult with your veterinarian if your dog has bad breath or is experiencing dental pain.