Before we get into the what, why and how of feeding bones to your dog, let’s get something cleared up right away.
In less than 10 minutes you’ll know all you need to know as a dog owner to make sure your best friend receives the immense nutritional value bones offer, in a way that ensures wellbeing. This article covers the facts about the health benefits of bones, the common myths, bones to feed and how to feed safely.
Before we get into the what, why and how of feeding bones to your dog, let’s get something cleared up right away.
“Bones and bony material, when chosen and fed carefully and appropriately, are no more dangerous to the short and long-term health of dogs and cats than any other more common nutritional approach. On the contrary, they are good for general wellbeing, teeth, gut and stool health.”
Dr Nick Thompson, The Holistic Vet
Now we’ve got that out of the way, back to sharing all you need to know about safe bone feeding.
After the perceived risk of bacteria in raw food, chewing bones is the subject that worries novice raw feeders and raw food critics the most. The unwarranted fear that their pet dog or cat could choke or get boney lumps stuck is ingrained in most people. Until they actually try it.
At ProDog, we hear frequent concerns on the subject of bones; yet to give your dog a bone as a treat used to be an accepted activity amongst dog owners, especially for those of us (how can I put this politely?) “in the slightly older age categories”. So, where has the shift in perception and all of the worry come from?
Almost sixty years of tv adverts and veterinary advice implying that bones can kill may (understandably) explain the turn around in most dog owners feeding behaviours.
Here’s the truth – certain bones are dangerous, such as cooked bones, sawn leg bones and whole leg bones from meat animals. All of which are species inappropriate and should never be fed to dogs. This does NOT mean ALL bones are hazardous. In fact, feeding the right bones in the right way is extremely beneficial to a dog’s health and wellbeing.
We don’t have the page space in this blog to go into the whys and wherefores of this ‘bone-danger’ messaging; that’s a topic for another day. For this blog, let’s explore the facts and hopefully bust some of those myths flying about on this topic, don’t miss our article about raw dog food myths too.
Whilst this is an understandable fear, it is also easy to mitigate the risk. The only way to feed a dog bone is in a raw uncooked state. Raw bones are relatively soft and moist, so they have a good degree of flexibility.
In contrast to this, cooked bones harden, dry out, and become brittle, which can be extremely dangerous if ingested. To this end, one must never allow their dog access to cooked bones.
Chewing is an innate behaviour in dogs. It is vital for the digestive process, emotional wellbeing and mental stimulation. Dogs (and humans) develop with more teeth visible than they need to survive; this is basic biology.
Teeth are designed to be worn down. As long as the tooth is not so worn as to expose sensitive tissue, it’s okay. As with all aspects of dog care, you can monitor this.
Whilst dogs only use their molars for kibble crunching, they employ all teeth for meaty bone chewing, exercising the whole mouth and jaw, promoting salivation and mastication. This kick starts the digestive process. Without chewing, gnawing and seeing/smelling food, the dog’s gut is not prepared with the correct enzymes and acids to process it; gastro-intestinal processes can become compromised and could impact health over the long term.
Although this may be possible in theory, it’s important to acknowledge that this is also a risk for kibble, treats, rocks, golf balls, toys, coins, string, corn cobs , or any other things your dog may decide to put into his mouth.
As a dog owner, you’ll know, depending on the dog, this could be anything and everything, yet we couldn’t eliminate all of these things from a dog’s environment ‘in case’ he chokes.
The health benefits of bones far outweigh the risks. Providing you follow good practice guidelines bones can be perfectly safe; plus, doggo will undoubtedly thank you for it.
Animal bones are nutrient-rich, important sources of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorous, essential amino and fatty acids, vitamins A and D, copper and iron.
Calcium is integral to bone and tooth health; insufficient levels can lead to lethargy, muscle twitches, and convulsions. Although dogs will drink milk, which is probably the most readily available source of calcium apart from bones, it is not necessarily the healthiest for them. Dried sprats are loaded with calcium and delicious!
While puppies can fully digest and benefit from bitch’s milk, adult dogs do not produce the enzymes appropriate for this and giving them dairy products can result in stomach upset.
Bone is full of glucosamine and Vitamin D, both of which are fantastic to support a healthy digestive tract and combat issues such as poor GI function and leaky gut. Science has shown us approximately 70% of the immune system tissue is in the gut; therefore, protection against infection and disease is bolstered by a healthy gut environment.
As a valuable source of minerals, cartilage and ‘fibre’ (gritty bony material), the right balance of bone content in a dog’s diet supports digestive health, leading to improved overall wellbeing and (wait for it! this is the part you’ll love to hear) firmer stools.
Providing your dog with sufficient bone has a binding effect on their poops and can go a long way to prevent diarrhoea. Beware though; an excess of bone may cause constipation. So, to be safe, bones should only form about 10% of a dog’s total diet.
Bones provide oral stimulation and serve as a dog toothbrush. Chew, or ‘recreational’ bones play a key role in preventing the build-up of plaque, tartar and bacteria on teeth surfaces whilst allowing dogs to exercise and strengthen their jaw, neck and shoulders – vital for young puppies.
The standard advice from vets who advocate kibble/tinned foods is to brush pets’ teeth. Yet canine tooth decay is less common amongst populations with routine access to whole bones, i.e. wolves and dogs fed a good raw diet—a fact worth considering.
Plus, how easy do you find it to brush your dog’s teeth? The majority of dogs will not allow brushing of all angles of their teeth, resulting in around 40%, mainly on the inner surface of the teeth, not being reached at all.
Much easier and more satisfying for your dog is a meaty chew bone. Giving large hide chews helps clean the front incisors and canine teeth, too.
Modern day research now gives us evidence that supports the ancient theory that the gut is the centre of all health. The microbiome plays a crucial role in this.
For those of you thinking, “what is the microbiome?” here’s a super brief definition:
“The microbiome is the term used to refer to the 1000’s of microbes living within all living creatures and mainly located within the intestines and the skin. Some are harmful and some are beneficial. The aim for a ‘healthy microbiome’ is to achieve a balance between the good guys and the bad guys”
Taking care of the intestinal environment is a foundational aspect of better health and vitality for dogs (and their hoomans). There are a number of ways to look after the gut: one of which, for dogs, is incorporating bone into the diet.
The nourishment bone delivers to the digestive system helps to promote beneficial bacteria within the gut.
The mouth is an extension of the gut. Improved dental hygiene brought about through bone chewing encourages more of the microbial good guys to thrive. This is complemented by the sandpaper effect of bony fragments freshening the lining of the gut and thus creating an environment for a balanced microbiome.
Gnawing a bone is a healthy behavioural outlet. It is a natural and instinctive behaviour for dogs. The freedom to perform and express natural behaviours is key to mental wellbeing in dogs, and the provision of chew bones is an excellent way to encourage this.
Contrary to popular belief and widespread urban myths, allowing your dog access to chew bones does not make them more aggressive. Regular chewing actually has the opposite effect, often having a calming effect.
While it is true that a dog may appear somewhat possessive if he thinks his bone will be removed whilst he is enjoying chewing, this is not specific to bones and would likely be replicated if any food was perceived as being at risk. Bones are high-value commodities. The way to make them less valuable is to give them really frequently so they become ‘ordinary’.
Now we’ve covered all the reasons why to feed dogs bones. Let’s talk about what bones to provide, when and how to offer them safely.
Whilst we advocate feeding bones, we also emphasise the importance of doing so in a SAFE way. As with all aspects of canine care, bone feeding doesn’t come without risk, so becoming educated in best practices is essential.
What follows are the crucial points to consider when deciding on the perfect way to include bones into your four-legged friend’s diet:
For optimum nutritional benefits, raw bone should make up about 10% of a dog’s overall diet. Bone weight should be included as part of the overall daily food weight allowance.
There are two ways to do this:
Firstly, when using the term ‘recreational bones’, we refer to meaty bones of a size suitable for gnawing or chewing. As we mentioned earlier, this activity is vital for mental wellbeing and simulation. To dogs, gnawing on a meaty bone is fun!
Introduce Bones Slowly – for a dog’s digestive system to cope with bones, the pH levels in the stomach need to below pH 2 (very acid!). An acidic environment is required to soften and dissolve bones.
Dogs have evolved to have low pH levels naturally. Most processed dog food and kibble are believed to upset this perfect balance and alkalise the system meaning that the dog’s digestive system is not as well equipped to cope with bone.
A raw meat diet is recommended to help encourage good pH levels in the stomach and support your canine pal’s system to return to the way nature intended.. This type of diet will also promote the necessary digestive enzymes and induce a better gut microbiome.
If a dog is moved from a soft raw diet, tins or kibble quickly onto brittle bones (e.g. marrow or other big leg bones), problems with tooth damage, swallowing large bony lumps or gut perforation are more likely to arise. Never cut bones, necks or chicken wings. Feed whole to allow your dog to chomp into pieces they are best able to swallow and digest.
If you are transitioning your dog from processed foods/kibble, bone broths are incredibly supportive to gut health during this time (and beyond!). You can find out more on our bone broth page.
Once your dog has been on raw food that includes ground bone content for a month or so, you can begin to introduce recreational bones and chewing treats.
Start with softer chewing material such as beef/lamb trachea, pizzle sticks, lamb ‘spaghetti’ or dried meat/fish chews. All chews should be without preservative, colourants or any other additives.
ProDog healthy treats and chews offer a great deal of variety and are all highly nutritious.
After a month or so on these, move up to a softer bone by observing the ‘Graduating Scale of Bones’, i.e start with those bones at the soft end of the scale and progress from there.
*After a period of acclimatisation ( 1-2 months), try introducing bigger bones (size appropriate to your dog). See size guidance above.
*Reminder – Do not buy sawn leg bones. Do not feed whole leg bones – they are species inappropriate for pets.
At first, this may seem a little baffling, but as you start to introduce bones, you will become accustomed to those he enjoys, and with observation, you’ll begin to notice those which appear troublesome or too large for him to manage efficiently.
Growing pups can be introduced to soft bones (chicken wings, duck and turkey necks) as soon as they start on solid food. Their teeth and mouths are so small that, initially, all they do is lick and mouth them.
It may seem pointless to give bones at this age, but it familiarises the youngsters to the texture, smell and size of bones. This makes them better prepared for when they can ingest bony material a few weeks/months later.
Bones can be fed for the entire life of a dog or until they have insufficient teeth left to cope. In this scenario, it is essential that bony material (e.g. bone ground into minces) is still provided in their food.
Bone can be included in raw meat mince, as ground bone. ProDog meals all contain 10% ground bone content as standard.
To feed chew/ recreational bones, you will find a system that works for you, your household and your dog. Here are some ideas:
In the raw feeding veterinary world, there is evidence that puppies born to raw fed parents (including frequent bones) have better teeth and less dental damage than animals transitioned onto bones in mid-life.
While meaty bones should always be offered with a degree of care and supervision, we believe bones (when fed following good practice guidelines), are a safe and vital part of a dog’s diet; supporting both physiological health and emotional wellbeing.
Misgivings about the danger of bones are far, far outweighed by the benefits!
Written by the ProDog team, contributing author Dr Nick Thompson