Should I feed my dog bones?

By Dr. Francesca Matthews



Ask any of the veterinarians at the Veterinary Centre and they will tell you that they have treated many cases that have been presented as a direct result of eating bones. 

I remember arriving at work one morning to find owners rushing in with a dead dog.  It had choked to death over the weekend and they wanted me to look at it to determine if the bone could have been removed if they had reached us in time.  The owners had fed the dog a raw leg bone but, rather than the whole bone it was a chunk about 10-15cm in length.  The poor dog had decided to swallow it and it had lodged firmly in the back of the throat.  Even if we had been present at the time the dog choked, it would have been highly unlikely we could have saved it.  Heimlich manoeuvres or even pliers would have failed to remove this firmly lodged bone.

Cases of constipation, oesophagel (food pipe) or bowel performation and blockage, cases of bones stuck in various locations in the mouth are much more common but these all involve significant surgery and are not always with guaranteed outcomes.







Why do people feed bones?

There is a belief that bones have a nutritive value. They do provide sources of calcium and phosphorus for example, however the fact is that these can be sourced from other components of the diet which are less risky. Some research I did regarding nutritional value in bones found that the reason that people who are rehabilitating wolves for the wild feed raw bones is mostly to improve jaw strength in preparation for returning to the wild not for nutritive value. So if wolves don't need them, our domestic pets don't either. We also have to remember that our domestic dog is not a wolf and they have evolved significantly away from that over the years of breeding and manipulation by man.


Bones are also fed because people believe that it is part of normal dog behaviour to chew. Dogs certainly seem to enjoy chewing on bones and they have the benefit of reducing frustration or bordem. They do chew a lot in the first year when they are teething too. However, ready alternatives are available for chewing that can have this function but don't carry the same risks.


Another reason is that they keep the dogs teeth clean. While they can certainly help with this there are definite alternatives to risky bones that can assist with teeth maintenance.

What are the problems that bones cause?

  1. Constipation (or obstipation that can result in death).
  2. Diarrhoea - some dogs, especially those with sensitive stomachs may develop diarrhoea from the bits of fat, marrow or meat they chew off the bone.
  3. Vomiting - bones bits making their way into the stomach, scratch the lining of the stomach and other areas of the bowel, and this can cause cases of vomiting.
  4. Choking - depending on the size, death is a possible outcome.
  5. They act as foreign bodies which can get stuck in any area of the gastointestinal tract, from the mouth to the intestines, and could cause complete blockage which is life threatening. Any piece of bone lodged anywhere will need removal which requires surgery.
  6. Worn or broken teeth - continual chewing results in worn or broken teeth, which risks exposing the pulp cavity in the teeth causing pain and eventual tooth root infections.
  7. There is the potential for infection with diseases such as Salmonella or E. Coli. Note that even though most raw food carries some sort of contamination, most animals won't get disease or pass it onto their human companions, however it is still a risk to be aware of.

Examples of alternatives to feeding bones

  1. Ensure your dog is fed a balanced diet suitable for its age and breed.
  2. Rawhide bones - work well but again dogs can still choke on these and they need to be removed when they get small enough to swallow and are not suitable for your dog if they just crunch them straight up or swallow them whole. Dogs with raw hide bones also need to be supervised.
  3. Nylon Bones - these are highly durable, and only chew off small amounts of nylon each time they chew. This nylon is not sharp, so if digested then there is very little chance of bowel perforation. If you use a nylon bone they need to be large enough to prevent accidental swallowing or choking and should still be supervised.
  4. Kongs - choose a kong appropriate in size for your dog and fill it with a yummy treat like marmite and they will spend hours trying to get the last morsel out. Kongs are thick rubber and highly durable. There are very few dogs that can wreck these.
  5. High quality durable treat toys such as Bob-a-lots. Make sure when selecting treat toys that you pay for high quality. there are lots of cheap imitations available that break up when used leading to risks of choking/bowel perforation and all those other things you are trying to avoid!
  6. Feed dental diets, such as Hills t/d or Royal Canin Dental, which can be fed as part of a balanced diet to assist with keeping teeth clean. Your veterinarian can advise on how best to use these.
  7. Royal Canin also have a product called 'oral bars' which are a good for giving the mouth a chewing work out.
  8. Brush your dogs teeth - this works well if you start while your dog is young and if you are committed to doing it regularly.
  9. Ensure your dog gets plenty of exercise and entertainment when you are able so when you have to leave them they are tired and are happy to sleep and relax while you are out.


Which combination of these is most suitable for your dog, depends a lot on your dog, its breed/size and their situation. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best options for them.

Examples for chewing and dental care - consult your veterinarian to decide the best options for your cat or dog


Still want to feed bones?


If the answer is yes, then the following may help reduce the risks that they pose, but remember it will never fully remove the risk and you need to be prepared for the consequences if you decide to continue feeding bones.

  1. Choose bones that your dog will chew on and not chew up. These include large, whole beef leg bones or marrow bones which are large and do not splinter. Be aware that these bones are hard, and can wear the teeth especially if fed often.
  2. Make sure the bones that are chosen are RAW*. Cooked bones in particular splinter and can be crunched up into bits that are swallowed whole. Depending on the size they may cause choking, blockage or perforation.
  3. Ensure your dog is supervised the entire time they have a bone. If they start to break it up, or go to hide it, it's time to remove it
  4. If you must feed bones, make it an occasional treat rather than an everyday one.


*note that these bones should have been frozen for at least 72 hours prior to use and then thawed thoroughly. This is to reduce the risk of tapeworm.

Remember - following these rules above will not prevent all problems, but will significantly reduce your chances of a problem.


Always consult your veterinarian about your dog (or any other pets) health and nutrition requirements.

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