Bones are usually the issue that sticks in the craw of many people who are thinking of feeding their dogs according to the diet plan called BARF, a humorous acronym for “bones and raw foods,” or sometimes, “biologically appropriate raw foods.”
We’ve all been told that bones are dangerous, that dogs can choke on them, that they can cause teeth to fracture, that they can obstruct or perforate the bowel with potentially fatal consequences.
Yet dog owners who advocate the diet rave about their dogs’ beautiful coats, tartar-free teeth, and sparkling good health. Not surprisingly, the subject has taken on emotional overtones, with people taking strong (and usually inflexible) positions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of bones in a dog’s diet. So which is it? Do bones kill? Or do they save dogs’ lives? The truth bridges the two positions. A small number of dogs can and do suffer problems – sometimes fatal – from their inability to properly digest bones. There are no studies that quantify these tragedies, although the practice of feeding bones would not be nearly as popular as it is if the percentage of fatalities or even serious injuries was very high.
However, the anecdotal evidence provided by veterinarians who have attended bone-injured dogs confirms that there is some risk – whether the injuries they see are due to inappropriately fed bones or not, we don’t know.
Similarly, there are no studies that confirm the allegation that most dogs enjoy improved health from eating a diet that includes or is comprised entirely of bones and raw food. But the anecdotal evidence from experienced “raw feeders” suggests that most dogs thrive on their boney diets.
As always when making important decisions that affect their beloved canine companions, responsible dog owners must learn as much as possible about the safest ways to feed bones, and take their dogs’ size, age, health, temperament, and lifestyle into account. Then, they must decide for themselves and live with the results.
Benefits of Bones
First and foremost, bone is a great source of calcium and phosphorus, two minerals that are present in appropriate percentages for healthy dogs, and are important to a dog’s skeletal health. Dogs who eat a diet that includes raw meat must receive either bone, bone meal, or a calcium supplement. Meat is high in phosphorus, and a diet that is mostly meat will result in a dog that is seriously deficient in calcium. When bones are a regular part of a dog’s meat-based diet, the calcium/phosphorus ratio is rarely a problem. Bone-averse raw feeders can use a calcium supplement or bone meal to balance their dogs’ diets, but should consult a veterinary nutritionist for help.
Some experts assert that bone also supplies the dog with a variety of other nutrients that contribute to the dog’s health in subtle but important ways. Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst is one of the earliest modern proponents of the BARF diet and author of best-selling books Give Your Dog a Bone and Grow Your Pup With Bones. According to Dr. Billinghurst, “Bones are living tissue composed of living cells. Because bones are living tissue, just like any other part of the body, they are a complex source of a wide variety of nutrients.” Such nutrients include minerals embedded in protein, fat and fat-soluble vitamins, marrow, which contains iron, and natural antioxidants.
Others speculate that it is not the bone itself, but what usually comes with it, that is responsible for the improvement in a bone-fed dog. According to T. J. Dunn Jr., DVM, director of veterinary services for PetFoodDirect.com and ThePetCenter.com, the real gift of bones is the muscle, fat, connective tissue, and cartilage that comes attached to those bones. “If the dog has been fed a grain-based or otherwise deficient diet, the addition of ‘bones’ will make a remarkably beneficial difference not only in how the dog looks but also in how it feels and acts. The same testimonials are made by pet owners who switch from poor diets to those with meat as a primary ingredient and who wouldn’t even think of feeding a bone.”
The soft tissues that accompany bone, says Dr. Dunn, are highly digestible and contain a wide spectrum of nutrients. “It is my conviction based on established and verifiable scientific data, as well as 37 years of observing pets on a daily basis, that it is the various tissues attached to bone, not the bare bone itself, that provides all those great benefits so often seen when ‘bones’ are fed.”
Chewing on bones also does a great job of scraping tartar off a dog’s teeth, keeping the dog’s “smile” gleaming white and clean and his breath fresh. This is far more than just a cosmetic issue. Tartar formation invites inflammation of the gums (“gingivitis”), by giving bacteria a way to infiltrate the gums and multiply. The resulting infections can wreak havoc with the dog’s health, contributing to problems with the joints, lungs, kidneys, and liver. Chronic infections can also lead to the decline of the density of the bone in which the dog’s teeth are anchored, and tooth loss often results.
Karen Zokovitch of Miami, Florida, has owned and bred Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for more than 20 years. On a diet of natural dry food, her dogs did very well, except in the area of dental health. “I was losing teeth as early as three years and always combating tartar,” she says. Thus, the attraction of the BARF diet, which she began feeding about four years ago. “Feeding a raw diet of chicken wings and thighs or beef marrow bones two to three times a week has greatly improved the problem and virtually eliminated the need for veterinary dental scrapings,” Zokovitch says.
Increased Physical and Mental Health Overall
Dr. Billinghurst suggests a third, if less-realized benefit: Dogs who have to work at tearing meat from bones reap the benefits of all that exercise. A dog with a meaty, raw bone will often plant his front feet on the bone and pull the meat and other soft tissues away in sections and scraps, exercising his legs, shoulders, neck, and back. Billinghurst says that this exercise builds appreciable muscle tone in even young puppies, claiming that raw-fed pups are identifiable by their superior muscle tone and good posture.
Smart trainers often recommend the use of Kong toys stuffed with cream cheese or peanut butter to occupy a “busy” dog who finds too many undesirable things to do around the house. Raw, meaty bones can also provide this sort of dog with several hours of entertainment, as long as you are nearby to monitor the activity.
Breeder Janet Sampson of Live Oak, Florida, who owns 10 Labrador Retrievers, says her dogs have been much healthier on the BARF diet. “They have not been to the veterinarian for any sickness or skin or ear infections in two years,” she says.
Sampson’s story is echoed by many others, including Kathy Kozakiewicz of Phoenix, Arizona, who says her vet bills have been significantly reduced since she began feeding raw meat and bones. “The dogs are healthier and need far fewer teeth cleanings at the vet,” Kozakiewicz says.
Dangers of Eating Bones
Many of the dangers to dogs presented by bones are actually caused by chewing inappropriate bones. The most dangerous bones, everyone agrees, are cooked bones, especially cooked poultry bones, which tend to splinter. It’s also unsafe to allow a dog who tends to eat fast or chew aggressively to eat his bones without supervision. BARF advocates will swear to you that these following dangers don’t apply to dogs who are fed the “right” kind of bones in an appropriate manner. We’ll talk about the safest bones to feed in a moment. In the meantime, let’s explore what we’re all afraid of:
Cracked or Broken Teeth
Even though dogs’ teeth are not enervated like our own, broken or cracked teeth still cause the dog a lot of pain and discomfort. At a minimum, this can make a dog reluctant to chew or eat. If this condition goes undiscovered and untreated, bacteria can infiltrate the crack and infect the tooth pulp. Numerous problems may result, including the unnecessary loss of the tooth, localized inflammation, and abscesses.
Dogs whose teeth are already in poor, weak condition, and dogs who chew super-hard items such as rocks, dried cow hooves, or commercially prepared dried or sterilized bones are most likely to damage their teeth or crack a molar. Broken teeth do not commonly result from chewing fresh bones, even the relatively hard joint or “knuckle” bones or “marrow” bones taken from cattle.
In general, the dogs at greatest risk of cracking their teeth are the ones that chew their bones especially aggressively, crunching the bones between their molars and cracking them open to eat the marrow inside. Dogs who are new to bone consumption may also damage their teeth due to enthusiasm over their new favorite food. Most dogs, especially those who have regular access to bone, chew much more speculatively.
Less serious is the possibility that dogs can get bone fragments wedged painfully between teeth or on the roof of their mouths. As long as this is detected quickly and the fragment is removed, this does not generally cause permanent damage.
Choking, Blockages, or Perforations
When dogs eat bones, they chew them up – or swallow them whole – and the bones go down in variously sized pieces. In the best case scenario, the dog crunches the bone thoroughly or breaks off small chunks, in the case of large bones. The bone is softened or dissolved by the dog’s powerful stomach acids and then pass through the intestinal tract, where they are finally eliminated, often in a white, chalky stool.
Sometimes, however, something goes wrong. Susan Wynn, DVM, of The Wynn Clinic for Therapeutic Alternatives in Marietta, Georgia, says she has heard of dogs with bones stuck in the esophagus, where they may not be visible but can still cause choking. Bones can also become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract, causing obstructions. And sharp bone fragments can puncture the intestine during digestion.
While all of these hazards can threaten a dog’s life, it is far easier to surgically correct an obstruction than deal with a perforated intestine. If the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract escape into the abdomen through a perforation, the dog can quickly become septic – an extremely dangerous, usually fatal condition.
Dr. Dunn appreciates the benefits of feeding bones – but doesn’t approve of dogs crunching them up and eating them. Dunn says he has treated numerous dogs that were severely constipated from bone impactions, suffered intestinal obstructions that required surgery, or were near death from complications of bone perforation or obstruction. “I have removed bone fragments from the oral cavity, the esophagus, the stomach, intestine, and rectum.”
“I had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever who presented with persistent vomiting attempts and no appetite for three days. X-rays revealed an intestinal blockage due to a bone fragment. The owner was stunned because he said he had fed bones to this dog for years. He believed me when he saw the x-ray and when I showed him the bone fragment that was retrieved at surgery. This dog recovered well but really was near death due to a perforated intestine; luckily the owner brought him in just in time. I have seen dogs die from bone impactions in spite of attempts at surgery; every case is different,” says Dr. Dunn.
Balancing the Risks and Benefits of Feeding Bones
Even in the holistic veterinary community, opinions about the safety of feeding bones vary widely.
Larry A. Bernstein, VMD, of Natural Holistic Pet Care in North Miami Beach, Florida, gives bones to his pack of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and recommends the BARF diet to his clients. “I don’t see feeding raw bones as a danger,” Dr. Bernstein says. “I think the danger comes with feeding cooked bones. The dog that gets the cooked chicken out of the garbage is in more potentially desperate straits than the dog that gets a bird outside. Uncooked bones are pretty soft, and animals are used to eating and digesting those. It’s cooking that causes the matrix to solidify so much that the bones splinter and become sharp.”
However, Dr. Susan Wynn believes that even the bones generally described as “safe” can injure a susceptible individual, and that there is no way to predict whether your dog will have a problem with bones. “A few dogs are going to have problems with bones, potentially fatal problems, and I can’t tell who they are,” she says.
Dr. Wynn also feels that both types of bones that are commonly fed to dogs – large marrow bones and raw poultry bones like chicken wings, thighs, necks, and backs – present separate problems, so she doesn’t recommend feeding any bones. “Some dogs deal with bones just fine. But some big dogs fracture teeth on the big beef bones, the marrow bones that we used to recommend because they are safe as far as splintering. Those big marrow bones don’t generally splinter and cause problems in the bowel. On the other hand, chicken and turkey bones are softer and will go down without causing fractures of the teeth, but those are the bones that can cause perforation of the bowel.”
Dr. Wynn has witnessed the wonders that chewing bones can contribute to the dog’s dental health, but doesn’t feel that this benefit is worth the risk. “There’s nothing like the BARF diet for teeth,” says Dr. Wynn, “but it’s the only advantage that the bones seem to offer above and beyond other raw diets that don’t include bones.” When you balance clean teeth with potential death from a perforated bowel, she says, there just have to be better ways to take care of the teeth.
Dr. Dunn notes that chewing on Nylabones, Kong toys, or rawhides will also clean teeth, but every item that dogs chew on has its own attendant problems. Anything that can be chewed up by a dog can cause obstructions if swallowed. Dr. Bernstein practiced conventional veterinary medicine for almost 20 years and remembers many instances of dogs getting into garbage and eating cooked chicken bones or other bones. Of those, he says, maybe 10 required surgery to remove obstructions. The chance that a raw bone will perforate the intestine is rare, he says.
But that’s the problem that Dr. Wynn sees with the BARF diet: Obstructions or peritonitis may be rare, but the conditions are impossible to predict.
If You Choose to Feed Bones
None of us want to do anything to hurt our dogs. And no one wants to imagine what it would be like to require the services of an emergency veterinarian because of a bone fed to the dog deliberately – especially a veterinarian who thinks the practice is crazy. These fears and the dangers listed above make the first step in deciding to feed bones to your dog the most difficult. In anticipation of the publication of this article, one woman called the WDJ office to admit that she had prayed for divine assistance the first few times she fed a bone to her Brittany Spaniel, but that, a year later, the dog has still never had a problem with its bone consumption!
We can’t speak for prayers, but there are a number of things you can do to make the practice of feeding bones as safe as it can be for your dog.
1. Grind the Bones
Dr. Dunn is a fan of incorporating meaty bones into a dog’s diet – as long as the bones aren’t fed to the dog whole. “Finely ground bone, such as that present in some manufactured raw pet foods, presents absolutely no hazard relative to potential obstruction or perforation,” he says. “And the finely ground particles of skeletal tissue – bone – provide a greater surface area for digestive acids to leach out the minerals from the bone particles.”
Some dog owners avoid concerns about bones by feeding commercial raw diets like those described by Dr. Dunn. Other dog owners use grinders to reduce bones to more manageable pieces.
2. Choose Appropriate Bones
The selection of bones depends on each owner’s experiences as well as the size of their dogs. Dee Dee Andersson, a Mastiff breeder from West Virginia, feeds her dogs pork necks and chicken leg and thigh bones at meals, and offers the dogs beef knuckle bones for chewing. “I think turkey bones are too hard, but others disagree,” she says. Chicken necks, backs and wings seem to be the bones of choice, followed by beef and lamb ribs.
Most people agree that some bones are unsafe for dogs to chew, especially long, hard leg bones from cattle. Dr. Bernstein says, “Be careful with the big long cattle bones; they can be lower in nutrition and harder for the dog to eat. Plus, as an animal gets older, who knows what it stores in its bones – lead or other toxins. I prefer bones from younger animals, such as lamb, chicken, and smaller beef bones. Chicken is probably best as long as it’s raw.”
While some people give dogs pork neck bones, Dr. Bernstein prefers to avoid them, saying that they tend to crumble too much.
Labrador breeder Janet Sampson also suggests using mostly chicken necks and backs, and avoids large or long bones. “I prefer more cartilage. Most lodging problems occur with leg or thigh bones,” she says.
Breeder Ruth Beetow of Springville, New York, has been feeding raw bones to her Norwich and West Highland White Terriers for three years with no incidents of broken teeth. She notes that whether a bone is safe partially depends on the size of the dog that’s eating it. “My small terriers can’t handle pork or beef leg bones, but a larger breed such as a Saint Bernard or Shepherd would be able to consume them.”
All are in agreement that cooked or dried bones are dangerous. Williams is careful not to give any dried-up bones, including dried-up knuckle bones.
3. Always Supervise Bone Chewing
Dogs must be under your supervision while they eat their bones, not only to prevent any choking episodes but also to avoid fights. It’s an even better idea to feed multiple dogs separately.
“I would never give bones in an enclosed area to more than one dog,” Andersson says. “You would invite a fight or the dog might gobble the bones too quickly to keep another dog from getting them. This invites choking. Each of my dogs gets their meaty bones exactly the way they were once served their kibble: in a crate, a separate room, or a spot in my kitchen where I am present while they eat. That way, they feel secure and are in no great rush to swallow in order to keep another dog from getting at their portion.”
Never hesitate to take your dog to the veterinarian if you suspect an obstruction or perforation. Signs of problems include extreme lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.
4. Take Your Time
Finally, and most importantly, start slowly if you decide to give bones. Corgi breeder Judy Williams, of Hayden, Idaho, recommends starting with chicken necks so dogs can get used to chewing them. Many experienced BARF feeders suggest limiting the amount of time a dog is allowed to gnaw on bones at first. Some dogs are so wild about their new treats that they attempt to swallow the bones whole; some dogs never learn the trick of drawing out the pleasurable chewing experience. Anything you can do to encourage the dog to take his time and chew will help his teeth.
In addition, make sure you build in some time to help transition your dog from manufactured food to a diet that includes bone. This will permit their digestive system to “ramp up” the production of more and stronger stomach acids to digest the bones.
Some experienced raw feeders find that it helps to give a dog who is new to bones some digestive enzymes (such as Prozyme or Florazyme) for the first few weeks as his system adjusts.
Other dogs may suffer diarrhea following their first few bones. Sometimes a loose stool is accompanied by a plethora of thick, clear mucous. As long as these conditions don’t persist beyond a few days, and the dog is exhibiting a normal appetite and plenty of energy, everythig is OK.
As Dr. Bernstein says, there’s something to be said for moderation. “Some people get into feeding raw diets with both feet forward. They tend to overdo things at first. It makes sense to do this with guidance, and it makes sense to do it gradually. You don’t have to go 100 percent in an hour.”
Dogs with severe periodontal disease may find it painful to chew on bones. Dr. Bernstein suggests getting the dog’s teeth in good shape before starting the dog on the BARF diet. A minority of dogs may have dental problems severe enough to preclude this sort of diet altogether. “I have seen some dogs whose teeth were so rotten – mainly toy breeds where the bone has decayed in the jaw – that the pressure of eating bones might create a problem,” Dr. Bernstein says. “I would be very cautious in what I gave to a much older dog with severe periodontal disease. I might mince or chop the bones or feed soft stuff like chicken wings.”
5. Examine the End Product
A dog’s stool may be hard and white after eating a lot of bones. That’s not unusual, but may indicate that the diet is overly high in bone. Constipation can also indicate a problem. Bone chips can cement together in the colon to form rocklike masses. If your seems to be in pain while passing feces, or fails to produce a stool for more than a day or two, a veterinary examination is in order.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Bone Feeding
Any time you’re dealing with raw meat or bones, proper handling is important. Freeze or refrigerate raw bones until you feed them. Clean the surfaces in your kitchen that the bones have touched, such as counters or cutting boards, and wash your hands after handling them. This is especially important if you’re handling poultry, which often carries salmonella bacteria. This bacteria is not generally harmful to dogs, but can sicken your family much more easily.
How the dog handles the bone after it’s given is not necessarily germ-free, of course. Lots of dogs bury bones, digging them up to snack on later. That’s not really a problem, Dr. Bernstein says. The bones decompose a little from the natural enzymes in them, but that probably just adds to the aroma and the dog’s enjoyment. “Billinghurst points out that if your dog is burying bones, you’re probably feeding him too much,” Dr. Bernstein says, “but I have one client with a Rottweiler that will only eat yesterday’s bones. He buries them, digs up the ones from the previous day, and eats them. I guess he likes the aging process. It’s something he’s done for years.”
Whatever you do, DON’T buy the dried, baked, “basted,” or “sterilized” bones available in stores and through catalogs. These impossibly hard products are not intended for consumption, and pose a great risk of damaging the dog’s teeth.
The Leap of Faith
Cutting back on vaccinations and feeding raw bones as part of a raw-foods diet require the two biggest leaps of faith for people who are exploring non-conventional care for their dogs. These acts can be amply rewarding – a shining, energetic but centered dog who is not just disease-free but also vibrantly healthy is the payoff.
But a person has to really “own” the decision to take these steps, to take responsibility for the results, positive, negative, and everything in between. Going into something like this half-heartedly is mistake. Rather, we suggest going slow, grinding the bone for as long as it takes you to feel really confident that your dog is going to be just fine – even if that’s forever – and letting your dog’s glowing good health convince you that you did the right thing.