In this article we are going to help you to decide whether antlers are safe for your dog. Because these effective chews have a lot of bad press. We’ll balance up the arguments and help you to make your own decision on whether antlers are safe for dogs.
So are antlers safe for dogs? How can you weigh up the risks and benefits? Let’s take a closer look to help you decide whether to use antlers for dogs.
Can Dogs Chew on Antlers?
Are antlers safe for dogs? Antlers are popular chews for dogs and dog owners alike. But, the safety of antlers for dogs is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, most dogs love the taste of antlers and can get some important nutrients from antlers. But, on the other hand, hard antler chews can cause broken teeth, internal blockages, and internal punctures if your dog swallows any particularly sharp pieces.
When it comes to the safety of antlers for dogs, there is neither much evidence, nor much research. Numerous well-respected vet sites claim that chewing on very hard objects, including antlers, are the primary source of tooth fractures in dogs, along with rough play.
Unlike cow horns, which are made from keratin, the antlers of many species of deer are made from real bone. They are a bony outgrowth of the animal’s skull and are quite unique in that respect. Antlers are usually shed each year, and a new set grows in their place.
One of the notable features of antlers, compared with other non weight bearing bones, is their hardness. Antlers are very hard indeed. After being shed, antlers are often picked up and gnawed by wild animals. So, it may seem natural that dog owners would assume antlers are safe for domestic dogs too. Especially when owners can find such a large range of antlers for dogs in pet stores and for sale online.
Types of Antler Chews
The main concern for most pet owners and vets is the hardness of antlers and whether they will damage a dog’s teeth. And this problem can be made worse if your dog is an aggressive chewer. But different types of antler can actually have varying levels of hardness. Deer antlers for dogs are the most popular, and the most common up for sale. But there are plenty of others out there. Such as…
- Elk antlers: Softer and easier on the teeth than deer antlers, but still very hard. May present the same issues as other antler types.
- Split antlers: Easier for dogs to get at the marrow inside, but the external bone can still cause broken teeth.
- Reindeer antlers: Less popular and often harder to come across than other deer antlers. Present the same problems relating to hardness.
- Moose antlers: Often softer than other antler types and can come in slices, but can still present the same issues
Are Antlers Safe for Dogs?
The above types of antlers all vary in their hardness, shape and size. The harder an antler is, the harder it will be for a dog to chew on. And whilst many dogs might be completely fine chewing on an antler, others may experience painful issues. In particular, the dental problems mentioned earlier.
Vet Norman Johnston of the UK Dental Vets group has touched on the topic. Since awareness of hard chews causing dental issues was first raised in the veterinary press in 2013, they state, there has been a “large increase in cases seen of fractured carnassial (and other) teeth by dogs chewing on antlers and other hard toys”.
Frustratingly, many of these sites lack links to credible sources of research on this topic. When this happens, it usually means that there aren’t any such sources! What you will find are many vets and dog experts telling you not to give antlers to your dog. And a great many websites promoting antlers for dogs. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of antlers for dogs versus the risks and potential health concerns next.
Benefits of Antlers for Dogs
Antlers are a source of minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. And many dogs seem to really like the taste. For domestic dogs, who often suffer from boredom, chewing on a hard substance is a relaxing and recreational activity.
Antlers and Dental Health
Some studies have also suggested that chewing on bones is a highly effective way to remove dental calculus in dogs – currently the most widespread oral problem our dogs experience. When comparing firm and softer dental chews, firmer chews took longer for dogs to consume. This was associated with improved dental health, but the difference was not significant. So, some may argue that the lower risk, softer chews are just as good.
If your dog fractures a tooth on an antler or hard chew, he or she will be in considerable pain. Any treatment will need to take place under a general anesthetic. Generally speaking, the treatment for your dog will be just like it would be for you. But you can’t just sit a dog in the dentist’s chair and ask him to open wide.
Risks of Antlers for Dogs
As we know, the main risk associated with hard antler chews is dental issues such as a fractured tooth. There are figures on the incidence of tooth fractures in dogs. Up to 20% of dogs will suffer a fractured tooth at some time, according to the Embrace insurance company.
If this occurs, you must consider the risk and expense of a general anesthetic, plus the cost of removing the tooth or, in some cases, repairing it. There is also the chance that the damage has extended to the tooth pulp and the gums. In severe cases, stabilization of the fractured tooth may need wires and pins. If the fracture is bad enough, you may even need to use a feeding tube to ensure that your dog gets enough nutrients while he heals. There will also be x-rays, follow ups, and so on. You are not going to see much change from $1000. And that is a conservative estimate.
On top of broken teeth, if your dog breaks off a smaller chunk of bone and swallows it, they can experience further issues. Internal blockages and punctures from particularly sharp pieces of bone are major concerns.
Evidence of Risks
Because we have no published data on the causes of tooth fractures, there is no way to tell you for sure that antlers are safe for dogs to chew, or that antlers are not safe for dogs to chew. All we can do is talk about the anecdotal evidence. And turn our attention to the vets who are telling us what they are seeing in their surgeries.
Anecdotal evidence can be a tricky subject. And we often caution our readers against using only anecdotal evidence to underpin important decisions about their dogs’ health. Anecdotal evidence is the accumulated observations of people, rather than properly controlled clinical trials. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.
Like broken bones, broken teeth may often, but not always, have dramatic symptoms. The broken tooth may be obvious for all to see. And if a tooth sheared off while the dog was eating an antler, then the probability of a “cause and effect” link is fairly high.
So for dogs that suffer major tooth fractures while chewing on very hard objects, there could be another cause. The tooth might have been cracked already, for example. But the chances are it was not. This means that the anecdotal evidence we are hearing from many vets around the country, with regard to the link between antlers and broken teeth, is actually quite valuable.
Are Antlers Digestible?
For raw fed dogs, bones are a necessary part of their diet. But, it isn’t necessary for a raw fed dog to eat very hard bones, such as antlers or the weight bearing leg bones of larger mammals. There are a wide range of alternative softer sources of bone, such as ribs, or the bones of smaller animals.
The marrow inside antlers is much easier for dogs to digest, and this part contains plenty of the tasty nutrients and flavors dogs love. But the bone of the anter itself will be much harder for your dog to eat.
Some owners may even notice chunks of antler and bone in their dogs’ excrement if they have been chewing on an antler. In extreme circumstances, chunks of antler can cause internal blockages. Or, sharp pieces can damage your dog’s internal organs as it makes its way through their digestive system.
Can I Give My Puppy Antlers?
Antlers are not suitable for puppies. Puppies all go through a teething stage. Labrador owners will know just how painful and stressful this stage can be! But, this doesn’t mean that you should resort to antlers.
Teething puppies can benefit from having something to chew on. But, they can still experience broken teeth and dental issues associated with hard chews. So it’s best to stick to an alternative. Many pet stores sell specific chew toys for teething puppies that will be much safer for their teeth.
There is a wide range of chew toys on the market specially designed to give dogs the opportunity for recreational chewing that won’t cause them injury. You can read our toy reviews in this section of the website. There are also a range of products sold as dental chews that claim to help keep your dog’s teeth clean and reduce the risk of periodontal disease.
Vet Brett Beckham has produced a fact sheet for dog owners on avoiding tooth fractures. The recommendations include avoiding antlers, and giving your dog products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). The VOHC has a list of products that it has approved as safe for dogs to chew. Each product has to pass two separate trials (carried out on different dogs) in order to pass. By safe, they mean that the product won’t cause the following:
- Major extra-oral or body-wide issues such as toxicity, esophageal or gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation, or gross nutritional imbalance
- Trauma to oral tissues, such as fracture of teeth or laceration or penetration of oral mucosa.
Are Antlers Safe for Dogs? A Summary
Currently, there is some disagreement as to whether or not antlers are safe for your dog to chew. However, the weight of opinion seems to be falling into the NO camp.
Some vets have never seen a tooth fracture associated with antler chews. Which suggests such fractures are not an everyday occurrence. In other words, there’s possibly a strong chance that your dog might be able to chew on antlers without suffering a tooth fracture. It may also be that some dogs are more at risk than others. Aggressive chewers, for example. The fact is, we just don’t know for sure.
When you have a situation where even experts disagree, and where the evidence is lacking, much of the responsibility shifts to you as the pet owner. Weigh up the pros and cons of antler dog chews for yourself. Assess the risks, and decide on your dog’s behalf.
Before you do that, it is worth considering the outcome of a tooth fracture for your dog. Also, look at alternative toys or chews that may provide the same pleasure and tooth cleaning benefits, without being so hard on your dog’s teeth.
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References and Resources
- VOHC Accepted Products
- Khuly, P. ‘Complicated Dental Tooth Fractures’, Embrace Pet Insurance
- Price, J. (et al), ‘Deer Antlers: A Zoological Curiosity or the Key to Understanding Organ Regeneration in Mammals?’, J Anat (2005)
- Beckham B. ‘Fighting Tooth Fractures’
- Harrison, C. ‘Nutrition and Preventative Oral Healthcare Treatments for Canine and Feline Patients’, The Veterinary Nurse (2017)
- Bellows, J. ‘Ultimate Guide To Veterinary Dental Home Care’, Veterinary News (2017)
- Quest, B. ‘Oral Health Benefits of a Daily Dental Chew in Dogs’, J Vet Dent (2013)
- ‘Dogs Love These Chews, But They Fracture Teeth Like Crazy’, Mercola Pet
- ‘Dental Disorders of Dogs’, Merck Vet Manual
- Dourado Pinto, C. (et al), ‘Evaluation of Teeth Injuries in Beagle Dogs Caused by Autoclave Beef Bones Used as a Chewing Item to Remove Dental Calculus’, Plos One (2020)
- Bjone, S. (et al), ‘Influence of Chewing on Dental Health in Dogs’, University of New England (2005)
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website