The safety (or not) of antlers for dogs is an interesting subject. And rather like the raw food topic, it’s one that even vets don’t always agree on.
I have been meaning to write an article on this topic for several years, as it’s one that comes up frequently in our forum.
But I’ve put things off
Mainly because we have a policy here on the Labrador Site of ensuring that all our health articles are evidence based and that factual claims are supported by research.
And to date, when it comes to the safety of antlers for dogs, there isn’t much of it.
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)
Vet Marty Becker for example states that “hard plastic or nylon chews, sterilized bones, cow hooves and antlers are too hard to be safe for most dogs”
Vet Norman Johnston of the UK Dental Vets group claims on its website that since awareness of this problem was first raised in the veterinary press in 2013 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, neither of these sites nor any of the others I visited links to any credible sources of research on this topic.
When this happens, it usually means that there aren’t any such sources!
What you will find is a great many vets and dog experts nowadays telling you not to give antlers to your dog. And a great many websites promoting antlers for dog. Let’s talk about why that is, and whether or not the majority of veterinarians are right.
Before we get going, let’s take a look at what antlers are made from and how tough they are.
What are antlers made of?
You may have heard that cows horns are made from a substance called keratin, similar to your own nails and hair.
That’s true, though horns do also have a lining of bone inside them. Antlers however, are rather different.
The antlers that many species of deer grow on their head, are made from real bone. They are a bony outgrowth of the animal’s skull and are quite unique in that respect.
Unlike most horns, antlers are usually shed each year, and a new set grows in their place.
One of the 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. It isn’t just carnivores that like antlers. In the UK for example, shed antlers will sometimes have mouse toothmarks in them.
Why do dogs like antlers?
So what is it about antlers that dogs and other animals enjoy? What do they get from eating them?
Well, antlers are a source of minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. And many dogs seem to really like the taste.
But are there any other benefits?
Are antlers good for dogs?
But while these are nutrients that your dog needs, they are adequately supplied in any good quality commercial dog food.
For raw fed dogs, bones are a necessary part of their diet.
However, 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 source of bone, such as ribs, or the bones of smaller animals.
We do also need to consider that nutrients and taste are not the only reason dogs like antlers.
For domestic dogs, who often suffer from boredom, chewing on a hard substance is a relaxing and recreational activity.
So what are the arguments against indulging your dog in this happy pursuit? Let’s dig a little deeper into the safety issues.
Are antlers safe for dogs?
Where is the evidence that antlers aren’t safe? Is this something that we can look up online?
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)
That’s quite a large proportion of dogs!
And there are numerous research papers on the treatment of a wide range of fractures in dogs (and cats) .
There seems to be no useful data on the various causes of these fractures, but a great many vets consider those causes to include chewing on very hard objects. Including toys, bone and antlers.
Because we don’t have any published data on the causes of tooth fractures, there is no way to specifically 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.
That’s what we are going to do today, because in this instance, I believe that the anecdotal evidence we have here is quite useful. And I’ll take a moment now to explain why I believe that to be the case.
Anecdotal evidence on the safety of antler dog chews
Anecdotal evidence can be a tricky subject. And we do often caution people on this site against using anecdotal evidence only, to underpin important decisions about their dogs’ health
This kind of evidence often involves people observing whether or not their dog becomes ill, or conversely whether their dog’s health improves, after a particular event in the dog’s life.
That event might be the consumption of a particular drug, plant, or chemical. Or after the application of some form of alternative therapy or product such as ‘body wraps’ for example.
Anecdotal evidence is the accumulated observations of people, rather than properly controlled clinical trials. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.
Indeed, anecdotal evidence often points us in the direction of where a product or procedure might be worth investigating further. But it does have the potential to be misused and can be misleading.
The problems with anecdotal evidence arise because it can be difficult to prove that the event in the dog’s life was caused by, rather than simply associated with, the therapy.
And because it can often be difficult for the owner of a dog to make an objective and measured assessment of how their own dog is feeling, or how his health improving/declining
With anecdotal evidence for the causes of dental fractures however, we are on somewhat firmer ground
Are antlers safe for dogs to chew? Maybe not.
Like broken bones, broken teeth may often (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.
Claiming that the evidence is ‘purely’ anecdotal and therefore of no value, would be a bit like saying that your leg broke when you fell from a two storey window, but that the fall can’t be pinned down as the exact cause.
When the likelihood is, the fall and the break were inextricably linked.
So it is with 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.
And my personal feeling is that we should pay attention. And that the sensible answer to ‘are antlers safe for dogs to chew’ is no.
As far as we can tell at the current time, it sadly looks as though antler dog chews may be something you should avoid giving to your four-legged friends
My vet says deer antlers for dogs are okay
But wait – your vet may disagree! So we have a situation where many vets are saying
Do NOT let your dog chew on antlers, we see too many fractures (particularly carnassial slab fractures) that have occured as a direct result of chewing on these objects.
and other vets are saying (apparently)
Go ahead and let your dog have antler chews, it’s fine.
So where does that leave us?
Deer antlers for dogs – making your decision
Well, if some vets have never seen a tooth fracture associated with antler chews, then that would suggest that such fractures are not an every day occurrence.
In other words, there’s possibly a strong chance that your dog might be able to chew on antlers on a number of occasions 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.
You need to make a judgement call on behalf of your pet.
To weigh up the pros and cons. 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, and to 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.
What does treating a fractured tooth involve?
If your dog fractures a tooth, he or she will be in considerable pain. Any treatment that is needed (and the broken tooth can be treated just as your own can) will need to take place under a general anesthetic.
You can’t just sit a dog in the dentists chair and ask him to ‘open wide’
So you are talking about the risk and expense of a general anesthetic, plus the cost of removing the tooth or in some cases repairing it. Being informed of the cost of endodontic treatment for a pet is enough to make most of us feel faint.
There will also be xrays, follow ups and so on.
You are not going to see much change from $1000 And that is a conservative estimate.
If this is a risk you want to avoid, you’ll need to think of alternatives that fulfill the same purpose as chewing on an antler for your dog.
What can dogs chew that is safe
There are a wide range of chew toys on the market especially 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
By safe, they mean that the product won’t cause the following
- Major extra-oral or body-wide issues such as toxicity, esophageal or gastro-intestinal obstruction or perforation, or gross nutritional imbalance;
- Trauma to oral tissues, such as fracture of teeth or laceration or penetration of oral mucosa.
Each product has to pass two separate trials (carried out on different dogs) in order to pass.
Antlers for dogs – a summary
There is currently 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.
Here at the Labrador Site, we have decided not to give our dogs antlers, as we feel that the risks of tooth fractures is too great.
And because we think that there are plenty of alternatives that will provide your dog with just as much pleasure.
If you do decide to give antlers to your dog, we strongly recommend you insure him and make sure he is covered for dental treatment by your policy.
You can also join in a discussion on this topic over on the forum Come and say hello!
References and further reading
- 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