The safety (or not) of antlers for dogs is an interesting subject. And rather like the discussion on raw food, it’s one that even vets don’t always agree on.
The main reason for this is that there aren’t many studies on whether antlers are good for dogs, or whether they are not. And there’s divided opinions on deer antlers for dogs versus elk antlers for dogs, and other varieties.
So are antlers safe for dogs? Let’s take a look at what evidence exists, and discuss the topic in detail.
Deer Antlers For Dogs
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 because we have a policy here on the Labrador Site. We ensure that all our health articles are evidence-based, and factual claims are supported by research.
As mentioned before, 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.
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 has more to add. Since awareness of this problem 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, neither of these sites, nor any of the others I visited, link 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 are many vets and dog experts telling you not to give antlers to your dog. And a great many websites promoting antlers for dog. We’ll discuss why that is, and whether or not the majority of veterinarians are right.
First, let’s talk about different types of antlers, and whether that makes a difference in the safety of antlers for dogs.
Deer Antlers For Dogs Vs. Elk Antlers For Dogs
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 are all antlers created equal? The main discussion seems to be about deer antlers for dogs. What about elk antlers for dogs? And can you give your dog reindeer antlers?
Typically, elk antlers are a little softer and easier on the teeth than deer antler dog chews. But only a little. They are still very hard and present many of the same problems as other types of antlers.
You can also find split antlers, which enables the dog to get at the marrow inside easier. But they will still likely chew on the rest of it, so it doesn’t take away the concern about broken teeth.
Reindeer Antlers For Dogs
Reindeer antlers are a slightly less popular variant of antler chews for dogs. But you can still find them for sale.
Reindeer are interesting in that they are the only deer family in which both males and females grow antlers. So it may seem that there are more antlers to go around. But you have to take into account the fact that other kinds of deer are far more common.
Reindeer antlers are also incredibly hard, and will still present much the same issues for dogs and their teeth as other types of antlers.
And there are still more sorts of antlers to choose from, such as moose. But the potential problems remain.
So why exactly are antlers so hard? 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 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.
Unlike most horns, 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. It isn’t just carnivores that like antlers. In the UK, for example, shed antlers will sometimes have mouse tooth marks 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?
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 our readers against using only anecdotal evidence, to underpin important decisions about their dogs’ health.
Frequently, anecdotal evidence involves a pet owner observing either illness or improving health after a particular event.
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 or declining.
With anecdotal evidence for the causes of dental fractures, however, we are on somewhat firmer ground.
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.
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 second floor window, but that the fall can’t be pinned down as the exact cause.
The likelihood is that 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 the question, “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.
Vets Weigh In
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 occurred as a direct result of chewing on these objects.”
Meanwhile, other vets are apparently saying, “Go ahead and let him have antler dog chews, they’re fine.”
So where does that leave us?
Deer Antlers For Dogs — Making Your Decision
Well, some vets have obviously never seen a tooth fracture associated with antler chews. So that would suggest that 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 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. 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.
Dental Issues In Dogs
If your dog fractures a tooth, he or she will be in considerable pain. Any treatment that is needed 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.
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 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 require 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.
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.
Safe Chews For Dogs
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).
Keeping Your Dog’s Teeth Healthy And Whole
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 gastrointestinal 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
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.
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. The general consensus is, “Better safe than sorry.”
On top of that, 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
- Dogs Love These Chews, But They Fracture Teeth Like Crazy. Mercola Pet</li
- Dental Disorders of Dogs. Merck Vet Manual
This article has been revised and updated for 2019.