Dogs, like humans, enjoy treats and comfort food. And no dog treat is more famous or recognizable than the classic Milk-Bone biscuit. But are milk bones bad for dogs? I’ve seen some claims that they contain carcinogens, so are they even safe? Luckily, the scientific research on this is clear – the preservatives in milk bones which have been linked to cancer claims are actually very safe. In this article I’ll explain why, but I’ll also take a look at why milk bones should be saved as an occasional treat for your dog nonetheless!
- Are milk bones bad for dogs?
- When are milk bones bad for dogs?
- Are there dangerous ingredients in milk bones?
- Potential problems caused by too many milk bones
- Feeding milk bones to your dog safely
- Alternatives to milk bones
What Are Milk Bones?
Milk bones are dog treats that have been around for over 100 years. In fact, Milk-Bone isn’t just a type of biscuit, it’s the brand name of the original milk bone biscuit. Milk-Bones were launched in 1908, and they’ve been made in New York state ever since. Their enduring popularity has spawned dozens of copycat products – usually with names like ‘milky bones’ instead.
Modern milk bones and their tributes come in a variety of flavors including chicken and beef. You can also find different low-calorie options and Milk-Bone brand dental chews to improve your dog’s oral hygiene, reduce plaque, and clean their teeth. But the original Milk Bone with its iconic shape and layers of nostalgia remains the most popular of all these products.
Are Milk Bones Bad For Dogs?
To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at what goes into milk bones. Unsurprisingly, they are so-called for the relatively high proportion of cows milk in them, but that’s not the main ingredient. If you read the ingredients on the back of the Milk-Bone box, you’ll find a list that also includes
- Wheat, whole wheat and malted barley flours
- Meat and bone meal
- Beef fat
- And supplementary vitamins and minerals
The addition of vitamins and minerals in recent times is part of a push to reposition Milk-Bones as a valuable part of a healthy lifestyle, and not just a treat. And most dogs won’t suffer any harm from eating Milk-Bones, as long as their daily treat intake is less than 10% of their total calorie intake, and the other 90% of their food is nutritionally complete and age-appropriate.
When Are Milk Bones Bad For Dogs?
Since Milk-Bones are dense in calories and not a complete source of nutrition for dogs, some dogs would be better off avoiding them altogether. For example overweight dogs, or dogs with a diagnosed allergy to wheat, barley, or cow’s milk. Milk dogs are also bad for any dog if they eat too many of them. Overall, they are too high in carbohydrates and too low in fat and high quality protein to be a substantial part of any dog’s diet.
Eating too many Milk-Bones can also contribute to weight gain. Obesity in dogs is linked to heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease. Extra weight also places strain on their joints, which can make problems like arthritis and hip dysplasia worse.
Are There Dangerous Ingredients in Milk Bones?
Artificial preservatives are an essential component of Milk Bone treats. They give the treats a long shelf life by stopping them spoiling, and preventing them being contaminated by molds and bacteria which could make your dog sick.
However, some studies have linked BHA – an important preservative in Milk-Bones – to an increased risk of cancers in some other species. Which has made many dog owners understandably worried about offering them to their pets. Some people are very vocal now about not giving milk bones to dogs. Which can be shocking, confusing, and even scary to hear if you’ve grown up with them your whole life.
Here’s what you need to know about that.
The Evidence About BHA
BHA stands for butylated hydroxyanisole. It is an antioxidant widely used in the food industry, and it is credited with triggering huge changes in what foods we eat, by making them easier to store. Specifically, it is very good at stopping fats from going rancid. For example, the beef fat and milk fat in milk bone biscuits.
Some researchers have reported that rats administered high doses of BHS have an increased risk of stomach cancers. And this has put a lot of people off consuming food that contains it, or feeding those foods to their dogs. However, there are some things to bear in mind:
- The rats were given extremely high doses of BHA – far greater than your dog will ingest from enjoying occasional milky bones as treats.
- The results couldn’t be replicated in other species, or even other strains of laboratory rat.
- At lower doses, BHA has even been observed to protect other strains of rats from cancer, because it is an antioxidant.
- The risk of cancer from adding BHA to foods needs to be balanced against the risk of food poisoning from spoiled food.
On the evidence currently available, the FDA has decided that the benefits of BHA outweigh any potential toxicity, which is why it is still approved for use.
Is Wheat Flour Safe For Dogs?
Milk-Bones contain wheat flour and malted barley flour, both of which contain a protein called gluten. For the most part wheat flour products are safe for dogs, but some dogs are gluten-intolerant. These dogs experience digestive upset, nausea, bloating and diarrhea when they consume wheat. They might also experience itchy skin, and scratching it can lead to bigger problems, like infected hotspots. If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms, and you’re not sure why, it’s a good idea to ask your veterinarian for advice about allergies, and how to pinpoint their triggers.
Potential Health Problems Caused by Milk Bones
Milk-bones are intended as a treat food only. Treat foods should never make up more than 10% of a dog’s total daily food intake. The other 90% of their diet should come from a nutritionally complete wet, dry, homemade or raw diet. Nutritionally complete means it contains the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and all the vitamins and minerals your dog needs to stay healthy. If your dog enjoys too many Milk-Bones at the expense of eating complete foods, they could suffer some unpleasant consequences, including:
- Digestive problems. Milk-bones are high in heavily processed carbohydrates, and lack fiber. This can cause stomach upsets.
- Malnutrition. Milk-Bones don’t contain all the nutrients a dog needs to thrive, so if they eat too many of them at the expense of eating other foods, they will end up with an overall dietary deficiency of some vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
- Obesity. Too many treats can cause dog to gain weight, which as we’ve seen, places strain on their organs and joints.
When are Milk Bones Safe for Dogs?
Unless your dog is allergic to one of the ingredients in Milk-Bones, or your vet has prescribed a very specific diet which doesn’t include them, there’s no reason to put down the box for good. Milk-Bones can be a safe treat for dogs who enjoy them, and a high value reward for reinforcing good behavior. Always follow the instructions on the box about how many to offer your dog a day, and don’t let treats make up more than 10% of their diet.
Luckily for the discerning dog owner, the pet food market is bursting with high quality treats, including healthier alternatives to Milk-Bones. For training treats, you can even use your dog’s kibble. My medium sized dog eats one kind of kibble that I buy in large sacks for his meals, but I also buy smaller bags of kibbles in different flavors and from different brands, to use as training treats. He enjoys them because they taste new and different, and I’m happy that he’s still eating a 100% nutritious diet. Other relatively healthy treats include:
- Freeze-dried raw meat
- Cooked chicken
- Carrot chunks
Are Milk Bones Bad For Dogs? Summary
Milk bones are popular dog treats that contain beef fat, wheat flour, and milk. Besides the original Milk-Bone, which is also a brand name, there are lots of copycat biscuits made of similar ingredients. They are not suitable to offer as a large part of your dog’s diet, but as an occasional treat they can help reduce tartar on your dog’s teeth, and reinforce desirable behavior. But try to avoid giving too many, and mix them up with other healthier treats as well.
Does Your Dog Like Milk-Bones?
I save mine as a bedtime treat for my dog – just a couple at the end of the day when I say goodnight to him. How do you incorporate them into a health, balanced diet for you dog?
More Help Choosing Treats
- Is there such a thing as too much peanut butter?
- Are smoked bones a good idea?
- Should you let your dog eat eggs?
- Costa et al. Concentration of synthetic antioxidants and peroxide value of commercial dry pet foods. Animal Feed Science & Technology. 2022.
- He et al. Evaluation of selected categories of pet treats using in vitro assay and texture analysis. Translational Animal Science. 2020.
- Morelli et al. A Survey of Dog Owners’ Attitudes toward Treats. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 2020.
- Park & Lewis. Safety aspects of food preservatives. Food Additives & Contaminants. 1992.
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