A dog gnawing happily on a bone is a traditional and internationally recognised image.
But can dogs eat bones without any ill effects? Are bones really safe? Or is it best to avoid them altogether.
Pippa investigates and helps you separate the facts, the myths, and the opinions about feeding bones to dogs
Why can’t people agree over giving dogs bones to eat?
Feeding bones is a very contentious topic.
Some people think that you should never give any bones to a dog.
Others think that raw bones are okay. But that cooked bones are dangerous.
Some people think that some types of raw bone are safe and other types of raw bone are not.
Bones themselves can be divided up depending on the animal they came from.
For example, you will often hear that dogs shouldn’t eat chicken bones, or pork bones.
Bones can also be divided up depending on what part of the animal they come from. So you might hear that it’s okay for your Lab to eat rib bones, but not for him to eat big leg bones.
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One of the problems with bones and raw diets for dogs generally is the lack of evidence as to safety and benefits, compared with commercially prepared pelleted dog food (kibble).
As a result, it isn’t just pet owners that disagree.
You’ll find vets arguing over this too.
Though of course dog food manufacturers all tend to come down on one side of the argument
Information about bones
We have lots of information on feeding a raw diet to your dog, the pros and cons, the risks and benefits, so we won’t go into that in too much detail here.
This is specifically about bones
What I’d like to do in this article is work our way down the different types of categories of bone, getting rid of those that are likely to be more risky, until we are left with what (if anything) is safe for your dog to eat.
Can dogs eat raw bones?
Most experts, even those who don’t like dogs to have bones of any kind, agree that raw bones are likely to be safer than cooked bones.
You probably know someone that feeds cooked bones to dogs, and whose dogs are fine. I do too.
But the overwhelming view, at the current time, is that cooked bones are more dangerous than raw bones because the cooking process makes bones more brittle.
This means that they are much more likely to splinter.
Bearing in mind the lack of evidence to the contrary, my own view therefore, is that it is best not to feed cooked bones to your dog.So the steak bone left over on your plate, or the bone left after carving the Sunday roast, is out.
You can however buy giant cooked marrow bones – those big knuckle ends – from pet stores.
“What about those? Surely those aren’t going to splinter?”
Well there is actually a different problem with larger bones, whether or not they are cooked, and we’ll look at that in a moment.
But for now, let’s look at the way in which dogs eat bones and see if that affects safety.
Different ways to feed bones to dogs
There are two broad ways in which dogs eat bones
- Recreational bones
- Bones as part of a meal
And opinions are deeply divided over both of theses options.
Recreational bones are the bones that dogs are given to gnaw on when he is relaxing at home.
Can dogs eat marrow bones?
You can buy big marrow bones from butchers and pet stores.
People often think that these are safe because they are too big to choke on, and don’t splinter easily. Even though the ones you get from a pet store are often cooked.
But there is a problem with big bones that all vet seem to agree on.
They break dogs’ teeth.
Vets regularly see slab fractures in dogs that have been given large, hard, bones to gnaw on. And even vets that support raw feeding, and giving bones to dogs, will warn people not to feed large, weight-bearing bones to their dogs.
But eating bones is natural!
Eating bones is natural. So are broken teeth.
And while gnawing on large bones may be a way for modern dogs to pass the time, it may not be quite the natural behavior we think it is.
Wild dogs usually leave the more challenging bones on a carcass unless food resources are short, in which case they will consume a carcass more fully.
Historical records show higher levels of broken teeth in carnivores when competition for food is intense.
- Cooked bones are out
- Raw bones are still in – but not all of them
Bones that break dogs teeth
As a rule of thumb, if a bone is a weight-bearing bone (ie a leg bone) of an animal that is as big or bigger than your dog, it is probably safest to give that bone a miss.
These bones are likely to be hard and strong, and have the greatest risk of fracturing your dog’s teeth.
Weight bearing bones of smaller animals, rabbits, chickens etc, are not as hard and are less likely to fracture your dog’s teeth
- All cooked bones
- All weight bearing bones
Can dogs digest bones?
A dog’s digestive tract is much shorter than a humans and is designed specifically to process meat and bone together.
Your dog will usually digest all the bone he eats almost completely without any problems provided it is fed in the right proportions to muscle meat and organs, as a part of his diet
Dogs fed recreational bones without meat attached and/or not given sufficient access to water after eating bone, may end up constipated. So that is a third category of bone for us to avoid. We now have:
- Cooked bones
- Weight bearing bones
- Recreational bones
Can dogs eat rib bones
A much better choice for your dog to eat, when it comes to larger animals like cows, and sheep, is a rib bone.
Rib bones tend to be pliable and softer than leg bones, and dogs are able to consume them more easily.
Will splinters from bones harm my dog?
It is impossible for anyone to promise you that a splinter from a bone won’t harm your dog
And if your dog eats raw bones, he will certainly break them up into small, sharp looking bits and swallow them.
All we can tell you is that many people nowadays feed their dogs on raw bones, such as rib bones, without their dogs coming to harm.
Bones as part of a meal – raw feeding
There is a growing enthusiasm now for feeding dogs on a totally raw diet. I’ll come right out and disclose that my dogs are largely fed this way.
I’ll also add, that I don’t think this is in some way a morally superior thing to do, or even that it is the right thing to do for all dogs, or in all families.
Why is it that thousands of dogs are now raw fed and swallow splintered bone each day without coming to harm?
One argument is that dogs are simply able to digest splintered bone without ill-effects.
What most experts do agree on, is that raw fed dogs may be protected by the meat they eat along with their bones.
In other words raw bones are likely to be a good deal safer when fed as part of a meal.
So, while raw bones are not risk free (nor is any food source) it is clear that they are not the dire threat to dogs that was once thought.
Can dogs eat pork bones (or chicken bones, or lamb bones…)
Many people have heard that dogs can’t eat pork, but it is not entirely true. Though in some regions, parasites can be an issue (see below), and some dogs may be allergic to the protein found in pork.
Allergies to other meats can occur to, but they are not the norm.
Most dogs can eat pork without ill effects. Pig’s feet (trotters) are a popular source of nutritious food for raw fed dogs.
Nor is there any truth in the myth that dogs can’t eat chicken bones.
Cooked chicken bones may well be dangerous, for the reasons given above. But raw chicken, or turkey, on the bone, is a staple part of the diet of most raw fed dogs.
What about parasites?
In some parts of the world, meat from some animals carries parasites that can be passed on to dogs. This is not just a problem with pork. It may apply to fish and other meats too.
In most cases these parasites can be killed by freezing the meat for a while before thawing it out for a dog to eat.
Can puppies have bones?
Yes, puppies can indeed have bones, and my own puppies eat whole chicken wings (raw of course) from a very early age.
But, and it is a big but, you must arm yourself with information on raw feeding before trying to raise a puppy on raw food.
He needs a wide variety of meat and bone to provide the right nutrients for growth as well as for day to day energy and activities
Summary – what are the best bones for dogs?
To minimise risk of sharp splinters harming your dog’s digestive tract, or of tiny chips of bone clogging up his gut, dogs should not be given cooked bones.
Whole chickens or chicken portions, whole rabbits, and meaty beef or lamb ribs are popular ways to feed bones to dogs.
To reduce the risk your dog breaking his teeth on bones, he should not be fed weight-bearing bones from larger animals
Eating bones is not without risk, but it is likely that these risks have been overstated in the past. And there are benefits to feeding a dog on a diet of raw meaty bones.
Bone safety does not depend on the species of animal that the bone comes from but on the bone being raw, pliable, and fed as part of a meal.
Many thousands of dogs are currently thriving on a natural raw diet, and have lived long and healthy lives on raw food, if this appeals to you, read as much as you can on raw feeding before you start.