Raw Bones — what you need to know

A look at raw bones and how to help your clients make the right selection for their animal companions.

Clients used to accept at face value whatever recommendations were made by their veterinarians. But today, many do their own research on a wide variety of topics. Among these topics is feeding raw bones to pets. You also need to be well informed on this topic, since the safety and efficacy of raw bone consumption is dependent on proper bone selection. Saying “just don’t do it” will not be well received.

A variety of bone types are generally fed as part of a raw diet. In addition to eating flesh and organs, these raw-fed dogs need to ingest a variety of bone types that also contain meat, marrow and cartilage, to satisfy nutrient needs. When bones are simply fed for recreational purposes, the composition becomes less important, but has an impact on safety and enjoyment.

The right size

Basically, a client must choose the right-sized bone for the right-sized pet. It is not as simple as small pet/small bone or large pet/large bone. Owners should be encouraged to observe how their pet chews and ingests a bone. An 80-pound golden retriever might daintily savor and nibble a chicken neck, while a Pomeranian might ravenously suck it down whole. In this instance, a long, slim duck neck might be the best choice for both.

The vertebral size of the neck must be small enough not to lodge in the esophagus or small intestine. Even most hardcore bone feeders agree that turkey necks should not be fed to dogs. Turkey necks are too large. A longer bone, such as a duck neck, necessitates some chomping for it to go down. The major purpose of feeding raw bones is to clean the teeth. This can only be accomplished if the pet chews the bone. Gulping is not beneficial. Most large dogs will gulp short bones. Again, a duck neck is ideal as it is necessary for the dog to chew it. Which type is best?

The consumption of different types of bone is necessary to clean multiple surfaces of the teeth.

• A duck neck may effectively clean the incisors or the molars.

• A dog needs to stick his canines into a femur bone to remove the marrow. Cut marrow bones usually range in length from 2” to 5”. The size of the bone determines the amount of marrow contained within. Unlike the duck neck, the bone itself is minimally ingested. It is gnawed, but only the marrow is eaten.

• Knuckle bones are generally scraped clean, through use of the molars and canines, and eventually eaten.

Reported problems

Bone firms stool; marrow does not. If a client says she can’t feed raw bones to her dog because they cause diarrhea, you can almost always guess that she gave the dog a marrow bone. You can advise this client to thaw the marrow bone and spoon out most of the marrow, leaving a tiny bit in the center so the pet has something to work for. This will alleviate the diarrhea problem. Too much marrow, like any fat, could also stimulate pancreatitis. However, raw fat is safer than cooked fat.

On the other hand, hard dry stools can mean too much bone consumption. This may occur if a dog is left to eat a large knuckle bone. Advise the client to supervise the ingestion of this bone. To avoid obstipation, think about the size of the dog and the proper size of its prey. Even a great Dane shouldn’t eat a beef or bison knuckle bone in one sitting. The bone should be taken away, put in a Ziploc and re-frozen. This mimics the behavior of wild dogs that partially consume a prey or bone, and then bury the rest for later. Warn clients that stool passed after bone consumption will be drier and gray/white in color. This is normal.

Dogs can sometimes chip or break teeth on raw bones, although this can also occur when this chew on rocks or pull on cages. Most people who feed raw bones feel the benefits outweigh the risks. An otherwise healthy mouth with a decreased need for anesthetic episodes for dental prophylaxis is highly desirable to dog owners. Raw bones are safer than the other bone alternatives, such as smoked or boiled bones, which become brittle and should be taken away. Cooked bones should never be used. Also, warn clients against marrow bone rings, which can catch around teeth or lodge in the roof of the mouth.

Bacterial contamination is a possibility. Salmonella is ubiquitous. Healthy dogs are naturally resistant, but those who are immune compromised should be cautious. Most commercial raw bone manufacturers rinse their products in lactic acid for additional safety. Local butchers may not. All raw products should be frozen for a minimum of two weeks; this kills parasites.

Explain to clients the warning signs of gastrointestinal obstruction and when they should seek to have a radiograph taken. Synthetic or edible fake bones are seen as common foreign body obstructions in many veterinary hospitals. Fed properly, raw bones can provide nutritional, dental and recreational benefits to dogs.

Helpful tips

• Know the appearance on a radiograph of normal bone presence and passage.

• Until a natural bone size becomes available for a dog or cat under 15 pounds, such as seen in a mouse or sparrow, counsel owners of these pets to avoid raw bone feeding. This advice also applies to owners to brachycephalic dogs.

• Recreational bone eaters are often so excited to receive a bone that they gobble it up way too fast. To alleviate this intensity, precede the bone with a “veggie meal” or slather the bone with some type of blended, fibrous vegetation. Canned pumpkin or sweet potato works great. Not only will this technique slow down the carnivorous appetite, but the mixing of fiber and chewed bone will aid safe passage.