Raw bones are a great way to enhance patient nutrition and dental health, but it’s important to educate clients on how to feed bones safely.
Consumers once accepted at face value whatever recommendations were made by their physicians or veterinarians. Today, Google and social media afford them information and advice on a wide variety of health-related topics — such as feeding raw bones to their dogs and cats. As the animal doctor, you need to be informed on this topic. Just saying “don’t do it” will not be well received.
Many people regularly give raw bones to their pets as a substantial part of their diets. Others feed conventional pet foods or commercial raw diets, but choose to supplement with occasional raw bones. The safety and efficacy of raw bone consumption depends on proper bone selection.
Raw bones need to be the right size
Basically, a pet parent must choose the right-sized bones for his or her animals. It is not as simple as small pet/small bone or large pet/large bone. Owners should be encouraged to observe how their dogs and cats chew and ingest bones. It might come as a surprise to find that an 80-pound Golden Retriever daintily savors and nibbles a small chicken neck, while a Pomeranian ravenously sucks it down whole!
The best bone for both these breeds might be a long, slim duck neck. The vertebral size of the neck must be small enough so as not to lodge in the esophagus or the small intestine. Even most hard-core bone feeders agree that turkey necks should never be fed to any domestic dog. Turkey necks are too large. A longer bone, such as a duck neck, means the animal needs to chomp it to get it down.
The major purpose of feeding pets whole, raw bones is to clean their teeth. This can only be accomplished if the animal gnaws the bone. Gulping is not beneficial. Although the Golden mentioned above would do well with a chicken neck, most large dogs will gulp short bones. Again, the duck neck is ideal as it promotes chewing.
Bones need to be small for a dog or cat under 15 pounds, as well as for brachycephalic breeds. I have found whole quail and perhaps Cornish hens to be options. Short marrow bones are other options for these pets. Clients should use caution and watch their animals while they’re eating bones.
Different bone types
The consumption of different types of bone is necessary for cleaning multiple tooth surfaces.
• A duck neck may effectively clean the incisors and 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 quantity of marrow contained within. Unlike duck necks, marrow bones are minimally ingested; they’re gnawed, but only the marrow is eaten. Note that marrow bone rings can catch around teeth or lodge in the roof of the mouth, so they should never be fed!
• Knuckle bones are generally scraped clean, through use of the molars and canines, and eventually eaten. Even large dogs use their incisors to nibble the cartilage off these large bones. Some pet parents hold the bone while the dog chews. This can also facilitate cleaning the incisors.
A variety of bone types are generally fed on a daily basis as part of the raw meaty bone diet. In addition to flesh and organs, these raw-fed dogs need to ingest a range of bones that also contain meat, marrow and cartilage, to satisfy their nutritional needs. When bones are simply fed for recreational purposes, their composition becomes less important, but has an impact on safety and enjoyment. Any bone is emotionally satisfying!
When large dogs are fed whole, raw meaty bones as part of their daily meals, the bone contributes to a proper calcium and phosphorous ratio. These dogs get used to eating bones routinely and can handle wings and necks and backs. They are less likely to gulp or to compete with other animals in the household. Gnawing and eating slowly are more likely.
Remember, a rawhide is not a bone. A rawhide does not clean teeth. It provides for chew time, but as most are chemically processed and many are indigestible, I discourage their use. When you ask your clients if they feed their pets bones, keep in mind that some who say “yes” may be incorrectly referring to rawhides shaped like bones!
Reported problems with raw bones
“I can’t feed raw bones to my dog because they cause diarrhea.” If a client says this, the doctor can almost always guess the bone type being fed was a marrow bone. Bone firms stool, but marrow does not. Advise these clients to thaw the marrow bone, spoon out most of the marrow, and leave a tiny bit in the center so the dog has something to work for. Throw the rest of the marrow away. This will alleviate the diarrhea problem.
Too much marrow, like any fat, could stimulate pancreatitis. However, raw fat is safer than cooked fat. There also seems to be a correlation between the consumption of carbs with fats, and the development of pancreatitis. Dogs on high-fat, moderateprotein, no-carb diets do not seem to develop pancreatitis.
A hard dry stool can mean too much bone consumption. This may occur if a dog is allowed to eat a large knuckle bone. Advise the client to limit the amount of bone ingestion. To avoid obstipation, think about the size of the dog and the proper size of his prey. Even a Great Dane shouldn’t eat a beef or bison knuckle bone in one sitting. The bone should be taken away and refrozen. This is a remarkably safe practice that mimics the behavior of wild canines who partially consume a prey animal or bone, then bury the rest of it and save it for later! Warn clients that stool passed after bone onsumption will be drier and of a pale gray color. This is normal.
Cracked or broken teeth
Dogs can chip or break teeth on bones. But this can also occur when dogs chew on rocks or pull on cages. Most pet guardians who feed raw bones feel the benefits outweigh the risks. An otherwise healthy mouth with fewer anesthetic episodes for dental prophylaxis is highly desired by the pet-loving community. And raw bones are safer than other bone alternatives. Smoked or boiled bones become brittle, and cooked bones should never be fed. Raw bones should be taken away when they become dry and brittle.
When feeding a pet raw food and bones, bacterial contamination is a possibility. Salmonella is ubiquitous. According to medical microbiologists, “in healthy individuals, the number of ingested salmonellae is reduced in the stomach, so that fewer or no organisms enter the intestine.” Author Ralph A. Gianella explains further that an animal host has many natural mechanisms to prevent colonization and prevent potential disease caused by salmonella. He also adds that antibiotic treatments damage this natural defense. Use some caution with dogs who are immunecompromised due to steroid use or chemotherapy. Most commercial raw bone manufacturers rinse their products in lactic acid for additional safety. However, local butchers may not. You could consider advising your clients to rinse raw bones in healthy water with a well-diluted essential oil blend such as cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus and lemon or lime. All raw meat products should be frozen for a minimum of two weeks before feeding; this kills parasites, but not bacterial organisms.
Explain to clients the warning signs of gastrointestinal obstruction, and when they should seek to have radiographs
taken. Synthetic or edible fake bones commonly cause the foreign body obstructions seen at many veterinary hospitals. Raw bones do not pose a greater risk.
Two more helpful tips about bones
1. Know the appearance on a radiograph of bone presence and passage. Radiopaque densities are normal throughout
the GI tract of dogs consuming bones, and even those ingesting commercial diets that contain ground bone.
2. Recreational bone eaters are often so excited to receive a bone that they gobble it up way too fast. To alleviate this
intensity, suggest that clients precede the bone with a “veggie meal” or slather the bone with some type of blended fibrous vegetation. Canned pumpkin or green beans work great! Not only does this technique slow down the carnivorous appetite, but the mixing of fiber and chewed bone will aid safe passage. This suggestion mimics nature, since wild carnivores consume fur, feathers, leaves and sticks as well as meat and bones.
Bone consumption has been a part of the carnivore lifestyle for eons. Although our dogs and cats have changed phenotypically, their biologic needs have not evolved. We can help our clients provide for their carnivorous fur babies by being knowledgeable and supportive guides, especially when it comes to feeding bones. Encourage their efforts to feed their pets safely and appropriately, and be sure they understand the importance of buying the right bones.
*This article has been peer reviewed.