Give a Dog a Bone (Not!)–FDA warns of dangers of feeding bones to dogs

The Food and Drug Administration issue a warning about feeding bones to dogs recently. Just like feeding milk to cats (which also isn’t a very good idea), giving bones to dogs is a cultural cliché that we learn about as children. Bones are often the symbol for all things canine. Unfortunately, the idea that they are a fun and healthy part of the domestic dog’s diet is a myth. Eating bones can result in all sorts of medical problems, some minor and some serious. The FDA warning lists some of the more important:

  1. Broken teeth. This may call for expensive veterinary dentistry.
  2. Mouth or tongue injuries. These can be very bloody and messy and may require a trip to see your veterinarian.
  3. Bone gets looped around your dog’s lower jaw. This can be frightening or painful for your dog and potentially costly to you, as it usually means a trip to see your veterinarian.
  4. Bone gets stuck in esophagus, the tube that food travels through to reach the stomach. Your dog may gag, trying to bring the bone back up, and will need to see your veterinarian.
  5. Bone gets stuck in windpipe. This may happen if your dog accidentally inhales a small enough piece of bone. This is an emergency because your dog will have trouble breathing. Get your pet to your veterinarian immediately!
  6. Bone gets stuck in stomach. It went down just fine, but the bone may be too big to pass out of the stomach and into the intestines. Depending on the bone’s size, your dog may need surgery or upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, a procedure in which your veterinarian uses a long tube with a built-in camera and grabbing tools to try to remove the stuck bone from the stomach.
  7. Bone gets stuck in intestines and causes a blockage. It may be time for surgery.
  8. Constipation due to bone fragments. Your dog may have a hard time passing the bone fragments because they’re very sharp and they scrape the inside of the large intestine or rectum as they move along. This causes severe pain and may require a visit to your veterinarian.
  9. Severe bleeding from the rectum. This is very messy and can be dangerous. It’s time for a trip to see your veterinarian.
  10. Peritonitis. This nasty, difficult-to-treat bacterial infection of the abdomen is caused when bone fragments poke holes in your dog’s stomach or intestines. Your dog needs an emergency visit to your veterinarian because peritonitis can kill your dog.

Now, I can already hear the BARF and other raw diet and bone folks rattling off anecdotes about all the dogs they have fed bones who lived perfectly happy, healthy lives. That this proves nothing shouldn’t need saying, but of course it does. Plenty of people who smoke never get lung cancer, and some people who do get it never smoked. Does that mean smoking doesn’t increase your risk of getting cancer? Of course not. 90% of lung cancers are associated with smoking cigarettes, so the fact that lots of people get lucky doesn’t mean it’s a risk worth taking.

The same is true for dogs eating bones. Sure, many of them will get away with it. But why take the risk? As I’ve explained before, the idea that domestic dogs are functionally the same as wolves from the point of view of nutrition and should eat whatever wild wolves eat is a fairy tale (see HERE and HERE). There is no evidence that bones are a necessary part of a healthy diet for dogs, and in fact plenty of evidence they are not. Even true wild canine predators, such as wolves, live longer and are healthier when fed commercial diets in captivity. Sure, chewing bones can be a source of pleasure for dogs, but there are plenty of other materials safer for recreational chewing, and given the risks of feeding bones the potential benefits simply aren’t enough to justify the practice.

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17 Responses to Give a Dog a Bone (Not!)–FDA warns of dangers of feeding bones to dogs

  1. K. Byer says:

    Why give a dog a bone? I’d rather take a risk with raw feeding, then take the larger risk with processed food. How many recalls have there been in the last 12 months? Plastic, mold… it never ends.

    Sorry, but until the dog food manufacturers get their act together, and start making good quality, inexpensive, species-appropriate, SAFE food, I’ll stick to meat, bones, organs and some fruit and veggies.

    Now, can you look for data about how many times manufactured treats cause the same injuries as raw bones? From personal experience, my dog has had more issues with them than with bones – vomiting, stuck in teeth, cut gums, etc., not to mention interesting stool issues – mucus, diarrhoea… none of which have been an issue in over a year of feeding edible raw bone.

  2. skeptvet says:

    Thanks for the comment. A few points…

    Recalls are not the terrible indictment of commercial diets that they are often trumpeted to be. Many are precautionary and don’t actually turn up a problem. And those that do are an example of the system that protects our pets working and getting diets that are a problem off the store shelves. You can assume that they are the tip of the iceberg or representative of a systemic problem in the diets, but you are just guessing at that.

    Raw diets don’t get recalled much because 1) most of them are homemade and no one is monitoring quality of safety and 2) there are far fewer commercial diets and they are generally marketed by smaller companies for whom a non-mandatory recall would be too costly. You clearly bellieve raw diiets are safer than commercial (or home-cooked?) diets, but that is an opinon based on intuition and philosophy, not an evidence-based decision. If you have some solid evidence to support that, please share it.

    For just a few examples of the potential dangers of raw diets, see:

    Chengapappa, M., et al. Prevalence of Salmonella in raw meat diets used in racing greyhounds. J Vet Diag Invest 1993;5:372-7.

    Finley, R. et al. The risk of Salmonella shedding by dogs fed Salmonella-contaminated commercial raw food diets. Can Vet J 2007;8:69-75.

    Freeman L., Michel, K., Nutritional analysis of 5 types of “Raw Food Diets.” JAVMA March, 2001;218(5): 705.

    Joffe, D., Schlesinger, D. Preliminary assessment of the risk of Salmonella infection in dogs fed raw chicken diets. Can Vet J 2002;43:441-442.

    Lauren , S., et al, Computer analysis of nutrient sufficiency of published home-cooked diets for dogs and cats. Proc ACVIM Forum 2005.

    Weese, J. et al. Bacteriological evaluation of commercial canine and feline raw diets. Can Vet J 2005;46:513–516.

    Stiver, S. et al. Septicemic salmonellosis in two cats fed a raw meat diet. J AM Anim Hosp Assoc 2003;39:538-42.

    Strohmeyer, R.A., et al., Evaluation of bacterial and protozoal contamination of commercially-available raw meat diets for dogs. JAVMA 2006;228:537-542.

    As for your personal experiences, as compelling as they are for you, they aren’t a sound basis for generalizations about diets. I can cite plenty of individual experiences with patients who have experienced the problems with bones the FDA lists.. They DO happen. How often, who knows. But again, since there is no benefit to feeding bones, there is no excuse for taking even a relatively small risk.

  3. K. Byer says:

    I work in food processing, in Quality control/food safety. I talk to the CFIA inspector every day.

    I know exactly what recalls are, and what they are meant to do.

    I also know how many things DON’T get recalled. And this is human food – the conditions for pet food manufacturing are even worse.

    “You can assume that they are the tip of the iceberg or representative of a systemic problem in the diets, but you are just guessing at that.”

    Guessing? How many animals were killed due to melamine contamination? I’m not guessing, and neither are the thousands of other raw feeders.

    “There is no excuse for taking even a relatively small risk” – this is EXACTLY why I will not feed a commercially prepared diet. I prefer controlling the risks I can, which means not feeding kibble.

    And yes, there are recall of “raw diets” – since my dogs eat the same meat I do, it falls under the jurisdiction of the CFIA inspectors.

    Thank you for the above citations, but I ask you again – can you find information of problems caused by commercial treats and food?

  4. skeptvet says:

    So you are familiar with the recalls and food-borne illness associated with raw meat intended for human consumption, yet you feed raw meat to your pets? And do you eat it yourself because it’s safer than cooked meat? Or do you imagine that somehow our pets are immune to the parasites and infectious organisms in raw meat that can make us sick? I fail to see how the food safety problems associated with raw meat and produce for human consumption in any way demonstrate that we should feed raw meat and produce to our dogs instead of kibble.

    I’m not denying that there are problems with commercial pet diets, such as the use of unreliable ingredient sources like Chinese companies, which led to the melamine incident. What I am saying is that I see no evidence that raw diets or bones are in any way safer. Tens of thousands of pets live healthy lives being fed commercial pet foods, so if you are claiming that raw diets, commercial or homemade, are safer, you need to be able to show that the incidence of food-related illness is greater in commercial diets than raw diets. Can you do so? Pointing out the problems with commercial diets is fair game, but leaping to the conclusion that raw diets are better is, as I said before, just guessing. I see nothing that changes my assertions in the original post–bones are unecessary for dogs and have risks so there is no reason to feed them.

  5. Ceridwen says:

    I’m torn on this one. I don’t give my dogs any type of bone that they could bite pieces off of or that would fit into (or over) their mouths. But I do give them large bones as a chew item, just as I would a nylabone, kong, etc.

    They are supervised while chewing on the bones and I take them away if the dogs start to be able to take pieces off (again, just as I would a nylabone or other chew toy).

    Yes, there is a risk of getting pieces off, but this is true of literally *every* toy or chew item that I give them as well as any random item they can pick up in my house. Yes, there is a risk of them breaking teeth, but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that risk is higher than from the other items I would be giving them instead (such as nylabones). My dogs are also not very aggressive chewers and I would not let them chew on the bones if they were biting directly down and trying to break off pieces.

    The upside of feeding them the bones periodically is that it really does seem to do a nice job on their teeth. My recently adopted dog has much less tartar than she did when I got her from the shelter a year ago (without me doing a thing to her teeth) and my boyfriend’s dog has almost perfectly white teeth despite having teeth completely caked in tartar 2 years ago. I could probably get the same results with other chews, but the dogs like the bones better than most other chews and bones are cheaper.

    It’s all about calculating the risk. I don’t see a huge one from the bones I give and the manner in which I give them but I am aware that there *are* risks and I do my best to minimize them. There does appear to be at least one advantage to feeding them outside of just the dogs enjoying it, which is what I have to weigh the risk against.

    I’d love to see an analysis of the risks and benefits of various types of chews but I don’t believe anyone has done a study on it. I’ve heard horror stories for pretty much every type of chew toy out there, which makes it more difficult to decide what is safe and reasonable to give to your dog.

  6. skeptvet says:

    Ceridwen,

    Well, all medical therapies are a balance of risks and benfits, so if you are correct that feeding bones reduces clinical dental disease, then this would have to be balanced against the risks of feeding bones. The problem, is that there is little evidence beyond anecdote that bones do any good, and there are certainly better and safer alternatives. Brushing is clearly shown to reduce periodontal Dz and has no risks in most dogs who accept it with little training. It also has the advantage of being low cost.

    There are a number of chewing products that have the Veterinary Oral Health Seal, which indicates they have provided good evidence of benefit in terms of preventing periodontal disease with minimal, acceptable risks (http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm). Granted, these are commercial products, because to do the necessary testing to prove something works takes money. No one is likely to test raw bones unless a non-profit or interest group can raise funds to do so since obviously they cannot be sold as a proprietary product. This isn’t the result of some sinister conspiracy among pet chew makers, just the reality that it takes resources to do science. Unfortunately, those who object to this are stuck making claims about the benefits of bones that they can’t support in any obective way.

    Here are a couple of evidence-based reviews of veterinary preventative dentiistry. Granted, they are paid for by Hill’s, which introduces some bias. But personal experience and anecdotes are also biased, likely more so than a controlled review of the scientific literature, and even an industry-sponsored review is better than nothing. As always, more independant data would be better, but in the absence of any I don’t think we can simply ignore what data there is in preference to anecdotes.

    http://www.hillsvet.com/media/HillsVet/USARG/Research/FeaturedResearch/assets/en/TIS0115_Dental_Email.pdf

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15909451

    Bottom line is that the benefits are unclear, the risks are clear though it is uncertain how common they are, so I see no good reason to recommend feeding bones. Like everything, more data could certainly change that, and if a few good trials come out that feeding bones dramatically reduces periodontal disease with minimal risk, I’ll be happy to change my recommendation. 🙂

  7. I’d love to see an analysis of the risks and benefits of various types of chews but I don’t believe anyone has done a study on it.>>>>

    Has the FDA posted any data for its no bone promotion showing the relative risk of bones vs other chews? My guess is people who are buying prepackaged bones labeled for dogs at the supermarket have contacted the FDA trying to get them pulled off the market. If the FDA is going to say no bones I think they should pull the ones labeled for dogs off the market rather than just issue a statement not to give dogs bones.

  8. Janet Camp says:

    Thanks for the clarification and warning. We give our mini-doxie well-cooked chicken bones (leg only). They are soft enough for me to chew as they are used to make stock and so are simmered for a few hours. She LOVES them. Now I’m worried. Please tell me that if they are really soft, it’s OK????

  9. skeptvet says:

    Janet,

    I don’t think one can make absolute rules, only guidelines based on probabilities. I suspect the risk from the bones you are feeding are small if they are really soft (though I’m suprised at that since my experience has been that chicken bones become hard and brittle and prone to splintering when cooked, not soft).

  10. Janet Camp says:

    skepvet,

    Thanks for the reassurance. I should clarify that I give her the bones shortly after cooking while they are soft. Yes, they will harden up as they cool. I should also say that these bones are cooked and re-cooked. Being a thrifty old lady, I bake chicken for one meal, and then take the scraps plus any I have in the freezer and throw it all in the stockpot and cook for a few hours more, so the bones really are soft enough for me to easily eat. Elsa really loves them, but I wouldn’t want any of the awful things described to happen to her, so thanks for the warnings.

    I’d like to ask if you are familiar with Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim’s new book, Feed Your Pet Right? I may have brought this up elsewhere, so will look around for that. The book is a breath of fresh air compared to most of what you write about.

  11. Megan says:

    Yes, all of those things could happen from chewing bones. They could also happen from chewing rawhides, Nylabones, tennis balls, or other various things that we give our dogs. Dogs can choke on pieces of rawhide (or even eating kibble). They can swallow toys whole and end up with obstructions in their intestines. Do you suggest that our dogs live in giant plastic bubbles?

    In my mind, chewing on bones is no more dangerous than chewing on anything else, eating kibble, or playing with a toy.

  12. skeptvet says:

    Yes, all life is a balance between risks and benefits. The benefits of bones are unproven, though there is some indication they may reduce periodontal disease by cleaning teeth. The risks of bones are far more common than you seem to think. I see fractured teeth regularly in dogs whose owners are feeding bones, and this has become much more common since the fad of raw diets started. The idea that bones are good for dogs is mostly myth, so it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

    As for the other things you mentioned, tennis balls are especially bad, and I see teeth worn to the gumline in middle-aged dogs. Painful and sad. Rawhides are much safer, and they have as much value for cleaning teeth as bones do. For some reason, though, they’ve gotten a bad reputation. Small toys can become intestinal obstructions, so I recomend giving toys that are larger than the particular dog can sawallow, and taking them away when pieces begin to get torn or broken off of them.

    So what I suggest is not keeping our pets in plastic bubbles but balancing risks and benefits of various behaviors rationally and reasonably. The mythology surrounding bones has given the false ipression that their benefits are greater than their risks, and this creates real and unecessary health problems for our pets.

  13. Pingback: Raw Diets for Pets | The SkeptVet

  14. DK says:

    How about dehydrated treats? I give my dog dehydrated chicken and duck feet, necks, wings and turkey tip. Is this okay?
    One of company says “dehydrated chicken bones are safe for your dog. Cooked bones however are not. Cooked bones are brittle, and will splinter while dehydrated bones are still strong and will break instead of splinter when chewed.”

  15. skeptvet says:

    The problem with bones is mostly that they are hard and can break the teeth. The splintering issue is less of a problem, though this can happen too. Bird bones are softer than mammal bones and so less likely to break teeth. I am unaware of any evidence about the relative safety of dehydrated bones in terms of splintering.

  16. Paul says:

    I agree with you on the cracked teeth but like you said balancing risk is essentially. You have to know your dog. If your dog is the type that ones to bite through the bone there may be a problem. If he gnaws maybe less likely a chance of cracking.

    Splintering is a risk breed with higher bite pressures tend to break bone and splinter pieces off. Hell my GSD and crack a rib bone into pieces with one chomp so he doesn’t get them.

    I warn my customers to be around and pay attention and that bones, rawhides, bully sticks and other long term chews are not baby sitters.

  17. L says:

    I have been to the emergency vet twice with a dog due to intestinal blockage caused by a small amount of finely ground up raw bone. And, once for a dog with a broken tooth.
    Luckily I was able to avoid surgery.
    No thank you.

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