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Why Bones Are Not Safe for Dogs

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Behavior, Care & Wellness, Pet Services

What is the real story about bones and dogs?

It is a myth that dogs need to chew bones. While dogs want to chew, and most would love to chew on bones, bones are dangerous and they can cause serious injuries.

Here are the top reasons that bones are bad for dogs (according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration):

Broken teeth. Bones are very hard and can be brittle, making it easy for a dog to break one of its large chewing teeth. A broken tooth is painful and must be treated. Whether the tooth is extracted or saved with a root canal, this is an expensive outcome.

Injuries to the mouth and tongue. The broken edges of bones can be razor sharp. Dogs can break off sharp shards of bone, which can pierce the tongue, the cheek, or the soft palate on the roof of the mouth.

Bones can get looped around the lower jaw. Round bones can get stuck around the lower jaw, behind the lower canine teeth. This is a very scary experience for the dog, and most dogs need to be sedated or anesthetized in order to cut the bone off.

Dogs can choke. Pieces of bone can lodge in the esophagus on the way down to the stomach. Sharp bone shards can penetrate the soft tissues at the back of the throat or pierce the esophagus. It is also possible for a piece of bone to get into the trachea (windpipe), interfering with your dog’s ability to breathe. Choking is an emergency!

Injuries to the stomach and intestinal lining. Just as sharp bone fragments can damage the mouth, they can also damage the walls of the stomach and intestines. In some cases, bone fragments may completely penetrate the walls of the stomach or intestine, allowing food and intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen. This causes a condition called peritonitis - an abdominal infection that can be fatal, even if treated aggressively.

Bones can get stuck in the stomach. If the bone fragment is large, it may be unable to pass out of the stomach. Bone fragments that remain trapped in the stomach can lead to chronic vomiting and stomach irritation. These retained bone fragments must be removed with abdominal surgery or endoscopy.

Bones can cause a blockage in the small intestine or colon. Bone fragments can become lodged in the small intestines, causing a complete intestinal blockage. This is an emergency and requires surgical removal of the obstruction. If bone fragments travel down the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and reach the large bowel/colon, they may collect and cause constipation. This is painful for the dog, as the bone fragments scrape the lining of the colon and rectum and lead to significant trauma. Enemas and manipulation may be required to evacuate the large bowel.

Contamination with pathogens on raw bones. Raw meat and bones can be contaminated with a number of pathogens, including E. coli, Salmonella species, and Listeria. These pathogens may or may not make a dog sick, depending on the dog's health status, but pose a significant health risk to the humans in the household. Children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals are the most vulnerable, and these organisms can be life-threatening.

Is there anything safe that I can give my dog to chew?

There are many great chewing products available for dogs. If you want to offer rawhide, choose one made from U.S. cattle hides, give the thickest hides you can find, and choose ones that are too large for your dog to swallow. No knots on the ends, please. The knots can be pulled off and swallowed, resulting in a trip to the veterinarian for surgery.

There are also a number of dental health chews that are available. Be sure to look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of approval. This seal assures you that the product has been evaluated for its ability to contribute to a dog’s oral health.

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