The Best Bones For Dogs: Fact Checked By Our Vet
Giving a bone to a dog seems to like the most natural thing to do. After all, it’s one of the most stereotypical images when we think of dogs, and even dog toys are made to look like bones.
But are all bones good for dogs? Or are any bones good for dogs? You might have heard that giving bones to a dog can lead to problems and injuries. But does that mean we should give up on giving bones to our dogs? Are some bones more harmful than others?
As you can see, there are a lot of questions to unpack regarding this topic. Our today’s task is to figure out what are the best bones for dogs if such a thing exists.
Are Bones Healthy or Harmful?
So what’s the deal with bones? One thing is certain, most dogs love to gnaw on bones. But is it possible that this is bad for them? There are many sides to this discussion. To help clear out the confusion, we’ve prepared a quick list of the main benefits and risks attributed to bones.
Related: Best Bones for Puppies.
This one is obvious: dogs tend to have tons of fun with bones. When given a bone, many canines will happily gnaw on it for hours. This not only keeps them entertained and prevents boredom but also provides gentle exercise and mental stimulation.
Improved Dental Health
Bones are the natural toothbrush for dogs. When they get to chew on bones, dogs tend to have healthier teeth. This is because all that chewing helps scrape the tartar off their teeth. No tartar = no gingivitis and other problems.
Bones are full of calcium, which is what many dogs need, especially if they are fed a diet that contains lots of meat:
“Meat is high in phosphorus, and a diet that is mostly meat will result in a dog that is seriously deficient in calcium. When bones are a regular part of a dog’s meat-based diet, the calcium/phosphorus ratio is rarely a problem.” - Nancy Kerns, Whole Dog Journal (1)
One of the most often cited issues with bones is that dogs can break their teeth on them way too easily. Does this always happen? Of course not, but there is a considerable risk involved. Teeth that are already damaged or infected get broken much more easily by bones than healthy teeth. Furthermore, the dog needs to be a pretty aggressive chewer to break his or her healthy tooth (but some of them are pretty aggressive when it comes to bones).
The main problem with bones is that they can get broken into small pieces with sharp edges. Not much explanation is needed to understand that this can lead to painful accidents and scratches of the dog’s mouth and tongue. Depending on the shape of the bone there is also some potential for the whole bone to get stuck in awkward places.
Choking and Intestinal Problems
Small pieces of bone can get stuck anywhere, and, as mentioned, they can be sharp. If a piece of bone gets stuck in the oesophagus, it can lead to choking. If it gets stuck somewhere in the stomach, it can cause intestinal blockage. If the piece is sharp, it can cause additional damage too.
Bones often contain some amount of meat on them. If bones are given to the dog raw (as they should be), they carry the same risks as raw meat in terms of pathogens. In this sense, the main worry is the potential for infection by E. Coli and Salmonella. The good news is that dogs are much more resistant to those infections than humans (2, 3), but the bad news is that they can transmit the bacteria to humans.
Bones: Risk vs Benefit
As you can see, the debate around bones is anything but simple. Some vets will tell you, having the safety of your dog in mind, that feeding bones is not necessary and probably not a good idea (4). The truth is, accidents with bones do happen. Any vet can confirm that. On the other hand, many pet parents have fed bones to their dogs their whole lives without an issue. Who is right here? Both of them are.
If you want to be 100% sure nothing will happen, skip the bones. But can you name any other activity that is 100% safe? If you still want to try feeding your dog bones, then follow these tips for choosing bones suitable for your dog:
Raw vs Cooked Bones
The general rule of thumb is to always feed only raw bones. And this is a good rule to follow. Cooked bones of any kind are more brittle. They are much more likely to break into sharp pieces which can cause dangerous problems for bones.
While cooking the bones would eliminate the risk of bacterial infection, getting the bones from a trusted source and feeding them to your dog is a much better choice, and much safer when everything is considered.
The only exception to the raw bones rule is ground bones (in other words, bone meal). Some veterinarians recommend using ground bones to get the nutritional benefits of bone without the risks (5).
Keep in mind that cured bones, smoked bones, and the like also fall into the category of cooked bones.
Related: Bone Broth For Dogs.
What Bones Are Good for Dogs?
How should we put this? All bones are good for dogs if there is no injury. But which bones are less likely to hurt your dog? You will probably hear a lot of contradictory information on this too.
However, this is the general consensus: you need to choose the right kind of bone and the bone should be of appropriate size for your dog.
Type of Bone
It is usually recommended to skip poultry bones (chicken, turkey, and the like) and pork bones should be avoided. This is because these bones are most likely to end up as dangerous splinters especially if they are cooked (6).
Beef and lamb bones are usually considered ok because they are larger and less likely to split. Some more exotic options like bison and kangaroo also fall into the category of ‘safer’ bones.
Size and Shape
The bones that you give your dog really shouldn’t be too small. If the dog can swallow the bone whole, you are just inviting trouble. A good rule is to only feed bones as big as your dog's head. But what does that mean exactly? Well, when you put the bone on your dog’s head, and it’s longer than the distance between the tip of the nose and the crown of the dog’s head - it’s big enough, and most importantly, un-swallowable (7).
When it comes to the shape of the bone, it mostly is something you’ll have to experiment with. Lamb shanks and beef knuckle bones seem to be the universal favourites, but there are variations. It depends on the dog and their chewing style.
A good rule to follow is to try to find bones that are in one piece and haven’t been cut. The more cutting is involved, the sharper edges there are and the greater the risk of splintering.
Best Bones for Big Dogs
For big dogs, you typically want to look for very large bones. Beef and lamb are your best bet in this case. Shinbones, also known as shank bones or marrow bones are usually a great choice. However, you might want to avoid the Osso buco style bones which are cut into ‘slices’.
Yes, the bone marrow is exposed on this type of bone, but the circular shape can lead to accidents and the bone getting stuck around the dog’s jaw.
Best Bones for Small Dogs
For smaller dogs, you still want bones that are big enough so that they can’t be swallowed. However, you also don’t want a bone that’s too big. If your dog can’t even bite the bone or pick it up because of the size, it will most likely lose interest.
For smaller dogs, knuckle bones can be a good idea. Just make sure there are no small pieces that can break off and end up in your dog’s stomach.
My Final Thoughts
As you have seen, feeding bones to dogs is somewhat of a grey territory. Nobody will tell you it’s completely safe. However, if you are willing to take responsibility on yourself, you can give your dog some fun times by giving them a bone.
Precautions include picking the bone correctly (no cooked bones) and also supervising your dog while chewing.
- Kerns, N. March 30, 2001. “Feeding Bones or Raw Foods to Puppies”. Whole Dog Journal. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/puppies/puppy_food/feeding-bones-or-raw-foods-to-puppies
- PetMD Editorial. January 19, 2010. “E. Coli infection in Dogs”. PetMD. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/digestive/c_dg_e_coli_infection
- Flaim, D. April 14, 2016. “Raw Dog Food and Salmonella Risks” Whole Dog Journal. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/food/raw-dog-food-and-salmonella-risks/
- Llera, R. and Downing, R. “Why Bones Are Not Safe for Dogs”. VCA Animal Hospitals. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/why-bones-are-not-safe-for-dogs
- Dunn, T.J. March 07, 2011. “The Nutritional Aspects of Bone Composition”. PetMD. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_nutritional_aspects_of_bone_composition
- Jones, S. March 02, 2022. “Can Dogs Eat Bones? The Ultimate Guide To What’s Safe And What’s Not”. Canine Journal. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.caninejournal.com/can-dogs-eat-bones/
- Andrew. November 1, 2015. “A Guide To Feeding Bones To Dogs”. Walkerville Vet. Retrieved March 21, 2022. https://www.walkervillevet.com.au/blog/feeding-bones-to-dogs/