A natural part of the diet of carnivores in the wild, bones fell off the metropolitan menu over the last century due to perceptions of risk. They are a digestive hurdle on which pets rarely come to grief. Promoted as a preventative for dental disease, bones don’t always live up to expectations. Let’s weigh the cost versus benefits, and examine cooked versus raw.,
In their native state, most animals spend much of their day foraging or hunting for food. Daily meals, served on cue, leave the lives of most modern cats and dogs stripped of this motivation. Bones can slow the meal, entertaining for long periods, especially for a dog at home alone. The gift that keeps on giving, they can be a useful tool when rewarding departure as a technique for managing canine separation anxiety.
Preservation of dental hygiene is the most commonly touted justification for feeding bones. It is true that dogs that spend a couple of hours a week gnawing on bone, especially larger breeds, often enjoy old-age with healthier gums and cleaner teeth, if not worn flat. Given some dogs, and many cats, suffer dental problems despite regular bone consumption, it seems it’s not how much bone is fed, but what your pet does with it.
Many small-breed dogs and cats simply refuse bones outright. Some prefer to chew on one side, leaving the opposite teeth rotting; while most will choose to chew with their grinding teeth, at the back of the mouth, leaving front fangs stinking and loose. Short-faced dogs and cats often suffer dental anatomy, so disfigured by warped breed standards, many lack the oral machinery required to ever relish a bone.
A Rotty may devour a chicken neck in two chomps: too swift for any abrasive cleaning. It’s important to choose a bone shape and size that encourages at least an hour of gnawing per week. The dental risk is broken teeth, usually premolars.
Dense, cortical bone, marked in blue, is an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus. When ground into bonemeal and mixed in commercial foods these minerals are highly bioavailable; in contrast, fresh whole bone is less digestible, even when dissolved by stomach acid, and much of this value is lost to stool. When feeding rapidly growing large breed dogs, assuming meaty bones will contain an ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorus is dangerous.
Cartilage, marked in yellow, that polished white at the end of a bone in joints, or parts of sternum, rib and shoulder blade, is a good natural source of chondroitin and glucosamine, important for general wellbeing and may help in the management of arthritis.
Bone marrow, marked in red, is nutritious, containing protein, iron, and fat, although these are rarely deficient in good quality diets. Too often bones contribute to weight gain, especially when used as a regular treat or dessert, on top of a meal. A marrowbone can be a meal in itself.
Just as we are discovering the beneficial effects of a range of phytochemicals in fresh fruit and vegetables, raw wholefoods for carnivores, including bone, are likely to contain a range of bioactive chemicals that may also be of nutritional value.
Greedy or overzealous dogs can crack a tooth, gorge on a whole bag inadvertently left out, or deep-throat a big piece that may go on to obstruct the bowel. More detail at gastrointestinal foreign bodies.
A bone stuck over a tooth may occasionally require vet assistance. Most of these I have dislodged without anaesthesia, in a consultation, using fingers or instrument, and I encourage owners to view this situation as an opportunity for obedience training, restraint and patience, rather than medical emergency.
Canine hoarders prefer to bury bones, potholing the garden, for retrieval after a few days of rotting. Confusing for owners, I often explain this is no more perverse than people who like their cheese blue. Random bacterial and fungal growth can make these bones gastro-toxic and the ensuing vomiting and diarrhoea may require veterinary attention.
Bones are a digestive challenge and some dogs may suffer mild to severe, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation, especially if volume or type of bone is suddenly altered. Like any dietary change, give time for the body to adapt.
It’s important to put these risks into perspective. Every year, tens of thousands of people come to grief: choking on cherries, hot dogs and popcorn; catching fish bones in the oesophagus; and cracking molars on toffee and nuts. Millions of humans worldwide devour cooked bone as a part of their traditional diet; most continue to enjoy their dim sum pork spare rib with little regard to a 1 in 10,000 chance.
There’s little uncertainty in my mind, if we were to involve many dogs in this decision-making process, most would cry ‘screw the risk, gimme bone.’
Cooked versus raw:
Throwing out cooked bones, the Osso Bucco or lamb shank leftovers, always seems so wasteful when it’s perfectly good food the dog would kill for.
Traditional wisdom states that raw bones, especially those of young animals, are softer and crumble, whereas cooked bones are more brittle, splinter when chewed, and end up over-represented in the bowel obstruction and perforation statistics. This belief seems to be more anecdotally supported than proven by any epidemiologic study.
Many dog owners defiantly describe their pet’s uneventful consumption of cooked bones over many years, and remain skeptical of vet recommendations of raw only. Their experience is not unique: with about 3.6 million dogs in Australia, my guess is about 5,000 cooked bones eaten by dogs every day and thankfully, the vast majority pass without problem.
Personally, I’ve seen more obstructions on rocks, garments, nuts and vegetable than cooked bone, and I’ve seen raw bone obstructions too, but, like most vets, I follow the raw-recommendation to minimise the risk of wearing the responsibility if something goes awry. If your dog has always eaten cooked bones without a problem, or you don’t mind a little risk, go ahead and ignore the vet.f
Special notes on cats:
While feral cats regularly dine on large meaty bones, their domestic counterparts, raised on a diet of kibble and tinned mush, will often view a bone with curiosity rather than gusto. A chicken wing or neck would seem an irresistible treat, but my estimate is only 1 cat in 4 takes to raw bones, the remainder preferring to lick or play soccer.
Given most cats suffer dental disease from the age of four, lack of enthusiasm for bone is a common cause of cat owner dismay. Here I offer a consolation: a study of feral cats, trapped in Kakadu National Park, revealed high levels of severe dental disease in a population that would devour raw bone on a daily basis. This reinforces the point that a ‘natural diet’, which includes raw bone, is no guarantee of pearly whites in old age.
Many blame commercial pet foods for the modern epidemic of dental disease, but similar levels of dental disease are likely to have existed in wild populations, before domestication. Cats are able to reproduce by the age of 1-2 years, and succeed in evolutionary terms, passing on their bad-teeth genes, well before dental problems start to afflict them in later life.
Recipe: One owner, recognising her cat’s preference for cooked chicken, described her solution: freeze the wing or neck, bake briefly on high, cooking the meat and skin while leaving the bone raw. Served warm, her fussy cats discovered a palate for bones.
- If your dog or cat loves bones, and rarely suffers their ills: fantastic. Select a bone size and shape that encourages chewing for longer, to maximise any dental benefit, and keep the weekly bone ration fairly stable.
- If your dog repeatedly suffers tummy upsets, even when gradually weaned on to small amounts of bone, or he just buries them and presents the festering knuckle to your bedside, the costs may outweigh the benefits and you should feel comforted in the knowledge that bones may not have helped his teeth anyway.
- If your pet has a weight problem, start to view a bone as a meal. See more under Killing with Kindness – managing obesity.
- If your pet refuses bones outright, don’t worry, they’re no dental or nutritional necessity, and if you’d like to persevere there are non-bone dental options.
- Feeding raw bones, in preference to cooked, seems the prudent thing to do, with some rule bending allowable. Only feed raw veal, lamb or chicken bones if you cant cope with risk; go ahead and feed cooked if you hate waste and like living on the edge.
Tags: bone marrow, bones, calcium, canine, cat, chondroitin, constipation, cooked bones, dental disease, diarrhoea, dog, feline, glucosamine, nutrition, phosphorus, raw bones, recipe, reward, separation anxiety, teeth, teeth cleaning, vet, veterinary, vomiting