Bones for your dog: why we don’t encourage them

Bones for your dog go together like fish and chips, right? In every doggy cartoon and every book you’ve read since childhood, the dog has a bone to chew. They’ve become so synonymous that it is sometimes difficult to see why they could be a problem but they are.

Myths and legends

Many people believe that bones are a good source of calcium and important for bones and teeth; in fact it is quite difficult for a dog to absorb the calcium and other minerals from bones. For calcium to be absorbed a bone meal needs to be fed; just chewing on a bone isn’t going to help that much, and feeding bones doesn’t compensate for a poor quality diet.  Calcium and other minerals in the wrong concentrations can also have a negative effect on bone and joint development. 

Why bones aren’t good

They can be very damaging to teeth. I have seen many dogs with broken teeth as a result of eating bones. This is also true for wild animals. I have seen many a hyena with almost no teeth from a lifetime of eating bones.
Often it is the canine or the carnassial tooth which are very difficult teeth for your vet to remove should they become broken or damaged due to their large roots.
This means we have to anaesthetise the dog, make a gum flap and burr bone away to remove the damaged tooth.
This is quite painful for the dog and quite heavy on your pocket too. 

Bones can also cause other problems from bone splintering into the back of the throat to tearing the oesophagus all the way to the stomach, blocking the intestines or causing massive constipation.
Unfortunately, in many of these cases the pet died in spite of us doing major surgery, and doing all that we could to save the animal.
It is always heartbreaking to me to walk that path with the client, informing them that their pet is suffering because they fed it bones. 

But I’ve been feeding my dog bones for years

Many people say, “I have always fed my dogs bones and they have always been fine.” This statement is true in many cases, but as a vet who has seen the worst of the worst, and therefore I cannot advocate them. One day it might be your pet that has that life-threatening complication.

There is also an idea that some bones are ‘dangerous’ and some are ‘safe’. For instance, most people know that chicken bones splinter and shouldn’t be fed. But not many people know that chop bones are some of the worst for your dog. And I have seen many complications due to rib bones too.  Often the dogs chew them into tiny pieces and swallow them and this forms an almost-cement like substance in the colon causing constipation. 

But my dog needs to chew

It is true that dogs have an inherent need to chew. And we do need to satisfy that in some way. Large knuckle bones with a lot of cartilage and sinew are safer but you do need to watch your dog while it chews. Once the sinews and cartilage are gone, remove the bone. Healthier alternatives are dried sinews and hooves available at EberVet Vetshops.  You’ll find a good selection of healthy chews and hooves and our Vetshop team can also help you choose bones that won’t harm your dog..
Puzzle toys, e.g. Kongs, are also fantastic and keep the dogs busy.
Rope toys and leather toys are favourites with my dogs.
Dr Ingrid de Wet is head veterinarian at Country Animal Clinic in Somerset West