To Bone or Not To Bone…
…That is the question. At least it’s the question of this blog!
A lot of raw feeders who come through my door are happy just feeding the pre-made ground minces containing bone, which nutritionally does give your dog a balanced diet. However, there is more to feeding a raw meaty bone than just nutritional benefits, and not all bones are created equal (as far as your dogs’ health is concerned anyway!). Bone is an essential part of the raw diet for both dogs and cats, as without bone there is a nutritional imbalance. Bone is especially essential in the diets of growing animals as it ensures a correct balance of Calcium and Phosphorous, crucial for healthy bone development.
Unfortunately feeding raw meaty bones is one of the things that seems to get the raw feeding movement into trouble, as it is these that supposedly have so many potential health risks. There are risks involved with feeding bones but if you select an appropriate raw meaty bone for your individual dog then the risks are minimal. In my experience all of the problems I have seen with bone feeding involve feeding cooked bones, or an inappropriate bone for the dog itself. The key to countering these concerns is with education as to how to safely and sensibly feed your dog raw meaty bones. Read on…
I think bones are fantastic, and a great part of the raw feeding movement. In my opinion there are two main advantages to feeding raw meaty bones, over just ground bone:
Number 1 is your pets’ happiness, as odd as that may sound! Chewing releases endorphins into your dogs’ brain and central nervous system. Endorphin comes from the words endogenous and morphine - these peptides are named as such because they cause a decrease in pain transmission and can give feelings of euphoria in animals (including humans). So there you have it, chewing a bone really does make your dog very happy!
Number 2 in the major advantage stakes is Dental Health. In the majority of cases, I find I can look in a dogs mouth when it comes into my consult room and tell you whether it is raw fed or not. It really can be that obvious! Raw food doesn’t contain any additional sugars or carbohydrates so there is less chance of food deposits sticking to the teeth to begin with but it’s the chewing itself that really makes the difference. Chewing raw meaty bones causes a rubbing across the surface of the teeth which acts to chip off, and prevent formation, of plaque deposits on the surface of the teeth. Plaque deposits build up on our pets’ teeth over time, and lead to dental disease and gum infections. Not only does chewing stop this from happening but it also acts as a massage for the gums, which improves blood circulation, making the gums, and so the whole mouth in turn, much healthier.
On the topic of dental health there are some warnings that must come with feeding raw meaty bones, but generally if you choose appropriate bones for your dog, you should be fine. The main dental disadvantage that we do occasionally see is slab fractures of the molar teeth. This is where the side of the tooth splits off from the main tooth. If severe this requires immediate extraction of the tooth to prevent pain, infection and possibly a tooth root abscess or similar. In my experience this issue arises from choosing too large, and/or too hard, a bone for your dog, or feeding these too frequently. Read on and I will discuss selecting appropriate bones for your dog.
The other dental disadvantage to feeding raw meaty bones is solely a disadvantage if your dog eats bones in a certain way, and/or because feeding bones means you are probably less likely to be brushing your dogs’ teeth. The problem I’m talking about is plaque build-up on the Canine teeth. These teeth are the biting/killing teeth – they aren’t really involved in the actual eating part, so they get little use when most dogs eat bones, making them vulnerable to plaque deposition (but still less so than feeding a highly processed diet). A similar issue can occur, less commonly with the incisors. In some dogs, if you feed a suitable selection of different bones, especially intricate bits of raw meaty bones like lamb necks and spines, then this doesn’t occur because your dog has to work hard to get all the meat and connective tissue off the bone, and so uses all their teeth in the process. If you just feed easy to eat bones, then your dog will likely just use the molars and premolars to crunch them up, leaving the teeth at the front of the mouth with little to do! Obviously, compared to a highly processed diet, this is a negligible concern.
Now onto appropriate bone selection. You may have noticed that I mostly refer to raw meaty bones in this post, rather than just bones. This is with reason: all bones that you feed your dog MUST BE RAW. When a bone is cooked it becomes harder and more brittle making it more likely to splinter, leaving sharp bony edges which could cause severe damage to your dogs’ digestive tract, even perforating in worst case scenarios. Cooked bones are also much more likely to cause slab fractures of teeth, and once I saw a dog that had got half a cooked bone wedged down over his lower teeth, but he couldn’t break it to get it off so was stuck with his mouth open! Cooked bone is also very indigestible, so even if your dog does manage to chew up the bone, the chances of an intestinal obstruction are high as balls of solid bony fragments can form, building up with each gut contraction to form an immovable mass. Something to bear in mind with bones, especially in the Summer, is that if your dog doesn’t finish the bone and leaves it out in the garden then it will become harder and more brittle, especially if it bakes in the sun. Your dog will then go back for another chew only to be encountering an effectively ‘cooked’ bone. So always make sure you clear up any leftover bones after your dog.
As for the ‘meaty’ bit that is also very important. If there is meat on the bone then there is additional material going into the guts with the bone, as it would happen in the wild if dogs were feeding off a carcass. The meaty bit is also often what your dog will eat first, and getting this away from the bone involves more of the teeth, especially the incisors, used for nibbling closely against the bones to extract connective tissue and muscle meat. This helps ensure dental health is optimal.
In terms of choosing bones there are a couple of key points I always emphasise. Firstly you should always feed more of the non-weight-bearing bones than the weight-bearing bones – these include ribs, spine, neck, etc. This is because the weight-bearing bones have to bear weight, meaning they are naturally harder, and so potentially more brittle than the other bones. This is particularly important as the size of the prey species increases – a chicken leg has to bear much less weight than a bulls leg! The most common raw bone that has been fed prior to a slab fracture seems to be a weight-bearing beef bone, often with little meat on it. Secondly, unless you are raw feeding a very small dog or a cat, then be very careful with chicken wings. These are like small hinges, which if swallowed whole with the hinge down, have the potential to open up in the oesophagus and cause a blockage and/or damage. I’m not saying they are an inappropriate bone to feed for all dogs – my Collie will neatly hold one in his paws and crunch it up before swallowing; my parents Staffie has been known to swallow one whole and then vomit it straight back up on the nice rug in the hallway! Perfect examples of dogs that would be appropriate and inappropriate to feed them to!!
With chicken wings in mind I will also say this: If you haven’t given your dog a certain type of bone before, then ALWAYS SUPERVISE them! This way you can learn what type of bone eater your dog is, and this can help you to select appropriate bones for them in the future. I’ve generally found that dogs fed bones from a very young age tend to be much more sensible with their food than dogs introduced to them at a later stage, particularly greedy dogs! Another reason to supervise is if you have more than one dog. Bones are a fantastic resource from a dogs perspective, so can result in resource guarding, particularly from other dogs, but possibly even from you. If you have multiple dogs it may be necessary to separate feeding partners, or even feed bones to different dogs on different days to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Another key point when it comes to selection of raw meaty bones is the size of the bone. For example it would be inappropriate to feed a Chihuahua a beef knuckle bone, or a Great Dane a chicken wing (unless attached to more of the carcass). I always think that a nice way of trying to decide if the bone is appropriate or not is to ask this question: “If my dog was in the wild, could a single dog, or a pack of these dogs, bring down one of these animals as prey?” No matter how hard they tried, I can’t see a pack of Chihuahuas bringing down a cow! The other easy thing to do is to look at the size of your dogs’ mouth, and the size of the bone. If they can swallow it whole (and they’re not a delicate chewer) then it is best to avoid it, just in case. This is erring on the safe side - I have seen dogs that have swallowed beef or lamb ribs whole with no ill effects, it just isn’t recommended! The longer your dog has been eating bones (I like to think of the long term raw dogs as ‘experienced bone eaters’), the more variety of bones they can eat and the easier they will find it to digest bones. On the topic of bone size, you must also remember that a large bone will decrease in size as your dog is munching, so you may need to remove the last bit of bone from them if they are prone to swallowing this.
If you are new to raw then raw meaty bones can seem a bit daunting. My advice is to avoid large whole bones for at least the first month, to allow your dogs’ digestive system the chance to adjust to the raw diet. Raw meaty bones you could feed quite early on would be chicken carcasses. These are fantastic 1st bones, consisting of the ribcage and/or the back of the chicken, because they are mostly cartilage and meat – chickens are generally killed quite young for meat so a lot of their bones are quite cartilaginous and so softer than most. Other bones to feed after the 1st month to get your dog used to chewing bones are poultry necks, and lamb ribs. Weight-bearing bones and beef bones should only be added once you know what your dog is like with bones, and when they have been raw fed for a bit longer. Pork bones are not an issue for most dogs, but it seems that about 20% of dogs vomit when fed Pork and no-one really seems to know why! The other thing to remember with Pork is to always buy British, because there are parasites found in pork from other countries that can be dangerous to dogs if fed raw.
Just quickly I want to reassure pet owners that the ‘horror stories’ you hear about chicken bones splintering relate to cooked chicken bones. Many owners still produce a shocked and appalled facial expression at the mention of feeding raw chicken bones. To these owners I always ask: “When a fox steals a chicken from someone’s flock, do they go and light a fire to cook and eat it? Or do they just eat it as is? And if raw chicken bones are so dangerous, why aren’t all the foxes dead?!” So rest assured, raw chicken bones are some of the best raw meaty bones to feed your pet.
A common excuse I hear from owners for why they don’t feed raw is: “I don’t want my dog smearing a raw meaty bone around my house!” I couldn’t agree more!!! I am a vegetarian and frankly the idea of having raw meaty bones loose around my house is beyond grim. My dogs know that bone time always occurs outside – they are handed the bone at the back door and off they trot into the garden to commence feasting. If you haven’t got a garden, it is a bit trickier, but if it doesn’t disgust you then the other option would be to let them eat their bone in a room with an easy to clean floor (plastic or tiles), so you can mop the floor with disinfectant as soon as they’re done eating. If feeding raw meaty bones is still a big no-no then please ensure you give your pet something to chew in their place. Dried fish or strips of dried fish skin are great, as are large pieces of raw fibrous veg (think whole carrots, broccoli stalks, cabbage or cauliflower cores, etc).
As for frequency of feeding bones, this I will leave up to you on the most part! I would say if you feed ground bone then feeding a raw meaty bone at least monthly is best for their dental (and mental!) health. Raw poultry bones could be fed daily as these are so meaty they digest very quickly. Large weight-bearing bones should not be fed more often than once a week, unless you are feeding the prey model diet and they are very meaty. If your dog has plaque building up on their canines then I would feed a lamb neck or piece of spine at least once a fortnight. If you want to gross out friends or relatives then I would recommend half a sheep skull – and then you can watch the magpies or crows run off with the lower jaw and teeth!! The other way to tell how frequently your dog should have a bone is by keeping an eye on their poos – if they are producing very hard, white, crumbly poos then it may be better to decrease frequency. If you are making your own raw, with mince or meaty chunks instead of ground bone, then raw meaty bones should be fed at least 3 times a week.
There are no particular bones that I would say you should never feed, as long as they are raw and meaty. After that it all comes down to you and your individual dogs.
If you are feeding raw food to cats then the best bones to go for are chicken wings and poultry necks. The occasional large cat can manage a chicken thigh or turkey wing, but for the most part only experienced bone eaters will go for these. If you are introducing your cat to bones for the 1st time then it’s worth cutting up chicken wing tips into bite size pieces. You can then gradually increase the size of these pieces as your cat gets used to chewing, until you are feeding whole wings, or at least whole wing tips.
As with all raw feeding, make sure hygiene around the handling of raw meaty bones is high on the agenda. Also be sensible if your pet has been unwell. If they have had an upset stomach for whatever reason then it is best to avoid raw meaty bones until their gut has had time to heal (tripe is great at helping resettle guts after an upset). Equally if they are diagnosed with a major medical condition then it is best to consult with a raw feeding vet if you are uncertain as to whether it is still advisable to feed bones. Most importantly if your pet has to have gut surgery for any reason then take advise from a raw feeding vet as to when it would be sensible to re-introduce raw meaty bones post-operatively. The same goes for dental extractions, although dogs seem to self-regulate more in this respect.
So to conclude I will say this: For my dogs’ mental and dental health I will always feed them raw meaty bones on a regular basis, likewise for my cats. I will always recommend to the majority of clients that they do the same, alongside advice on the best bones for their individual dogs – so always feel free to contact a raw feeding vet or raw food company for advice on appropriate bones for your pet. If you are uncertain still if it is worth the ‘risk’ then think about asking one of the raw food companies how many bones they sell in a month, or ask an experienced raw feeder how many bones they have fed their dogs in their lifetime, or a raw feeding vet how many raw fed bone-eating dogs they have seen? Then ask how many of these dogs have experienced issues relating to these bones? As with the eating of any food, or the stepping outside of your house, or even the staying inside of your house, there is always going to be a small risk. Do you let the minor risks in your life stop you from being healthy and happy? Will you allow the minor risks in your pets’ life stop them from being healthy and happy?