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Is it OK to give a dog a bone?

Is it OK to give a dog a bone?

Credit: Jim Wilson

Kody enjoying his "dinosaur bone."

by Cary Waterhouse DVM

Posted on March 7, 2012 at 10:49 AM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 7 at 11:29 AM

The question usually arises – or if it is not asked, simply stated in my exam room: “Is it OK to give my dog bones?” 

It’s a question I both love and hate answering – it can get some pretty heated discussion going.  It’s not as simple as “yes”, or “no,” although from the explanation below, most should be able to figure out my opinion on this.
First – the (perceived) benefits:
1)      Chewing bones can be good for the teeth – the chewing action can scrape away tartar, and prevent periodontal disease. 
2)      Bones and cartilage (raw) can provide some nutrients that are beneficial – like calcium, glucosamine, and chondroitin.  
3)      Chewing bones gives bored dogs something to do.
4)      Chewing bones makes a dog happy (as well as their human counterparts). 
And on the ‘anti-bone’ side, we could argue:
1)      Aggressive bone chewing is bad for the teeth – wearing them down and causing painful fractures.
2)      Bones can get stuck in the mouth (lodged), a very painful and distressing situation.
3)      Fragments of bone can puncture or get stuck in the esophagus, stomach, or intestines.
4)      Bone fragments that make it into the large intestine can cause constipation
5)      The meat and fat often attached to raw bones can harbor serious pathogens and cause gastrointestinal upset or pancreatitis (which can be serious enough to warrant 3-4 days in the hospital)
Good arguments on either side – it’s easy to see why this is such a point of debate.  As a health care professional however, I feel the need to choose the side that is the least harmful – and see no real reason for most dogs to chew bones.  I get to see first (or second)-hand aftermath of bones on dogs every week – usually broken teeth and stomach/intestinal upset.  Some are minor inconveniences (a little diarrhea or maybe some vomiting), while others are pretty serious (bloody diarrhea, intestinal surgery, days in the emergency hospital on IV and antibiotics). 
But what about all the good things associated with bones?  All of them can be achieved in a ‘non-bone’ way.  There are more chew toys and treats on the market than you can, well, shake a bone at – and many will clean the teeth as effectively (if not more so) as a bone – look for the seal of the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) on the label (go to for more information). 
But it never fails... In spite of my recommendation, I am reminded that MANY dogs are given bones, and MANY dogs do quite well – because, really, I DO only keep mental note of the dogs that come in needing medical attention.  My ‘gut’ response in this situation is to say “yeah, and my grandfather smoked 3 packs a day, but did not get lung cancer until he was 91.” 

Many of the problems I see are in middle age to older dogs – it may not happen with the first, 10th, or thousandth bone – but it COULD happen with the next one. It’s my duty to educate – not dictate, so I will continue to do my best pointing out both sides of the issue, providing my personal opinion, and letting people decide based on that information. All too often, only one side of the story is presented – and really, who wants to argue with a happy dog?