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Can dogs eat bones? A vet answers...

Can dogs eat bones
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you enter a room of dog lovers and ask the question “can dogs eat bones?” you are likely to receive a wide variety of responses. While chewing on bones can offer certain benefits, there are also risks that must be considered. 

Some dog owners feel that the benefits of chewing bones are worth the risk, while other owners prefer to be more cautious. Even the best dog chew toys aren’t entirely risk-free, so performing a careful risk-benefit analysis can help you determine the best chew toy for your dog.

Do dogs need to chew on bones or other items?

Appropriate chew toys offer a number of benefits for dogs. Chewing is a natural canine behavior, which means that most dogs are determined to find something to chew. Chewing alleviates boredom and also provides an outlet for any stress or anxiety that your dog may be experiencing. Offering an appropriate chew toy is certainly a better option than allowing your dog to chew on your furniture or other items in your home.

Chewing can also have medical benefits for dogs. The best dental chews for dogs can help to scrape away plaque and bacteria from your dog’s teeth as they chew, slowing the formation of tartar and the development of dental disease. Chewing also increases the production of saliva, which helps to wash away bacteria and food debris from your dog’s mouth.

While there’s certainly more to canine dental health than simply chewing on bones and treats, allowing your dog access to appropriate chew toys and long-lasting dog chews can help maintain appropriate dental health.

Are bones a safe chew toy for dogs?

While you may hear stories of dogs who have safely chewed bones for years, most veterinarians have seen at least one case of serious illness or injury caused by chewing bones. Marrow bones, for example, are notorious for becoming stuck on the lower jaw of dogs, requiring sedation or even general anesthesia for removal. Other bones may damage the mouth or become lodged within the gastrointestinal tract, presenting risks to dogs and possibly requiring aggressive treatment.

There are risks associated with both cooked and raw bones; while the risks may differ, neither is entirely risk-free. Due to the various risks associated with chewing bones, many veterinarians recommend that pet owners consider alternative chew toys for their dogs.

Can dogs digest bones?

A dog’s ability to digest bones or bone fragments varies considerably, based on a number of factors. The size of the bone, type of bone, size of your dog, and the efficacy of your dog’s chewing all play a role in whether a bone can be digested. 

Chicken bones, for example, are very thin and most of the bones are filled with large air sacs. Because of these anatomical features, chicken bones are often easily chewed. Once swallowed, some or all of the small bone fragments may be broken down by the dog’s stomach acid. Although this might sound like a good thing, it’s actually risky. These small splinters can become embedded in the walls of the intestine or even penetrate the intestinal walls, allowing the intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen. 

In contrast, a thick, heavy pork or beef bone may be far more challenging for your dog to chew into small pieces or digest. This reduces the risk of bone splinters embedding in your dog’s intestines, but it also increases the risk of intestinal obstruction that may occur if a large piece of bone becomes lodged in the intestines.

Can a bone kill a dog?

Unfortunately, ingesting animal bones can be fatal for some dogs. Bones that become lodged in your dog’s esophagus or intestine can lead to an intestinal obstruction. When this occurs, food can no longer move past the obstruction, leading to a variety of gastrointestinal issues. Although most intestinal obstructions can be treated effectively with surgery, if they are diagnosed early, an intestinal obstruction that goes undiagnosed or untreated can be fatal. 

In addition to the risk of obstruction, pieces of splintered bone can penetrate the wall of the stomach or intestines, allowing intestinal contents to seep into the abdomen. This is most common with chicken bones, which often splinter into small fragments during chewing and digestion. Bone fragments that penetrate the intestinal walls can cause a condition known as peritonitis, which may prove fatal even with aggressive treatment. 

While fatal intestinal obstructions and peritonitis caused by bones are relatively uncommon, this is a risk that can easily be eliminated by offering your dog alternative chew toys. 

Health risks associated with cooked bones

Cooked bones, such as the leftovers from your family’s steak dinner, are especially dangerous for dogs. When bones are cooked, they can become brittle and easily splinter into sharp fragments. This splintering is associated with unique health risks, in addition to the other risks that are present any time a dog chews a bone.

Possible risks associated with chewing cooked bones include:

  • Mouth injuries, caused by sharp bone splinters or fragments     
  • Damage to the intestines, caused by bone splinters of fragments
  • Obstruction, caused by a bone or fragment becoming lodged in the intestines   
  • Pancreatitis, which is often caused by the ingestion of rich or fatty food

Processed bones, which are available in many pet stores, pose similar risks. These bones are also cooked to kill bacteria, and this can make them brittle. Additionally, although the bones are cooked, contamination with food-borne bacteria (such as E. coli and Salmonella) has been reported and can cause illness in dogs.

If your dog ingests a cooked or processed bone, you should monitor your dog closely for vomiting, diarrhea, or any other signs of illness. Contact your veterinarian if your dog begins to appear unwell or if you have any questions or concerns.

Raw bones are not necessarily a safer option

Some people promote the feeding of raw bones as a healthier alternative to cooked bones. While it is true that raw bones are less likely to splinter, they also are not without risk.

Risks associated with chewing raw bones include:

  • Tooth fractures, caused by chewing on hard bones      
  • Other oral injuries, such as bones becoming lodged across the roof of the mouth or wrapped around the lower jaw (in the case of marrow bones)
  • Airway obstruction, caused by a bone sliding into your dog’s trachea
  • Intestinal obstruction, caused by a swallowed bone becoming lodged in your dog’s intestines
  • Food-borne infection, caused by E. coli, Salmonella, or other food-borne bacteria

In reality, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ bone for dogs to chew.

Can dogs eat bones

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lower-risk alternatives to bones

Dogs have a biological need to chew. It’s up to us, as responsible pet owners, to find them a safe outlet for those chewing desires. When searching for a chew toy, there are several features that you should consider, including both the hardness and size of the chew toy.

A good chew toy should be relatively soft to minimize the risk of tooth damage. Nylon or rubber toys are safer than chew toys that are made of hard plastic. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable thumping the toy against your kneecap, it’s probably too hard for your dog’s teeth.

Make sure that the toy is large enough that your dog cannot swallow it and sturdy enough not to fragment into small pieces that can be swallowed. Choosing an appropriately sized toy will minimize the risk of airway and intestinal obstruction, which can occur if your dog swallows a toy or a piece of a toy.

There are several different options that veterinarians commonly recommend as chew toys. Kong® toys are a popular option; they can be filled with food or treats, providing lots of mental stimulation for dogs. Nylabones® and other soft rubber chew toys are an excellent choice.

Even rawhides can be an appropriate chew toy, as long as you supervise your dog carefully and take the rawhide away if it becomes small enough to be swallowed. A rawhide chew can obstruct the esophagus if it is swallowed and does not safely pass to the acidic environment of the stomach.

To help prevent dental disease, consider looking for chew toys approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. While the VOHC seal is not meant to be interpreted as a guarantee of safety, any product that bears this seal has been proven to be effective at decreasing the presence of dental plaque and tartar. You will still need to evaluate the safety of these products and supervise your dog appropriately, but at least you can be assured that these products will offer dental benefits for your dog.

The goal: maximize benefits while reducing risk

As you can see, the question “can dogs eat bones?” does not have a simple answer. Yes, dogs can technically eat bones, and many do so with minimal problems. The reality, however, is that eating bones presents significant risks to a dog and these risks can be reduced with some consideration. 

The use of appropriate chew toys can provide many of the same benefits as bones, with a lower risk to your dog’s overall health.

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.