Should I feed bones to my dog?

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“Of course you need to feed bones to your dog,” says Steve, who works at my favorite pet-supply store. He seems to think I’m crazy for even asking the question. “I thought everyone knew that. Bones are crucial for your dog’s health.”

“Absolutely not!” says my wife’s Aunt Evelyn when the subject comes up at our annual family pot-luck. She’s has been breeding Standard Poodles since Ronald Reagan was President and knows for a fact that bone fragments are a choking hazard, not to mention the fact that dogs who swallow larger chunks of bone have to have painful, costly operations to remove them.

Hm, interesting. Later, I tell Steve about Evelyn’s advice. “She’s talking about bones that have been cooked. Raw bones are perfectly safe. I’ve been feeding them to my dogs for years,” he states.

Via e-mail, Evelyn says “Cooked, raw, it makes no difference. They can kill your dog. And by the way, tell your friend Steve that he’s an idiot.”

Are they nutritious? Are they deadly? I’m so confused! To settle the argument, I consult my veterinarian. The answers, I find, are far from black-and-white.

Yes, she explains, dogs do seem to get nutritional benefits from a diet that includes raw bones, especially compared with a diet of nothing but cheap, corn-based dog food.(Most of the dog food on the shelves at your local grocery store falls into this category.) That’s because domestic dogs, like their wild ancestors, are primarily carnivores. Though they can digest a variety of foods, their bodies were never designed to run on a diet of vegetables like corn.

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On the other hand, my vet points out, the nutrition dogs get from bones does not come from the bone itself. It only comes from the meat, cartilage, fat and connective tissue that happens to be along for the ride. The scant amount of protein in the solid parts of the bone mainly exists in the form of collagen, which dogs are unable to digest.

But if you’re feeding your pet a quality, meat-based dog food (look for meat, such as chicken or lamb, as the first item in the ingredient list), they’ll get all the nutrition they need without having to scrounge for it by gnawing on bones.

Are there other benefits from chewing on bones? Well, yes. For wild dogs, the act of chomping on some poor animal’s femur helps to scrape plaque and tartar from the teeth—this is absolutely necessary when it comes to a long, healthy life. But many domestic dogs have their teeth professionally cleaned, and experts recommend that you brush their teeth on a regular basis to prevent the plaque that can lead to tartar build-up.

Next, I ask if bones are dangerous for dogs. My vet tells me that they can be. “Gnawing on bones can crack of the tips of the 4th premolars,” she notes. It’s something she sees fairly often in her practice. These cracks can lead to root infections and abscesses that require dental treatment.

Plus, dogs who ingest chips of bone occasionally experience severe constipation. The chips can also become wedged between teeth or stuck in the dog’s throat or intestinal tract, making for a very painful situation which may need medical treatment. The good news is that, if your dog has a Pets Best policy in force, the treatments will be covered, but that doesn’t mean the process will be enjoyable for your pet.

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So what’s the answer? Are bones a nutritious necessity or a deadly menace? I guess what I discovered is that bones can be part of a healthy diet, but aren’t necessary for my dog’s health. And while they might be mildly dangerous, they aren’t deadly.

This is a lot to chew on, but ultimately the choice is up to you. Here at my house, we’ll keep feeding our dog a high-quality, meat-based diet. When he wants something to gnaw on, we’ll just throw him a rawhide bone. It’s safer, and he’ll be just as healthy. No bones about it.

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