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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Treats or By-Products?

March 15, 2013 / (5) comments

I had a funny experience with my six year old daughter at a pet supply store a couple of months ago. We were looking for a “chewie” for our dog. He has severe inflammatory bowel disease so is on a strict, limited antigen diet. All the usual treats are off limits, but he still likes to chew, so we were combing the shelves for something appropriate. After a few minutes, my daughter held up a bully stick and asked, “How about this?”

Now she has an age appropriate grasp of the birds and the bees, but I didn’t think the pet store was the place to go into the details of what, exactly, a bully stick is. I managed to dodge the question by simply saying it was made from cattle and therefore wouldn’t work for our dog.

Do you know what bully sticks are? If you don’t, you are in good company. A study published in the January 2013 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal (CVJ) revealed that 44 percent of dog owners could not correctly identify their source and neither could 38 percent of veterinarians. The answer … dried, uncooked bull or steer penises.

Even if my dog could eat a bully stick, based on the findings of the CVJ paper I wouldn’t give him one. Tests showed that these products contain between 9 and 22 calories per inch. According to an article on LiveScience, the researchers “found that the treats contained 9 to 22 calories per inch. That means the average 6-inch bully stick potentially represents 9 percent of the recommended daily calorie count for a larger 50-pound (22-kilogram) dog and 30 percent of the requirements for a smaller 10-pound (4.5-kg) dog — a significant source of calories pet owners might not be aware of.”

I recommend to my clients that calories from treats comprise only about 10 percent of a dog’s caloric intake per day; the rest should come from a nutritionally complete diet made from high quality ingredients. While a single 6-inch bully stick might be okay calorie-wise for a large dog, these treats could quickly lead to obesity in smaller individuals.

The study revealed another potentially serious problem with bully sticks. Many were contaminated with potentially nasty bacteria including Clostridium difficile, methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA), and Escherichia coli. Ingesting these bacteria could cause illness in dogs, and just as importantly handling the products could make people sick. I hope I had my daughter wash her hands after we left the pet store!

Admittedly, this study was a small one, examining only 26 bully sticks purchased in the United States and Canada, but the findings are still worrisome. Bully sticks (as well as the equally popular pig’s ears and cow’s hooves) are by-products of the slaughter industry. Owners and veterinarians often disparage the inclusion of by-products in commercially prepared foods. Why then are we feeding them to our pets as treats?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Supie Davis / via Shutterstock

Comments  5

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  • EEEuuuu
    03/15/2013 10:05am

    I've learned something today although I'm not too sure I'm glad. :-)

    For someone who is watching Fido's calories, all consumable treats should be considered in the calorie count. Perhaps a chewable, non-consumable toy would be more appropriate.

  • Our Experience
    03/15/2013 05:09pm

    We took in a sixty pound dog and reduced his weight by about 15-20 pounds to a healthy weight for his size, so were very watchful of his weight for the time we had him. After reviewing the good vs the bad around the bully stick issue we both agreed that they were the least offensive option for this dog, and never had a problem with weight gain. This may be due to the energy expended in chewing the stick. At least that was our assumption. Other types of chews didn't offer him the same entertainment/health benefits, and were much higher risk of splintering, or causing other health and safety problems.

    When you have a dog that is going to be outdoors getting exercise at any point in time, you can be sure he/she is going to encounter objects on the ground that are covered in salmonella and other diseases. Just with the song bird population you will run across corpses based upon the fact that they only live about five years, so at least 20% of them will be dropping off their perches each year, and in our area the chanses are that bird died of salmonella. Anyone who doesn't expect a dog to be bringing in salmonella off their feet, if nothing else, is not thinking this through very well. We all know cases of dogs going after feline feces when the mood strikes because dogs are dogs.

    And yes, some of us are aware, when purchasing the bully sticks, where they originated, but the dog's health is important, too, so I am afraid I can't agree with the concept that there is anything wrong with their use.

  • 03/15/2013 05:15pm


  • Safe Treats
    03/15/2013 05:12pm

    I actually got bully sticks in the house right now, but now I`m worried. Not so much about what it is (basically muscle tissue, which is certainly better than raw hide from China), but about the bacteria on it. Yikes.I really thought they at least cooked the things.The question now is; when you have a dog that likes to chew, and he does not like Nyla Bones (which I read are also problematic), what do I give him?

  • Bully Sticks
    03/16/2013 02:38am

    I didn't know what a bully stick was until Cesar Milan brought it up in a puppy book. Before people get too uptight about this product, I would observe that the bully stick represents about 2 inches worth of calories for my Rotty pup. His stools are fine, formed and don't smell any worse than before. His chewing is much more acceptable and he seems more comfortable with his teeth.
    On the other hand my fully grown (actually 13 year-old) pit female can consume a six inch stick in a few minutes. Given the price if these things, she is abstaining for my good as well as hers. This is my seventh Rotty (I too, am a senior) and I'm quite sure this pup will be off the sticks before he realizes any significant caloric increase.
    Come on folks- this is a muscle- and that is exactly what most meat is. In some ways, a "by-product" is in the eye of the beholder.
    I can't say anything about bacteria and other icky stuff on this product...but my dog will tell me if there is anything problematic if he ingests it. The stick has made his teeth and gums a lot more bearable though.