No bones about it! The FDA Calls Bones for Dogs a Definite 'No-no'

Patty Khuly, DVM
Written by:
Published: April 27, 2010
No bones about it! The FDA Calls Bones for Dogs a Definite 'No-no'

Last week, while we were talking about things as lofty as the Supreme Court, and as bottom-feeding as Kim Kardashian, the FDA quietly put out an alert about feeding bones to dogs. As in, it’s a big no-no.

Here’s what they had to say:

10 Reasons Why It’s a Bad Idea to Give Your Dog a Bone:

1. Broken teeth. This may call for expensive veterinary dentistry.

2. Mouth or tongue injuries. These can be very bloody and messy and may require a trip to see your veterinarian.

3. Bone gets looped around your dog’s lower jaw. This can be frightening or painful for your dog and potentially costly to you, as it usually means a trip to see your veterinarian.

4. Bone gets stuck in esophagus, the tube that food travels through to reach the stomach. Your dog may gag, trying to bring the bone back up, and will need to see your veterinarian.

5. Bone gets stuck in windpipe. This may happen if your dog accidentally inhales a small enough piece of bone. This is an emergency because your dog will have trouble breathing. Get your pet to your veterinarian immediately!

6. Bone gets stuck in stomach. It went down just fine, but the bone may be too big to pass out of the stomach and into the intestines. Depending on the bone’s size, your dog may need surgery or upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, a procedure in which your veterinarian uses a long tube with a built-in camera and grabbing tools to try to remove the stuck bone from the stomach.

7. Bone gets stuck in intestines and causes a blockage. It may be time for surgery.

8. Constipation due to bone fragments. Your dog may have a hard time passing the bone fragments because they’re very sharp and they scrape the inside of the large intestine or rectum as they move along. This causes severe pain and may require a visit to your veterinarian.

9. Severe bleeding from the rectum. This is very messy and can be dangerous. It’s time for a trip to see your veterinarian.

10. Peritonitis. This nasty, difficult-to-treat bacterial infection of the abdomen is caused when bone fragments poke holes in your dog’s stomach or intestines. Your dog needs an emergency visit to your veterinarian because peritonitis can kill your dog.

Scary, indeed. I’ve seen plenty of these disasters, too. Thing is, I don’t completely agree that bones are always to be so feared. While cooked bones are on my no-no list too (because they shatter and splinter), I stop short of the dogmatic, "no bones about it" approach espoused by the FDA.

That’s because raw, meaty bones offer plenty of benefits, and the risks can easily be mitigated with common sense tactics. Although some risks remain, the dental and behavioral benefits of ripping and chewing meat off bones can be well worth it in many cases — though certainly not all.

Some of you may know that I’ve undergone something of a conversion on the subject of raw over the past few years. It’s not that I feed the BARF-style diet you may have heard about — I still feed my dogs a commercial prescription diet (for a few reasons, including cost, which I’ll not go into here), along with home cooked add-ins — but I no longer fear the raw meaty bones the BARF diet and others like it employ.

Since opening my mind to the case for raw meaty bones, I’ve taken to offering my dogs raw chicken necks and backs, lamb shanks, and the occasional femoral head. Here’s how I approach it:

1. I source raw, meaty bones from high quality butchers. In my case, from the local farmer’s market or Whole Foods — places I trust to stock the super-fresh, humanely raised and slaughtered meats I prefer.

2. I mostly stick to chicken necks and backs because the bones are soft and highly digestible.

3. When I do feed the bigger bones, I stick to weight-bearing bones, leaving ribs and others alone just in case they’re small enough to get swallowed whole.

4. I leave lots of meat hanging off the bigger bones. But this only works if I’m the one deboning the cut, since bones offered at the butcher’s are almost always devoid of any meat.

(Alternatively, you might enjoin your butcher to respect the dog’s portion by generously avoiding the bone. Sure, they may look at you as if you don’t really understand the price you’re paying for your fancy meat, but it’s worth it just to see their almost universal expression of horror.)

5. On the bigger bones, I always stay around to watch and listen to my dogs: Not only is it entertaining to observe them enjoying themselves, but if I’m there I can be vigilant for the first sounds of teeth scraping bone — a sure sign that the bone is “killed.”

At that point I take it away to spare their teeth, offering a crunchy carrot or apple slice in its place to ease the inevitable separation anxiety. ("Where did my fabulous bone go?")

6. Some pets are "gulpers." Dogs that swallow without chewing are not good candidates for any kind of bones, rawhides … or most toys, either.

7. I mostly feed raw cuts out of doors, just as nature intended: Maybe it’s just me, but though I’m not a clean freak, I can’t abide cartilagenous goo, or slippery, stray fat on my floors.

8. If my dogs aren’t used to a certain meat, I offer only a small portion (half a neck?) to see how it sits with them. If the stool is a bit soft, I can be pretty sure to avoid feeding this kind of food. Common sense, right?

Those are my rules, anyway. And neither I nor others I know who routinely follow these rules have yet to end up at the ER vet with the kind of bony disasters the FDA would have you fear. But then, it takes plenty of dedication to feed bones safely. And, yes, it’s important to recognize that nothing in life is risk-free.

But do we really need an alert from the FDA on bone-feeding? Hmmm… Given the kind of bony disasters I’ve seen in the past, I’ll concede that we probably do. Still, I would have liked a line in there somewhere with a nod to exceptions.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Art of the day: "Can't fool me with rubber bones" by The Giant Vermin

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