How to Use Bones in a Dog's Raw Food Diet

By PetMD Editorial on May 25, 2016

By Aly Semigran

For pet owners feeding their dog a raw food diet, the inclusion of bones can provide optimal nutrition, as well as added benefits such as dental care and mental stimulation.

As Dr. Karen Becker, DVM, explains, “You add bone as a part of a balanced diet, instead of using a synthetically produced calcium supplement.”

When it comes to using bones in a raw food diet, however, there are guidelines to follow to ensure safety and balanced nutrition.

What Kind of Bones Can Be Used in a Raw Food Diet?

There are two types of bones for dogs on a raw food diet—nutritional bones and recreational bones. Both types provide different benefits for your pet.

A nutritional raw bone is the kind that a dog can eat as a major source of calcium and phosphorus and should be ground up rather than fed whole. Typically, these are chicken bones (backs, necks, or wings) because, as Becker notes, they are softer and more hollow than other bones. If pet owners are preparing homemade raw food diets for their dogs, lamb bones or beef bones are often too difficult to grind.

A recreational raw, meaty bone is one that a dog chews on for oral benefits, as well as entertainment and playing into their natural instincts. These bones should be sized appropriately for your specific dog to avoid a choking hazard. 

How Should Bones Be Used in a Raw Food Diet?

Nutritional raw bones should be ground up. By putting the bones through a meat grinder, it eliminates the risk for choking hazards, broken teeth, as well as any GI tract and digestive issues that may arise from sharp edges. “In commercially available raw food diets, they grind it down to bone meal so there’s absolutely no way [dogs] could choke on them,” Becker points out.

To ensure that dogs get the proper calcium/phosphorus ratio, pet parents should follow a recipe from a trusted veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist.

If the bones are used for recreational value or oral care, size matters. Becker’s rule of thumb? Pick a bone that is the size of your dog’s head. Smaller dogs get smaller bones, and bigger dogs get bigger bones, but dogs should always be monitored while they are chewing on bones.

Dr. Michele Yasson, DVM, suggests that dogs be eased into having raw, meaty bones in their diet. “If they are new to bones, I often recommend starting with marrow bones that are frozen and allowing anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes of chew time for the first few times so that they can have some time to get acclimated to the fat content,” she says. “You can then allow the main meal right after [the chewing].”

What Are the Benefits of Using Bones in a Raw Food Diet?

As previously stated, the biggest benefit of including bones in a raw food diet is finding the proper ratio of calcium and phosphorus, which can be found in various, trusted recipes.

Robert Mueller, vice president of BARF World (BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), notes that bones provide benefits that are similar to those found in fiber.

This fiber-like aspect can help with issues like scooting, because when anal sacs fill up, it causes the dog to scoot on carpets. “Bones are very essential because the condition of the stool will harden, which helps to cleanse the anal sacs,” he says.

When it comes to the benefits of recreational bones, chewing them promotes stronger teeth. Raw, meaty bones will scrape at the teeth and help keep them clean, Yasson says.

“Chewing, in general, creates a lot of saliva and if it’s healthy saliva, it will help to wash the teeth and keep the oral environment normalized,” she adds.

Chewing bones orally can also provide mental benefits for dogs, who simply enjoy the process of gnawing and can use the activity to fill empty time during the day.

How Often Can Bones Be Used In a Raw Food Diet?

Yasson suggests that bones be provided one or two times a week for recreational use. For nutritional value, ground up bones or bone meal can be included in every meal, as long as the ratios of calcium to phosphorus are monitored and measured accurately. Consult a veterinarian to ensure the proper balance.

What Are the Risks of Using Bones in a Raw Food Diet?

Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM, the American Kennel Club’s Chief Veterinary Officer, points out that there are some risks when it comes to using bones in a raw food diet. “Feeding raw bones exclusively is not recommended due to lack of a balanced diet, such as low thiamine,” he says.

When it comes to recreational and/or nutritional bones, proper hygiene is a major factor to consider. “If raw bones are left out for more than four hours, the issue of bacterial contamination has to be considered,” Klein says. In addition, it’s always best to know the source of your bones, so you should seek out a locally sourced butcher where the origins can be traced. Including raw meat or bones in a dog’s diet increases the chances that people and pets could be exposed to pathogenic bacteria.

For recreational bones, pet owners should never give cooked bones to a dog in order to avoid tooth fractures and other harmful problems. “[Cooked bones] become brittle and can cause potential perforations and other serious complications,” Klein adds.

Dr. Cornelia Wagner, CVA, adds that raw bones aren’t necessarily a good choice for every dog. “For some pets, especially older ones, it could be too hard to digest and a balanced home-cooked diet can be a better alternative.” Cooking is the best way to eliminate bacteria from food that can cause disease and is recommended if anyone in the house (animal or human) has a compromised immune system.

Wagner also warns that too many bones in a raw food diet could cause constipation or make painful stools that are difficult to pass. Excessive bone feeding, she points out, “can cause hypercalcemia (increased calcium levels in the blood) which can cause organ damage.”

Before making any dietary changes for your dog, consult with your veterinarian to ensure it’s the best decision for your pet. 

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