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Bully Sticks: Healthy Dog Treats or Dangerous Byproducts?

Barbara Fitzgerald is an AKC Breeder of Merit and author of the column "Conversations with Champions" for the BCSA magazine, "Borderlines."

Long-lasting natural treat alternatives!

Long-lasting natural treat alternatives!

Bully Sticks: Trick or Treat?

Health-conscious pet owners want to give nature-made treats to their dogs. Not surprisingly, animal by-products have become a booming business on the treat aisle of specialty pet stores and pet supermarkets.

The Bully Stick, one of the more expensive natural treats, is touted as a long-lasting, delicious, and complete nutritious dog snack. As one of the more popular unprocessed treats, it does not stain carpets and amply satisfies the dog's need to chew.

Earlier this year, a study at Tufts University revealed that Bully Sticks are actually very high in calories and may contain harmful bacteria that could be dangerous not only to our pets but to the humans handling the products as well.

Braided Bully Stick include 3 sticks wound together.

Braided Bully Stick include 3 sticks wound together.

What Is a Bully Stick and What's in It?

The study had another interesting finding: many pet owners had no idea what the bully sticks were actually made from. Bully sticks are made from beef pizzle, which is a nice way of saying a bull’s male organ. They are dried either in ovens or sunbaked and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from three-foot-long sticks to braided rings and pretzels.

The braided pizzle is the longest-lasting and, therefore, most expensive of the bully stick varieties on the market. The majority of bully sticks available in the US come from cattle produced in the United States and South America. However, China and India are getting into the game; the Indians naturally use water buffalo pizzle as opposed to beef pizzle.

The Tufts study tested samples from 26 bully sticks manufacturers and found that a small number (approximately 4%) of them were contaminated with bacteria including Escherichia coli and Clostridium difficile, while another tested positive for staphylococcus aureus, a staph bacterium resistant to some antibiotics (MRSA).

Not surprisingly, bully sticks have already come under several recalls in the last few years having been cited for potential salmonellae contamination. In addition to the contamination concerns, the researchers found that a six-inch bully stick contains 88 calories. The braided 6-inch stick contains nearly 360 calories. Depending on the size of your dog, his level of exercise, and his chewing capacity, bully sticks can really pack on the pounds.

Understand How Your Bully Sticks Were Prepared

While these findings are cautionary, larger studies are needed to access the true risks inherent in bully sticks and those presented by the various production processes used in the US and importing countries. Nutritionally speaking, bully sticks pack 80% protein, and they are high in glucosamine and chondroitin. If you are still interested in treating your pet with bully sticks (many men find it repugnant once they know what they are made from, women not so much), here are a few considerations to take into account.

  • There are two varieties of bully sticks: washed and unwashed. The washed variety has less odor and is much lighter in color. Washing may help reduce the presence of harmful bacteria. Currently, the unwashed variety is the most popular as it is prized for its unprocessed state.
  • If you opt for the washed variety, understand what the pizzle has been rinsed with. Hot water is a great alternative to natural state pizzle, but some manufacturers use chlorine to kill bacteria, or worse irradiate the pizzle to kill bacteria.
  • Know how the product was dried. Sun-drying allows bacteria a better opportunity to survive the drying process, while oven baking pizzle may help to eliminate harmful bacteria.
  • When purchasing online select only the bully sticks displayed with a ruler. There is a substantial difference between 6-inch strands braided together and six in long braids of pizzle.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after contact with the bully stick.

Natural Alternatives to Bully Sticks

If you are thinking twice about pizzle as a healthy snack for your canine companion, consider these alternative byproducts for natural dog treats and save some money at the same time.

  • Cow’s hooves are inexpensive and long-lasting. A word of caution, they can cause gastric upset in the form of gas.
  • Pig’s ears and cow’s ears are dried chews that provide chondroitin as they are made predominantly of skin and cartilage.
  • Pig snouts are relatively expensive dried treats, but they also supply chondroitin in addition to protein.
  • Cow Trachea is also a significant source of chondroitin and is similar in texture to pizzle.
  • As with bully sticks, investigate how these products are raised and dried. Seek farms that eschew hormones and antibiotics and use oven drying methods to cure the treats.
  • Naturally, shed deer, moose, and elk antlers are free of bacteria and high in glucosamine and chondroitin. Long-lasting, often lasting many months, they are also the most expensive natural dog treat on the market.

Do Treats Bring Bacteria Into Your Household?

Natural Treat Recommendations

Dog's stomachs are different from human digestive systems. They are better able to tolerate bacteria that can cause serious illness in humans. If you are serving your pet natural treats such as bully sticks, take precautions and wash your hands with soap after touching the treat.

If you have small children that might play with leftover dog treats, opt-out of bully sticks altogether. Given the frequent hand-to-mouth contact that children make, you should opt instead for dried pig/cow ears, and noses, or for longer lasting treats, like hooves and antlers.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can I freeze bully sticks for a day or two to kill whatever is "alive" before I defrost and give them to our four-month-old German Shepherd puppy?

Answer: The bacteria we are concerned about in bully sticks is salmonella, which is not killed by freezing. Dogs can handle this bacteria better than people can. The biggest risk is to the people who come in contact with the bully stick, and the places it has been (does your dog chew on bully sticks, when you aren't looking, on your sofa or bed pillow?)

Cooking will kill salmonella, so stick to roasted dog treats. Personally, I prefer naturally shed deer antlers. They are not as hard as bones and can help keep your dog's gums healthy and their teeth clean.


Mel on March 27, 2019:

Never had a problem with bacteria, what I have had a problem with is the braided bully sticks made it where my dogs lip got stuck between the braids! Pissed me off that this could even happen!

Patti Needham on January 03, 2019:

I liked your article. I did in fact know where the product came from. I did learn alot about the bacteria. Thx!

Bullies are totally over the top in price! Most of them you purchase you are paying around $95 per pound!

Sheikh Rasel on October 31, 2018:

Bully sticks good food for dog.

Petalpatch on August 18, 2018:

So microwave them first, or throw them in the oven.

Geri McClymont on March 24, 2016:

Thank you for a very informative article on bully sticks. My dog loves bully sticks, so I pick them up fairly regularly at my local pet store. However, I did not know they were so high in protein or that the braided 6 in. ones are so high in calories. Good to know! Thank you for offering the list of alternative natural dog treats too.