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The Best Bones for Cleaning a Dog's Teeth

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

This guide will help you determine which bones might work best for maintaining your dog's dental hygiene.

This guide will help you determine which bones might work best for maintaining your dog's dental hygiene.

Worried About Your Dog's Dental Health?

If you stumbled on this article, there are chances that your dog is getting older and you are wondering what bones would work best to help keep those dental problems at bay. Or even better, you may own a young dog and want to prevent dental problems from occurring in the first place.

If so, kudos to you, as preventing is much better than curing something that could have been avoided at least to a certain extent. Let's first take a look at what plaque is and how it affects our canine companions.

What Is Dental Plaque?

Dental plaque consists of a colorless or white film that develops on your dog's teeth. It's formed by bacteria naturally found in the dog's saliva which adhere to the surface of the dog's teeth. Initially, the film is soft and can easily come off by simply scraping the dog's tooth with a fingernail or the bristles of a toothbrush.

With time though (if left on the teeth), the plaque will harden in the next two to three days and soon will calcify, becoming yellowish/brown tartar that becomes harder to remove. On top of that, once tartar is present, the tooth surface becomes rougher, causing more plaque and tartar to build up. Once enough tartar collects in the dog’s mouth, it potentially ends up under the gums causing problems.

At this point, the hardened tartar can no longer be easily removed with the toothbrush and will likely require ultrasonic tools or a hand-held scaler to remove effectively, something that must be done by a vet under general anesthesia.

What dental bones for dogs are safe?

What dental bones for dogs are safe?

Are Plaque and Tartar a Big Deal?

If you think that the continuous accumulation of plaque and tartar is only a cosmetic issue; think again. As in humans, the presence of bacteria causes bad breath (bacteria stinks), and the accumulation of tartar causes irritation and inflammation to the gums around the dog's teeth (gingivitis, under the form of red, swollen gums), which in turn may lead to periodontal disease (the loss of the connective tissue fibers, ligaments and bone surrounding the teeth and responsible for supporting them) and eventually tooth loss due to gradual loss of supporting structure—see photo, something known as gingival recession. Worst of all, because gums are very vascular, it's possible for the bloodstream to transport micro-organisms to the dog's kidneys, liver and heart valves, causing severe systemic disease.

Periodontal disease is very common in dogs. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, dental issues affect more than 80% of dogs by age 3. On top of that, consider that the risks for periodontal disease in your dog increases 20 percent each year of his life, according to Banfield Applied Research and Knowledge. Toy and miniature breeds are particularly affected compared to larger dogs.

It's easy to underestimate the importance of regular brushing and providing the dog with the best bones for cleaning teeth because periodontal disease doesn't cause any significant pain and major visible changes at the early stages. Indeed, you're likely to take notice of tartar along the gumline (supragingival), but the real problem is tartar under the gumline (subgingival). Interestingly, a dog may have severe periodontal disease even without the visible yellowish/brown tartar on the crowns we are so used to seeing. This explains why dental cleanings without anesthesia don't cure periodontal disease, but only make teeth cosmetically more appealing. Removing tartar from the crowns won't cure periodontal disease or prevent tooth loss, explains Sharon Hoffman, veterinarian and Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College.

Prevention of dental disease in dogs is power. Knowing how to brush your dog's teeth along with providing the right bones can really make an impact on reducing those expensive dental cleanings.

An example of gingival recession. Loss of supporting structure in advanced periodontal disease.

An example of gingival recession. Loss of supporting structure in advanced periodontal disease.

Choosing the Right Dental Bones for Your Dog

First and foremost, it's important to realize that if your dog already has periodontal disease, the ideal approach is to have the build-up of tartar removed. Since the dog's teeth will be also polished, this is a good time to get started on good dental practices (and that includes brushing your dog's teeth) since the new smoothness of the dog's teeth should be less likely to attract additional bacteria and plaque build-up.

Whether you own a young dog and want to prevent major dental problems, an older dog who has had a recent dental cleaning, or a dog who has mild gingivitis that your vet believes can be reversed (the ideal time time to prevent dental issues is at the plaque stage), you may be on the lookout for what bones can be used to clean a dog's teeth.

Are you feeding raw? Feeding dogs raw, doesn't necessarily mean healthier teeth. Raw-fed dogs aren't immune from dental problems and several raw-fed dogs go through routine dental cleanings just as non-raw fed dogs. In the next paragraphs we will see why.

Avoid Bones That May Fracture Teeth

One of the biggest risks when giving the wrong types of bones to dogs are fractured teeth. The American Veterinary Dental College does not recommend giving cow hooves, dried natural bones or hard nylon products as these are very hard and can result in fractured teeth and damaged gums. These products do not mimic the effect of meat being pulled off a carcass as dogs would have done in the wild. Sharon Hoffman, a Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, further adds soup bones, knuckle bones and some pressed rawhide chews to the list of products to avoid to prevent fractured teeth.

Veterinarian Dr. Peter Dobias recommends to stay away from beef, buffalo or bison shank bones because they're harder than teeth and may cause them to crack. He explains that this is how a $2 marrow bone can end up costing thousands of dollars in dental treatment. He has an evolutionary explanation for this. In the wild, canines were most likely to hunt on birds, rabbits, rodents, goats, and possibly, the occasional deer. Messing around with a buffalo or cow was risky business. Antlers are also risky treats. There are many cases of dogs fracturing their teeth when they consume these. Finally, pork bones or rib bones are also somewhat on the risky side because they are more likely to splinter.

I know, I know, I can hear many people saying "but I fed my dogs these bones almost all their lives and they are fine!" That's sure a good point, fact is, we must consider what vets see in their practices, and fractured teeth are unfortunately not that rare. But not all vets always seem to concur on which bones should be avoided. It's likely that these differing opinions may vary based on what they see most in their practice. It never hurts to be conservative, and err on the side of caution.

Avoid Cooked and Smoked Bones

It may be tempting to feed Fido some leftover cooked bones to help clean teeth, but doing so is also a risky practice. Cooked bones tend to become brittle, and when your dog consumes them, they may splinter, potentially causing internal injuries explains veterinarian Karen Becker. On top of that, cooking strips the bones from a great amount of nutrients. Steamed or smoked bones, found out of the freezer in pet stores, are processed, causing them to become brittle as well.

Watch for Questionable Ingredients in Dental Bones

As an alternative to dental bones, manufacturers of pet products may try to create their own products, but it's important to look at labels and verify the safety of such products. Keep a watchful eye for artificial preservatives, animal byproducts, corn, soy, grains, unnecessary food coloring to make them of an appealing color, and other questionable ingredients. Also, look for the country of origin. Many dental bones and chews are made in China using questionable ingredients and several have been recalled due to safety issues.

Consider the Size of Your Dog

Often, raw bones are sold online or in stores without clear instructions. If you are lucky, the product may say which size is most suitable to your dog based on his weight, but unfortunately several leave you guessing. As a general rule of thumb, look for raw bones that are bigger than your dog's head suggests Karen Becker. This way, your dog won't be able to open his jaw wide enough to bite off chucks to swallow. Smaller bones such as small femur rings or kneecaps pose a danger to large breed dogs, because they may swallow them whole. So when it comes to bones, bigger is better to avoid damage to teeth, choking, or intestinal blockages.

Provide the Right Types of Bones

So we have seen so many types of bones that shouldn't be fed, you may thinking what is left? While cooked or smoked bones can be risky to dogs, consider that raw bones are a whole different story. Canines have been consuming bones for centuries so it would be silly to say that raw bones are harmful to them. There are essentially two types of raw bones that are beneficial for dogs. Karen Becker divides them in 2 categories.

  • Edible Bones: These are bones that don't contain marrow and are are overall soft and pliable. They are non-weight bearing bones that can be ground easily with a meat grinder. Chicken wings, chicken backs, chicken necks and turkey necks are some examples. These bones are designed to be chewed up and eaten by dogs. These bones are often fed as part of a raw diet as they provide the dog with important nutrients and minerals. Because these bones are quite soft, they do not provide a significant improvement in dental health, explains Dr. Dobias. In order to have some beneficial effects, your dog should be chewing for a good 30 minutes, according toAnimal Planet and your dog must also chew the right type of bones to obtain some good dental benefits. This is why dogs fed raw don't necessarily always have the best teeth.
  • Recreational Bones: These raw bones don't typically provide much nutrition and aren't meant to be swallowed, the dog just gnaws on them for mental stimulation and the purpose of cleaning teeth. When some cartilage and soft tissue meat is still attached, the action on the teeth is similar to getting brushed and flossed. This helps reduce tartar and helps reduce the risk for gum problems. In order to have nice teeth, as the dogs had in the wild, dogs fed raw must chew on both edible and recreational bones.

If your dog has a sensitive stomach, consider that marrow bones may be too rich ( the marrow is very high in fat) causing digestive problems, diarrhea and even pancreatitis in sensitive dogs. On top of that they are too hard. Veterinarian Peter Dobias instead recommends feeding raw bones of medium-sized animals, specifically, lamb or goat bones twice a week. These are hard, abrasive bones but they're not too thick, so they're perfect to keep the teeth polished and scraped without risking fractures. And if there's still some meat attached, even better. Chucks of raw meat are what promote effective cleaning of teeth and gums and the dog should be working on scraping them off for about 30 minutes.

What if You Do Not Feel Like Feeding Raw Bones?

What if you do not feel like feeding raw bones? You must then look for edible bones made of healthy, non-toxic ingredients. This can be harder said than done as there are so many products nowadays on the market, and the majority of them contain harmful substances. It's important that the products are digestible, as swallowing non-digestible chunks may lead to an obstruction.

The ideal bones should be hard enough to help clean teeth, but not so hard as to crack them. Veterinarian Karen Becker recommends Mercola Healthy Pets Dog Dental Bones which are 100% natural, and contain no corn, soy, gluten or animal byproducts-- see her video. However, let's remember that it's the removal of meat from bones that helps maintain healthy teeth and that the chewing action must last quite a while to be effective.

A Note About Small Dogs

Certain breeds of small dogs are particularly prone to developing periodontal disease compared to others because their teeth don’t have normal alignment and tiny breeds may have a tooth crowding problem. Even though these dogs may chew with vigor, they won't be able to clean their teeth no matter how much they chew because of their conformation.

As seen, for your dog's safety it's important to know which bones to avoid so to prevent costly mishaps. Raw, meaty bones of medium-sized animals seem to be a good choice, but of course, it's always your job to find organic choices and to always supervise your dog when chewing. Also, consider that not all dogs are good candidates for chewing and eating bones, those are mostly dogs who gulp down things without chewing carefully!

In many cases, it is far safer training your dog to brush his teeth.

According to a study published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice, the level of efficacy of three common methods of plaque control were compared. This entailed, feeding a prescription dental diet (Hill's Prescription Diet t/d Canine), providing a dental chew (Pedigree DentaStix) and brushing a dog's teeth once daily using an enzymatic toothpaste.

According to the study results, daily tooth brushing remained "the most effective single method of reducing plaque accumulation and optimising dogs' oral health."

So start brushing your dog's teeth from an early age, make it fun and you soon will have a great routine that your dog looks forward to.

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.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 08, 2020:

KariJoKing, I must confess that in all these years I still feel that brushing your dog's teeth is the best option. Take a look here on how to train your dogs to have their teeth brushed:

KariJoKing on April 29, 2020:

I appreciate you listing things that may be harmful. Even human-grade ingredients like artificial colors and flavors are deemed acceptable by the FDA. The US has over 300 ingredients that are allowed here which are banned all over Europe and other countries. That having been said, it's so refreshing to have someone willing to warn people about chemicals and ingredients that may be harmful to our pet babies.

Can you head me in a good direction for the best bones/treats for healthy teeth for my twin 6-year-old Chiweenies? We can now afford to get their teeth cleaned, but haven't done it yet due to the "Stay Home Stay Safe" Order in our state.

I look forward to hearing from you and anyone else with suggestions.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 10, 2020:

Melissa, I really appreciate your observations. There may not be any evidence, but several of those ingredients remain questionable, meaning their total safety hasn't been evaluated. I am not saying they are necessarily harmful, just "questionable" until proven otherwise.

You state "Commercial chew products that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council are what we should recommend," but have you ever by any chance seen their list? It has rawhide listed repeatedly on the list and several products that I know have bad reviews with some of them even seriously harming dogs! I know, the irony!

At this point, there are really no 100 percent safe bones for dogs. This is why I had to put some disclaimer statements at the end and why I use caution words like "may" or "seem" and why I use what veterinarians say as my references. At the end, you can take note how I mentioned that brushing teeth is ultimately the safest choice.

Yet, veterinarians and veterinary organizations like VOHC feel safe enough to make specific recommendations. I feel this will remain a subject of controversy until a totally safe bone is ever found-if it ever exists.

I thought I found one edible totally digestible safe bone once, only that later the company started cutting corners and produced it in China and dog owners started noticing diarrhea and vomiting in their dogs.

*Please note that my dog got sick from *raw hides* not raw bones. More and more vets lately suggest raw bones to dog owners (since they'll give them in any case due to strong raw food movement) as long as certain guidelines are followed.

Here is an article on Innovative Vet Care written by a vet on the subject. I thought you might find it interesting.

Melissa A Smith from New York on March 02, 2020:

Hi, there is no evidence that artificial preservatives, animal byproducts, corn, soy, grains, and food coloring are harmful to dogs. Most vets recommend giving no bones to dogs for a good reason. I've also seen no evidence that there are any raw bones that are beneficial to dogs. Even you, as I do, have a story about raw bones harming our dogs, so they shouldn't be recommended. Commercial chew products that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council are what we should recommend in addition to brushing and regular cleanings. I would advise not taking into account anything Dr. Becker says, and I can explain why at length.

Barbara on February 12, 2020:

All my dogs enjoy cabbagewhite centres and carrots raw is this ok

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 05, 2020:

Hi Elsa, so sorry to hear about your dog being impacted from eating bones. I have a bad story about using bones as well. When my Rottie needed a dental cleaning, I decided to offer smoked knuckle bones since many dog owners reported that they helped scrape tartar off the back teeth. After just a couple, my dog not only still needed the dental cleaning, but on top of that, a tooth during the cleaning fell off. The vet showed me the tooth with what looked like a piece of grass or string wrapped around it. At first, I thought nothing about it, only to later realize that the piece wrapped around the tooth was a piece of meat/ligament from the smoked bone which apparently got caught on the tooth and caused it to fall off.

My female when young would also vomit in the middle of the night bone fragments coming from raw hides. As annoying as this was, it helped her from being impacted, but for sure no more raw hides after that.

Elsa on February 05, 2020:

My 2 yr old labrador has just returned home from the Vet after several days of unwell behaviour, unable to defeacate , vomiting, not eating which is not known for a Labrador??

Required Xrays and enema under GA which showed impacted bowel from consuming bones.... and she is our 3rd Lab: never before an issue, but you just can't predict. It was an awful experience, she was so sick..... no more bones. its just not worth it.

vena on January 17, 2019:

my dog is on a lo fat diet he has hills prescription diet.i/low fat what treats or bones can i give him

MAry difronzo on April 09, 2018:

Very interesting

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 07, 2018:

Sam, thanks for sharing your experience with marrow bones, it will help many dog owners.

Sam Shepards from Europe on March 03, 2018:

Never give or rarely give your dog the big cooked marrow bones. We used to give our first shepherd those bones. He loved them, could munch on them for hours. After a couple of years 2 of his canines were filed flat.

Ellie from Montana, USA on February 09, 2018:

Great education...I think I'm going to drop the grain-free kibble and go to raw meat bones, some veggies fruits and a little yogurt. Wish I had access to "Roo tails" lol, but unfortunately here in Montana I would be very surprised to find such a creature! :)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 31, 2015:

Thanks MarieLB, I am happy to hear it's turning helpful! Best wishes!

MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on March 27, 2015:

Strange how I get drawn again and again to the same articles. You have packed so much info here, that it is truly helpful to read again. Top job Alesadry.

MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on March 09, 2015:

Great article Alexadry. Full of nuggets of wisdom that are so useful to all of us doggie owners. Thanks

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 13, 2014:

What a good girl! Getting them used to it from a young age helps a lot. For my dogs the taste of toothpaste made them look forward to it, as soon as they see me with the tube they lay their heads on my lap.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on December 12, 2014:

My dog has never been a chewer, at least not past the puppy teething stage. She's one of those "gulpers" you mentioned who swallows everything whole. Therefore, I began brushing her teeth early. She doesn't mind my holding her mouth open while I brush all surfaces. When I tell her I'm ready to brush them, she sits up and waits like a good girl. Of course, she doesn't hold her mouth wide open. I have to do that part, too.

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