Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.
We all know that dogs love and crave bones, so it only seems sensible to provide them with this common treat—bones have long an iconic symbol of dogdom, after all.
Countless bones and bone-shaped products have infiltrated the pet-care market. Some claim to perform teeth-cleaning services, while others are promoted as enriching toys that eliminate boredom for your pet. They come in different flavors, contain different animal and vegetable foods, and have various levels of hardness. But which products actually promote welfare and physical health in our cherished companions? Are raw bones the answer?
Too long didn’t read summary: Some raw bones are beneficial, but they also come with more risks than other dog chews. Although antlers, horns, and hooves are popular dog chews, no one should give them to their dogs, as their risks greatly outweigh their benefits.
The Hype About Raw Bones
I used to think the answer to the dental disease problem was raw and meaty bones. Before discovering this seemingly common sense option, I tried and was not impressed with the visible results of several commercial products such as Dentastix, Greenies, and edible Nylabone products.
My dog, aged approximately 13.5 at the time of this writing, quickly devoured them but there wasn't a noticeable effect on her dentition. In addition, they all contained ingredients such as corn, wheat, potatoes, and soy which I blamed for weight gain in dogs (and humans).
Then, after abiding by the claims of the raw food movement, I gave her a raw sheep marrow bone purchased from Wellness Meats, a company that sells free range animal products for human consumption but also has a few options for pets.
I was amazed with the results; the chewing portions of my dog’s teeth—normally clad in a yellow tinge with upper portions of unsightly tarter at the tip of the gum line—were gleaming white for the first time!
The gums were bleeding slightly, indicating that they were in the beginnings of gingivitis but had been given a decent work out by the lengthy muscle tearing process my dog had vigorously undergone. So I’ve always urged people to ignore conventional veterinary advice and definitely try to feed a raw diet, bones included, as an optimally nutritive and teeth cleaning regimen.
Then my dog, who’d never had a professional teeth cleaning before, broke a premolar on a particularly hard pork bone. Breaking teeth is a common criticism of bone chewing by vets, yet I figured my dog was just in the unlucky minority to experience this, and that the visible benefits of raw bone chewing exceeded the low risk of tooth breaking.
How to Care for Your Dog's Teeth
My best advice is to listen to the experts' advice:
- Brush your pet’s teeth with dog-specific toothpaste at least 4x a week, ideally every day (mandatory).
- Give them a chew bone or product of the proper hardness at least 2x a week.
- Use a Chlorhexidine dental wash (optional).
- Supplement with 1-TDC Dual Action (Joint & Periodontal; optional; my dental specialist recommended it but the evidence is sparse right now).
- Have your pet’s teeth cleaned professionally, ideally annually, and at minimum once they become middle-aged.
My dog’s broken tooth was largely ignored for months. My vet (who practiced 'holistic' methods of which I was not aware of) provided some pain meds and told us to tell him if my dog exhibited any discomfort. We didn’t want my dog to undergo a risky, expensive, extraction surgery, so under the notion that a broken tooth isn’t very harmful, it remained in her mouth for over a year.
Meanwhile, while doing research about SeaWorld’s killer whales and hypothesizing that their lower longevity rates in captivity are probably due in part to poor dental health, I became more concerned with my dog’s predicament. The tooth had since died and was discolored, and the broken ‘flap’ that hung over the cracked molar never fell off, even though my vet strangely assured me it did (check the pictures, does it look like it's still there?).
I decided to have my dog go to a dental specialist and have the surgery right away, despite much resistance from everyone else in my family due to fears about anesthesia. I decided it was against my code of pet keeping ethics to leave her tooth in that condition and have her deal with any associated pain that she couldn’t easily express.
Part of My Dog's Dental Report
Surprisingly, not only did my dog need her dead tooth removed, but the vet also removed 5 other teeth that were abscessed, loose, absorptive, or weakened in some other way (my dog had a highly unusual wisdom tooth that was also causing issues). I was immensely satisfied in my decision, despite it costing upwards $1800.
Do Raw Bones Clean Teeth?
One of the interesting things about my dog’s removed teeth is that aside from her cracked tooth, none of them were ‘chewing teeth’, or molars and premolars that are used to gnaw muscle tissue or bones right before swallowing.
She did have two incisor teeth pulled that were loose, which are used to tear the meat off the bone before the processing done by the molars. I think this might show that the amount of chewing my dog did had a protective effect on the teeth that did the most work, and this also shows that it is imperative to brush your dog’s teeth routinely and get professional cleanings as well, because despite the bone consumption, my dog had several health problems including gingivitis (curable) and periodontal disease (incurable). This is the recommendation from experienced health professionals.
Not all raw bones are great for teeth cleaning. Chicken wings are rapidly consumed before long-term chewing (except for smaller dogs) and bones without muscle tissues invite no tearing from the incisors or ‘sponging’ up against the tips of the gums from which the molars emerge.
People who must use bones should opt for bones that are also meaty, and they should not be overly hard. This includes options such as various sheep, deer, and goat bones for average-sized dogs, while large beef, pork, and bison bones should be avoided. However, I’ve stopped using raw bones, and foods completely, and here’s why.
Naturalistic Fallacy or Appeal to Nature
I used to feed my pets a raw diet on the logic that dogs are not much different from wolves, and wolves naturally eat raw meat, therefore my dog should too—that is until I realized this is the bad logic of my mortal enemies.
On my blog, I advocate the ownership of non-domesticated animals, and I frequently argue that just because an animal gets something in the wild doesn’t mean it needs it in captivity.
Wolves do not need the same range they get in the wild in zoos, tigers do not need to hunt and eat live cows which is also terribly cruel, and housecats do not need to free roam to be happy and healthy.
In addition, there are many elements about wild living that are completely undesirable. While some animals like killer whales and elephants (mostly females) might enjoy longer life spans, most wild animals, including wolves, die prematurely from many factors, that of which we do not seek to replicate. Broken teeth are one of those factors.
There is sparse or no evidence available that supports the idea that raw feeding (which includes bones) is nutritionally beneficial overcooked and balanced commercial diets.
There is actually more evidence that homemade diets (raw or cooked), as it tends to be fed without assistance from nutritionists, has caused more health problems in cats and dogs because they tend to be nutritionally inadequate.
Given this issue, it would be irrational to recommend raw feeding to the general public, and it is difficult for even committed owners to insure their pets are getting a balanced diet with homemade meals.
- FDA Study Shows Raw Pet Diets Contaminated with Potentially Deadly Bacteria Much More Frequently...
- Homemade Diet Recipes for Your Pet are Unreliable | The SkeptVet
- Evidence Update-Review of Risks and Benefits of Raw Meat Diets for Dogs and Cats | The SkeptVet
*Crack*! Don't Let This Happen to You
It is perfectly possible to have your dog avoid breaking teeth. As explained earlier, not every obtainable raw bone is equal—some are easy for dogs to chew and eat, but this likely also decreases benefit. The denser bones last longer but have very little nutritional value.
Bones like meaty sheep marrow bones such as these probably provide the most benefit for dogs cleaning-wise and presumably my dog has not received any fractures from them, but this does not mean there is no risk.
Lack of my dog not fracturing teeth from certain bones is not an argument against the unnecessary risk that raw bones present, just like the lack of a non-seat belt wearer dying in a car crash is not an argument against the common sense of wearing seat belts.
These sounds make me cringe!
The same arguments go for bacterial infection. My dog presumably never had this problem with the bacteria from raw food, but the risk is there and it is unnecessary. Just as raw food advocates say, dogs can probably tolerate raw foods quite well.
Going back to the naturalistic fallacy, nature, or better yet, natural selection, is the process of the ‘fittest’ (individuals that produce the most viable offspring) surviving. That doesn’t mean animals don’t die, it’s the opposite. Many animals will die and fail to spread their genes, which is exactly how natural selection functions. Do we want to place our pets in this system and watch the ‘less fit’ individuals be the unlucky recipients of a bacterial disease?
Or should we ignore nature and choose the safest option? Furthermore, the disease risk is also present for the human owners. It is difficult, at least for me, to keep the area sanitary when feeding bones.
That alone is enough for the costs or raw feeding to supersede benefit, particularly if you have children or live with immune system-compromised or elderly people.
In addition to safety, I am actually thrilled to have quit raw bones and meat for my dog because of all the pathogenic grime produced by the process not ending up on the rug or my face. Even those who claim that dogs have a robust immune system and can digest raw meat well cannot deny that you cannot sterilize your dogs paws and fur, which is filled with the remnants of your dogs last meal. My dog often holds down bones when she chews, so feeding outside, which is also not feasible year round in a cold climate, doesn't help the problem.
Senior Dogs Are at the Highest Risk
Speaking of the elderly, if your dog is a senior or geriatric I strongly advise removing all raw products. If we want to use nature as our guide, we should understand that wild wolves are not expected to exceed 13 years of age in the wild and many die younger.
What would we know about the optimal diet for a wild, senior wolf when many of them perish before reaching the ages that our companion animals regularly do, depending on their size?
Because aging is deteriorative, your older dog’s potentially compromised immune system does not need the added task of dealing with the unnecessary level of bacteria in raw foods when there is little or no benefit of doing so. Wild wolves also break and wear their teeth; the older they become, the higher the risk. As was my experience, being put in the position of requiring expensive surgery for a senior dog of which anesthesia is riskier can be very nerve-racking.
Antlers and Hooves Are Terrible for Dogs
There is a very popular product tainting pet stores shelves that I actually think ethical people should demand to be taken down. Antlers are extremely hard, to the point that they cannot be broken, unlike appropriate dog bones and chews. Not only do antlers not contain any muscle tissue, therefore exposing your pet to tooth fractures without the tearing benefits of a raw meaty bone, but they are probably more likely to break teeth than the properly sized raw bone. Obviously, these animal products last much longer and carry no disease risk, but they are notorious for fracturing dog’s teeth among vets—enough to spur news reports about the issue. The USDA and American Animal Hospital Association have issued statements against them. Hard chews like antlers and hooves are simply not worth the risk. If you ignore this article and use antlers at least do not use them for senior dogs. Save yourself the heartache.
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Use These Guidelines
- Kneecap Rule: If you hit your knee cap with a dog chew and it hurts, it's probably too hard.
- It is preferable for the chew to be able to be indented with a fingernail.
- If the chew cannot be flexed, it's likely it is too hard.
- If you can drive a nail with it, it's too hard.
- Review of 12 Top Selling Dog Dental Chews | My Favorites for Teeth Cleaning and Safety
Do dental chews for dogs really clean their teeth? My experiment to find the best commercial dental bone. Raw bones are also tested.
Alternatives to raw bones
There are numerous dog chew products on the market and I’ve reviewed some of them here.
Many people opt to use raw bones because they don’t contain additives and ‘chemicals they can’t pronounce’. The large majority of these concerns are unsubstantiated because many foods we consider healthy contain ‘chemical’ compounds that sound ‘unnatural’ but are very much the opposite.
However, for those who are determined to give dogs ‘simple’ chews, beef hide based dental chews such as CET Oral Hygiene Chews are clinically proven to be effective and safe. Look for the VOHC Seal of Acceptance on products.
Here is a list of the current recipients. Remember, just because something isn’t on this list doesn’t mean it’s not effective but that it just hasn’t been tested. Feed your dog accordingly, making sure to take into account the extra calories of the chew you are using. Pick the proper size and know your dog’s chewing habits to insure safe use of the product.
All dog chews, raw or commercial, require supervision during use.
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.
Bob Bamberg on March 21, 2015:
Sorry you took offense, Shaddie, none was intended. When we put our thoughts on the worldwide web we can't realistically expect worldwide concurrence. I think you'd agree that dissent is a good thing; that it can lead to an exchange of thoughts and perspectives from which both sides can take away something useful.
That was an interesting article, although I must admit my eyes started to glaze over before I finished it. I acknowledge that damage can occur during tooth to bone contact...I just maintain that such instances occur in small numbers relative to the opportunities. I also believe that some tooth damage blamed on bones could have also occurred because some dogs chew rocks, etc.
When you consider the number of bones that are bought nowadays, especially with the surging popularity of raw meaty bones (and acknowledging that their might be some corresponding uptick in instances of damage) the instances of dogs successfully utilizing bones as chew items vastly outnumbers the instances of trouble.
I think the same can be said for the use of rawhide, Greenies and other controversial enrichment options.
Shaddie from Washington state on March 21, 2015:
By the way, Bob, here is an article talking about fractured teeth in predators due to hard bone diets/other factors: http://www.2ndchance.info/bones-Valkenburgh2009.pd...
Animals do indeed die from many different ailments, but even wolves hurt themselves by chewing on bones. Tooth injuries, as I'm sure you're aware, can lead to death either from infection or eventual starvation (depending on the severity of the loss).
Shaddie from Washington state on March 21, 2015:
Yeah I'm not an idiot, I think in my post I clearly illustrated how I learned the exact things you thought it necessary to patronize me about just now. Remarkably, I do not need your assistance over the internet, but thanks anyway, dad!
I also don't know why you think I need you to tell me about wild animals die. Do you just like reading what you've typed?
Bob Bamberg on March 21, 2015:
Melissa, although I'm not the hub author, I hope you won't mind if I add my two cents worth in response to Shaddie's comment.
As Melissa said, Shaddie, how your dog chews comes into play. Your dog is one of those aggressive chewers that is going to wear down his molars on any dense chew item as long as he's allowed to chew almost without restriction.
And as to the problems with the hooves, you said it yourself..."...he ate a lot of them and he ate them quick." Whose fault was that?
As an alternative to chewing sessions, how about long walks, play time and grooming sessions that include lots of belly rubs and chin scratches. The more interaction he has with you and other family members, the less appealing he'll find chewing.
Your last paragraph is interesting, although I don't know if you can back your claim up with facts. While some may die from chewing on bones, it's a necessity of life. They can't synthesize calcium and must get it from the bones of their prey.
Wild animals, by our standards, have miserable lives. They also die from starvation because the injuries they incurred while grappling with prey, from dominance battles, from defending territory and mates, left them unable to catch and kill prey. They also get infections from injuries inflicted by every day life, and from diseases and parasites they get from prey or others of their own species. Being a wild animal certainly isn't for sissies!
Thank you, Melissa, for letting me have my say.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on March 20, 2015:
Wow, thanks for writing about your experience. I'm still nervous about anything that isn't bendable, but how your dog chews also comes into play. I don't know what I'd do for a larger dog.
Shaddie from Washington state on March 19, 2015:
I, too, fell into the mythical idea that "'natural' is better, therefore bones are good" when I had my dog. He was a hefty fellow, descended from mastiff breeds, with very powerful jaws and a complete lack of knowing when to quit when it came to chewing on stuff. I gave him bones because he destroyed every other toy he was ever offered. Bones stood up to his destructive tendencies, but unfortunately, his teeth did not. At the very young age of around 4, I was told by my veterinarian to stop giving him bones because his molars had been reduced to practically half of their size. He had worn them down so badly that they had lost their sharp, mountainous points. His other teeth were beautiful and white, free of tartar buildup which the veterinarian mentioned (asking me if I brushed his teeth because they looked so good, though I never had), but he was in danger of losing his molars entirely.
I immediately stopped giving whole bones as treats, but I found that most products like hooves were perfectly fine. Hooves, after all, are not made of bone. They're actually just the "caps" that cover the actual hoof bones and are made of keratin which is considerably softer and designed to wear away and regrow like hair or claws. I have never seen a hoof bone sold at a pet store before, only the keratin caps. The problem I had with hooves, however, was that they were TOO easy to chew apart for my dog, and while they may not have damaged his teeth, he ate a lot of them and he ate them quick. This caused problems like blockage and other digestive upsets (diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, etc, depending on how fast or how much he would eat). I had to monitor him with hooves after I realized what was going on, and only allowed him to have them for about 10 minutes at a time. They were extremely slimy and messy.
After a lot of trial and error, the only bone treat I would recommend as being fairly safe are SOME brands of rib bone pieces, with a lot of meat and gristly stuff still attached. The ribs are less dense and are therefore significantly easier to chew apart than, say, long bones (like femurs), knee or knuckle bones, and of course antlers.
Another great hub, thanks for warning everyone about how ridiculous antlers are for pets. Wild animals starve to DEATH and DIE miserably in the wild because of tooth problems caused by eating and chomping on bones. Please don't allow your beloved pets to suffer this same kind of agony.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on March 07, 2015:
I don't know if those were his exact words, but some of those links also say the chew should be able to flex. There are probably some hard chews I'm OK with as long as they are indentable with a fingernail. Like in the article, their bends are only extremely slight, barely visible. I hope to have a further discussion also.
Bob Bamberg on March 06, 2015:
I think you're right about damaged teeth that go unnoticed. Dogs sometimes die because bacteria from the resulting infection circulate and affect kidneys, liver, heart, etc. The owners think it was just their time, or perhaps natural causes; never realizing it was preventable.
This is the first I've heard the "nothing that doesn't bend" admonition. My job is spending 5 hours a day, 6 days a week in various pet supply stores engaging customers, so I talk with scores of pet owners each week. I hear people say their vet says no rawhide, no sticks, no cooked bones, things like that, but the vets around here don't seem to be on that page, at least not yet, anyway.
I think there is an overall malaise on the part of pet owners regarding dental health of their cats and dogs. Many tend to think a Milk Bone a day keeps dental problems away.
Good discussion...I hope others chime in.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on March 06, 2015:
Well thanks Bob, but I did pretty much suggest that most dogs won't break teeth (I haven't been in any significant car accidents for nearly 27 years, do I not need to wear a seat belt?), although it's also possible for dogs to break teeth and have it not be noticeable without an x-ray. So do we really know how common it is? Some people don't even inspect their dogs mouth. I only found the fracture because I was trying to brush my dog's teeth, which most people don't do (and I did that rarely enough). Chances are that most dogs after they pass away will have injuries no one knew about if they are not x-rayed regularly. Paradoxically, people who proclaim raw bones are keeping their dog's mouth healthy tend not to get cleanings which means no extensive x-rays.
My vet is a dental specialist and recommends that you shouldn't give your dog anything that doesn't bend. This also seems to be unanimous amongst veterinarians except the 'natural' or 'holistic' ones: http://www.kptv.com/story/25258234/veterinarians-c...
What's worse, antlers don't even have muscle tissue so you have an elevated tooth-breaking risk and less teeth-cleaning action. Many owners do not see the urgency in fixing fractured teeth and may ignore it, which will eventually cause an infection for the dog. By this time the dog might have health problems and be older, increasing the risk of the anesthesia that the owner tried to avoid. I feel it is important to eliminate the risk of fractures, even if it is small. And yes, rocks are certainly also responsible for fractures (and abrasive things like tennis balls). I don't know about disks, I'll look into that.
Bob Bamberg on March 06, 2015:
I disagree with you on this one, Melissa. While some dogs can damage teeth on the items you write about, most dogs use them without incident. Those items fill large sections in pet supply stores and are purchased with regularity. Of the 77 or so million dogs in the U.S., there have got to be millions using them safely. While I can't cite statistics, my hunch is that more dogs damage teeth catching flying discs and other thrown objects, and chewing on rocks and other inappropriate items. I also think it's irresponsible for a layperson to urge people to ignore conventional veterinary advice. You point out a number of potential problems and, as always, in a well-written, easy to understand article. Voted up, useful and interesting.