Are Real Bones Good for Dogs?

Dezel enjoys his birthday bone.
Photo by Leslie, LA CRESCENTA

All dogs love bones, right? The image of a dog gnawing on a big, natural bone is found in movies, advertisements, cartoons, and almost everywhere else you’ll find a pooch. My dog’s name tag is even in the shape of a bone. So, clearly, it’s okay to give bones to dogs, then. Not so fast.

The fact is, most real bones are not good treats for dogs. Do you want to play Russian roulette with your best friend? If not, then disregard those things people like to say in defense of bone-giving, such as “My granddaddy’s dogs ate chicken bones all their lives on the farm.” Just because no harm came to those dogs (as far as you know) doesn’t mean you should keep doing the same thing today, when so much more is known about canine health. It would be like someone insisting that smoking is not a problem because his grandfather lived into his eighties and smoked two packs a day.

Bones to Avoid
Chicken, turkey, beef rib, steak, and pork bones are the worst kinds and should be avoided. Dogs’ jaws can generate several hundred pounds of pressure in a bite, which can cause a bone to shatter into small splinters that can lodge in or puncture the intestines later. Avoid giving your dog these real bones:

  • Bones from your plate: Avoid these, except beef shinbones such as the marrow bones in osso buco, the Italian veal-shank dish (see below).
  • Bones from lamb chops and steaks: They look perfect for a dog, with delicious bits of meat and fat attached, but can be deadly inside your dog’s intestinal tract.
  • Chicken bones can splinter and pierce the dog’s intestines or stomach. Cooked chicken bones are the most dangerous, but raw bones can also splinter into needle-sharp points.
  • No sharply angled cut bones, or bones cut into small pieces. No cooked bones from baked, broiled or barbecued meat (too dry and brittle, likely to splinter).

Safe Natural Bones
If you do want to give your dog a real bone, make sure you choose the right kind

  • Raw Marrow Bones
    You can get beef marrow bones at the butcher or supermarket—cut two or more inches long, they are full of marrow and the bones don’t splinter (unless cut too short). If you give raw bones to your dog, keep them outdoors or in an uncarpeted area; otherwise the fatty marrow may stain your carpet or the dog’s bed. Some dogs don’t like the bones raw.
  • Cooked Marrow Bones
    If you decide to cook bones, there are two ways to do it: boiling and baking. You can put them in just enough boiling water to cover and let them simmer; some marrow will be lost in the water. Some nutritionists say bones should be boiled precisely so that the marrow dissolves, since it is too rich for dogs to eat without getting an upset stomach. Every owner has to make a decision about this. Boiling natural bones is considered preferable to baking them, which makes them dry and brittle and more likely to splinter.

Storing Natural Bones
If you buy a lot of bones at once, freezing them is safer than refrigerating them. Bones can go bad within a few days; they can also soften enough for the dog to be able to chew through them.

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