Feeding Your Dog Raw Meaty Bones: Is it safe?

The trend toward holistic, more natural pet diets seems intuitively better for our pets. But is it safe and what are the pros and cons of these raw diets?

There is no easy answer to this question. The simple answer is that it depends on the dog. Many dogs thrive on a diet of raw meaty bones, but there are also numerous stories of dogs with fractured teeth from chewing hard bones. Another risk is oesophageal  or intestinal obstruction from eating bones and perhaps even more commonly, a nasty bout of constipation. Bones are also often high in fat and must be raw, so there is always that small risk of gastroenteritis. We will attempt to weigh up the pros and cons of this debate to help you make an informed decision for your pet.

Bones for dental health

Dental disease is a significant health problem, with 80% of pets experiencing dental disease by the time they are 3 years of age. Disease in the mouth does not just cause that horrendously smelly breath. Gum disease damages other organs and is a source of chronic immune stimulation. The bacteria that proliferates around diseased teeth can spread to the heart, kidneys and liver, leading to increased illness and failure to thrive. One of the most natural ways to help keep your pet’s teeth clean is through chewing.

Pets develop periodontal disease along the gum line, so when chewing your pet really needs to be able to sink his teeth right up to the base of the tooth. This will not necessarily be the case with toys like Nylabones or Kongs. The majority of your dog or cats teeth are cutting teeth, designed to tear and chew at meat and bones. Ideally he should be eating the meat off a large, raw, meaty bone or sinking his teeth into a raw chicken neck or wing.

Your dog (and cat) has teeth designed for different purposes, so chewing does not always help to keep those canines and incisors at the front clean. It is the large wedge-shaped cutting teeth at the sides of the mouth that are used for tearing and cutting at meat.

Do bones damage teeth?

Large, hard bones can fracture teeth in some dogs. The most common fracture is of the upper 4th premolar in a dog, which is shaped a little like a pointy chisel and ideally designed for crunching bones.  Large beef shin bones or similar are strong enough to hold up the weight of a cow, so these are pretty tough bones. Many dogs can go their whole lives chewing bones like this without a problem, who knows why sometimes a painful tooth fracture occurs. Cooking bones makes them even harder, so always serve up bones raw. To limit the risk of tooth fracture you can feed softer bones like brisket bones, raw chicken necks/wings or supervise your dog and remove the bone once the meat has gone. A bone that is left outside to bake in the sun is also going to be harder and more inclined to cause damage.

Do bones cause gastroenteritis?

Dogs are pretty smart about saving any extra food for later and they are known for their habit of burying that treasured bone in the yard. A bone buried in the backyard is very likely to be covered in bacteria and cause a nasty bout of gastro when it is eaten later. You can help prevent this habit by only feeding bones when your dog is hungry and supervising bone-eating to make sure it is removed when your dog is done with it. Any bone left out for more than 4 hours will be a breeding ground for bacteria. It is estimated that modern meat has 1,000-10,000 bacterial organisms per gram and if left out in the ‘food danger zone’ between 5-60°C for any length of time, this bacteria will proliferate to dangerous levels.

This is also where quality has a part to play. If the raw bones you feed are fresh and good quality, they are unlikely to cause gastroenteritis. If they are obviously smelly or old, don’t feed them. Dogs have evolved to eat raw meat and can tolerate some bacteria on their food (a good survival mechanism for a species that is inclined to scavenge all sorts of disgusting things!). However, with modern processing methods, our meat is not as fresh as it used to be. From paddock to plate, the process of getting meat and bones to the butcher or supermarket is prolonged and animals are kept in very intensive farming conditions. By the same token there are many food safety processes in place throughout the supply chain to ensure that meat is relatively safe. In one study of commercially available raw meat pet diets, 53% were contaminated with E.coli. If you feed your pet human grade meat and bones fit for human consumption, safety is more likely. If you wouldn’t eat it, why should your pet?

Possibly the most risky substances to feed raw from a food safety perspective are sausages, mince, hamburgers, fish, eggs and chicken. While feeding your dog raw chicken necks/wings for his teeth is brilliant, there is some risk of salmonella food poisoning due to the fact that chickens tend to carry more pathogenic bacteria than most species of intensively farmed animals.  You must always weigh up the risks and benefits when deciding what to feed. An older, debilitated pet who is prone to bouts of gastroenteritis, probably shouldn’t be eating raw chicken.  A young, small breed dog prone to dental disease would probably benefit from a daily raw chicken neck for his teeth.

Raw meaty bones and BARF diets, are they balanced?

There is a significant revolution involving raw meat diets with proponents claiming that dogs are ultimately carnivores and should only eat raw meat, not processed food. This debate evokes much passion, and I would like to avoid weighing in, except to say that extreme views on either side usually don’t have much research to back up their claims. Dogs have evolved to be a little different from their ancestor the wolf (take for example the pug).

Feeding a small toy dog a diet fit for a wolf is not necessarily the key to good health, but by the same token, many dogs do extremely well with diets that require more chewing and are less processed than pre-packaged dry foods. Whatever you feed, purchase the best quality that you can afford. Read the labels carefully and avoid diets that are full of cheap fillers like soy and corn.

Pre-prepared diets, whether they are of the BARF variety or regular pet foods aim to provide all the micronutrients your pet needs in an easy-to-feed form. Most pet owners are busy enough cooking for the humans in the family, so spending extra time sourcing and preparing the variety of ingredients your pet needs to have a balanced diet is not always possible. Dogs, like us should be eating variety of nutrients, not just one type of meat for every meal.

When you think about how we eat (or should), we eat many different foods each day not just one food. BARF diets and feeding raw meaty bones is great, but just make sure you are meeting all your pet’s nutritional needs. The key is to ensure a balance of nutrients (not just one type of muscle meat) and something to chew on to keep your pet’s teeth clean.

Thiamine deficiency

Thiamine deficiency or vitamin B1 deficiency is a big concern for pet owners feeding ‘fresh meat’ diets marketed for use in pets. The dangers have long been known in the vet industry, but unfortunately there is a whole fridge full of mince, pet food rolls and other meats marketed for pets in most supermarkets.

The labelling requirements for pet foods are significantly different to those for human foods, it is not always necessary to state the preservatives used during manufacturing. Products that contain sulphur dioxide and potassium sulphite preservatives (sulphur dioxide 220, sodium sulphite 221, sodium bisulphite 222, sodium metabisulphite 223, potassium metabisulphite 224, potassium sulphite 225 and potassium bisulphite 228) are known to cause a deficiency in thiamine, and in some cases can lead to significant neurological disease. They are not permitted in human meats due to the link with allergies in humans.

Even if these diets are mixed in with other foods, they can destroy the B1 present in the other food (even if not fed at the same time), leading to an overall deficiency. Check the labelling of any pre-prepared meat diets and if the expiry date is longer than what you would expect for meat, it probably is too good to be true. Ideally only feed meat fit for human consumption.

Do bones cause constipation or foreign body obstructions?

Theoretically dogs are designed to digest raw bones. Cooking renders bone completely indigestible and hard. The bone pieces are more likely to form sharp fragments when chewed and they can’t be broken down in the stomach like raw bones can. These hard indigestible bone fragments will frequently cause constipation and the need for a costly and painful enema.

In some dogs, any amount of bone, raw or cooked will lead to constipation, so these dogs should not be eating bones larger than chicken bones, even if they are raw.  All dogs are different. Just as some can’t eat highly processed foods, some can’t eat bones without getting into trouble. If your dog is prone to constipation, the addition of fibre, such as grated vegetables or oat bran added to his food can get things moving.

Other types of obstruction are simply through lack of chewing. A chicken neck is just about the right size to swallow whole in a dog the size of a kelpie. It will often get milked down the oesophagus, but not quite make it through the slightly narrowed area of the oesophagus just above the heart.

Anything a dog chews on can cause damage to the teeth, gums and in some more unlucky cases perforation through the oesophageal wall or blockages further down-stream. If your dog eats quickly, as though it is a race to get the food down before someone takes it away, perhaps look to feed a large meaty bone that he can chew the meat off, but  not consume the bone itself. Alternatively look to feed pigs ears or chunks of meat that don’t contain bone. If you have two dogs, feeding them separately can slow down the fast-eater.

Vets often also see dogs with a piece of bone stuck between the teeth or across the roof of the mouth. If you are a dog without opposable thumbs, is very difficult to remove these things. Many a dog has come in pawing at the mouth, or with a foul odour emanating from the mouth, for a vet to find a bone chip stuck between the back teeth. In some dogs this can be easily removed with a pair of forceps, but for others (particularly if it is well and truly wedged), they will need general anaesthesia to remove that pesky bone fragment.

Fatty bones and pancreatitis

Bones can also have a large amount of fat and lead to pancreatitis, or gastroenteritis. Those delicious marrow bones that are hollow in the centre are essentially filled with pure fat. For dogs that have had a history of pancreatitis or get frequent bouts of diarrhoea after eating bones, avoid marrow bones and look for leaner bones instead.  Chicken wings are also fairly fatty if the skin is left on.

Benefits of raw meaty bones:

  • Better dental health
  • A more ‘natural’ diet

Drawbacks of a raw diet:

  • Risk of tooth fracture
  • Risk of obstruction and constipation
  • More costly
  • More difficult to get a balanced diet
  • Risk of pancreatitis/gastroenteritis