Feeding raw bones

The do`s, the don`ts and the alternatives

Bone is a very important part of feeding a raw food diet but it is a subject that can cause worry and concern for the dog owner and often a reason people decide to rule out raw feeding altogether.

The inclusion of raw bone in the diet provides nutrients such as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, fat soluble vitamins, amino acids and essential fatty acids, all of which are used by the body for blood and bone formation. Calcium is regarded as a macro-mineral and is the most abundant and essential mineral in the body. It isn`t just needed for optimum skeletal growth but also responsible for the correct functioning of muscle and nerve impulses, keeping the immune system healthy and regulating the heartbeat.

Meat contains high levels of phosphorous and very little calcium so feeding a diet of only meat and offal would be extremely deficient in vital minerals as well as giving the dog permanently loose stools.

Anatomical features

So, what has nature blessed a dog with to make him so efficient at eating and digesting bone?                                                                                                                   

Just a glimpse inside a dog’s mouth will show a whole range of “tools” to make the job of piercing, tearing and slicing meat and bone an easy task. A pair of specialised teeth for crushing, called the Carnassial are the largest and most jagged of the premolars and you will notice your dog tilting his head on the side in order to bring them into full use.                                                              Unlike ourselves and herbivores, a dogs jaw has no sideways, grinding action, so in order to add lubrication within the mouth and around the food there is a lot of saliva production to assist its transit to the stomach.                                                                                                                                   Once in the stomach there is an incredibly strong stomach acid of around ph1 compared to a herbivore such as a horse for example which would be ph. 4-5. A strong stomach acid not only helps to kill any bacteria but also to dissolve raw bone.

Edible vs Recreational                                                                                                                                   

Raw bones are split into two categories of edible and recreational bones.

Edible bone is consumed completely in one sitting and adds towards the dog’s dietary calcium requirements. Examples would be chicken necks and wings, duck feet, lamb ribs, chicken carcass or the finely ground bone within a minced complete meal.                                                                                                             

Recreational bones are not completely consumed within one sitting and add little if anything towards the dietary calcium requirements. These would be something like a large beef knuckle bone or a venison neck as an example. The main advantage of these large bones is that they keep the teeth clean and also provide the psychological benefits that come with the chewing action, such as a release of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, which are the calming and feel good hormones.

With 90% of dogs in the UK under 3 years of age having some form of periodontal disease and needing a general anesthetic to remove a buildup of plaque on an annual basis. Kibble despite does not clean teeth. If you watch a dog eat kibble they gulp and swallow, there is certainly no abrasive grinding taking place in order to keep the teeth plaque free. 

Potential issues to be aware of with certain bones:

Chicken wings: Better suited for small dogs as medium and large dogs can try and swallow them whole.

Marrow bones: The central marrow is extremely high in fat and can cause diarrhea and a heightened risk of pancreatitis. They tend to be weight bearing bones so are extremely hard which in very vigorous chewers can cause tooth fractures. There is the danger of the bone encircling the lower jaw when it has been chewed down into a “ring”, often requiring veterinary assistance. Dispose of the bone long before this risk is a possibility.

Neck bones: Chicken and duck necks are better for smaller dogs unless you can guarantee your larger dog will not swallow them whole. I have seen dogs do this on a number of occasions, with no negative consequences whatsoever as their strong stomach acid made short work of digesting it, but it is better that they chew them first. The necks have a good covering of meat on the bone and turkey and goose necks are ideal for medium to large breeds and provide a meal in themselves.

Vertebral bones: Bones that form the neck and vertebral column in larger animals such as sheep and venison, when eaten right down will become circular and have a higher risk of causing choke. This also applies to ox tail. If your dog has a reliable leave command then you can remove the bone when it starts to become eaten down into smaller sections. 

Ribs: If ribs are fed from young animals such as lamb or beef then they are soft and contain a good amount of central red marrow and you will find that dogs can crunch them up with ease. The only potential problem and why it is essential to supervise your dog when they eat bones, is that they can occasionally become stuck across the roof of the mouth.

Avoid: There are some pet stores and discount shops that still sell large baked knuckle bones for dogs. They are often sourced from overseas and are extremely dangerous due to the likelihood of cooked bones splintering and causing perforations to the gut often with fatal consequences. Raw hide chews are also a major choke hazard and are known to cause obstructions in the bowel which require emergency surgery. 

Choosing the right bone for your dog

The main problem area when introducing raw bones to a dog is not offering a bone that is appropriate in size or type for that individual dog. It is always better to feed a bone that is a little too large than too small and also pair the bone to the chewing style of that particular dog.

If you are transitioning a dog onto a raw diet that has previously been eating kibble and you plan to feed edible bones then it is wise to leave 2-3 weeks before introducing whole bones to give the stomach acid time to adjust in order to adequately digest raw bone. Your dog will still be receiving his calcium ration from the complete minces that contain 10% finely ground bone. 

Chicken backs or carcass are good starter bones as they still contain some meat on the bones and plenty of cartilage making them flexible and easy to crunch. They are usually from young birds which mean that the bones are still quite soft.

If you are feeding daily complete meals plus the occasional edible bone then it is wise to feed a bone free meal on that particular day and depending on how your dog handles the inclusion of extra bone in their diet the day after also. This avoids the situation where there is too much bone in the dogs system at once, risking constipation and possible impaction of bone. Many suppliers will have a bone free range for this purpose. If your dog is straining to pass a motion or the stool is very white and crumbly then you know that they have too much bone content in their diet and you will need to re-evaluative the percentage. The majority of dogs do well on 10% - 12% bone in their diets with no issues.    

Multiple dog households

This can certainly be a big challenge for some owners and even the most placid dog can see a raw bone as the highest valued item he has ever been in possession of. If you have a dog that shows strong resource and food guarding behavior then offering a raw bone of any type could be a tricky situation so unless you are working through this particular type of issue with a qualified behaviorist it is wise not to put the dog in that situation. After all we want to set them up to win not fail where training is concerned.

Every dog has to be treated as an individual character in order for things to run smoothly. Some will strut around for ages showing everyone their “prize”, others will just take the bone off into the garden and bury it, you may have a dog that becomes very protective of such a precious item and then there are those greedy ones that will chew until their mouths bleed or the nervous dogs whose motto is “if it`s in my stomach then no one else can get to it” and attempt to swallow the bone whole rather than risk it being taken off them by another dog or their owner.

If you have a number of dogs with very individual ways of tackling a bone then it can prove extremely difficult to manage and the only safe way is for them to be sectioned off in their own safe space where they can relax and enjoy their bone. Edible bones tend to be eaten within minutes, so they are less of an issue than the recreational bone which can be around for days on end. 

When whole raw bones are just not an option.

It is really important that you feel confident and happy in providing your beloved dog with nourishing meals. If feeding whole bones, edible or otherwise causes you to panic and worry and is creating friction and tension within your four legged family, then just don’t feed them whole bones.

If you are giving complete meals where muscle meat, offal and ground bone is added for you, then your dog will be getting the calcium they need. If the percentage is not clear on the product label then ask the manufacturer, as it should be between 10-12 % ground bone. The raw bone is finely ground so it is unlikely you will notice it when dishing up and your dog will have no trouble digesting it.

Semi frozen tracheas are a good alternative to bones, especially for seniors or those with missing teeth, large dogs need the beef version while small dogs can manage the lamb. If recreational bones are not fed and even tracheas cause problems then you will have to resort to other ways of keeping their teeth clean via a toothbrush or micro-fibre cloth and dog friendly toothpaste. 

Home cooked meals will need calcium to be added in the form of a quality brand supplement or make your own with powdered egg shells. 

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