We’ve all heard the term ‘give a dog a bone’. Dogs seem very content with a bone but we may ask ourselves, is this safe for them? Animal bones are often fed to dogs as a chew or as part of a raw diet. Bones, especially when cooked, may splinter and cause injury and stomach blockages when fed to your dog. 

Feeding bones and raw diets to dogs has increased in popularity over the last couple of years, as many owners seek to recreate a natural diet that their wolf ancestor once ate. However, the digestive physiology of dogs has changed considerably since their domestication from the wolf and thus a raw diet is not always best and in some circumstances, may be harmful to your dog. There are no scientific studies to support the idea that raw feeding is better than traditional dog food. 

Dogs are omnivores, meaning that they derive nutrition from both animal and plant sources. 

Therefore, dogs can digest and gain nutrition from grains, along with protein, as found in many traditional kibble diets. Not all foods are created equal, be it traditional or raw, and not all dogs suit one particular food. Some dogs appear to do well on a raw diet, however, this is also the case for most dogs that are fed traditional diets. When deciding which diet to feed your dog, it is important to be aware of all the risks and benefits of feeding a particular diet to your best friend. Speak to your vet for advice on which diet may be best for your dog and how to feed it safely.

What is traditional dog food?

Traditional dog foods are heat-treated diets formulated specifically to suit the nutritional needs of your dog. They come as either wet or dry versions and can be formulated for different life stages and medical conditions. Wet versions contain a higher water content compared to dry food. Dry foods are often compacted into shaped pellets known as kibbles. 

What is raw food?

A raw diet is made up of raw meat, offal and raw bone. The diet may also include other ingredients such as vegetables. Raw food is not heat treated. It is available in either frozen or freeze-dried forms and may be commercially produced or home-prepared. 

What is the difference between complete and complementary dog food?

A complete diet delivers all the essential nutrients in the amounts and proportions a dog needs and can be fed alone. Complementary diets, however, do not contain all the nutrients required and are designed to be fed alongside other dog foods that are complete. Traditional and raw dog foods can either be complete or complementary; your dog’s pet food label will detail this. 

What are the risks and benefits of bones or raw food?

More research is needed to establish the benefits of a raw food diet, however, many manufacturers of raw food and owners of dogs consuming raw food report the following:

  • Cleaner teeth
  • Firmer smaller stools
  • Enrichment – more chewing which makes a happier pet
  • A glossy coat 

The known risks of feeding raw food or bones (cooked or raw) to dogs include:

  • Oesophageal foreign bodies – fragments of bones may become lodged in the food pipe which could lead to a life-threatening situation
  • Nutritional deficiencies – home-made diets may not contain all the nutrients a dog may need which could lead to growth abnormalities
  • Infections – there is a higher risk of bacterial and parasitic infections in dogs and their owners, such as salmonella and campylobacter, with raw food. This is because the food is not cooked. Strict hygiene measures are required – the risk of infection from a raw diet is much higher than a cooked one.
  • Bone splintering – when bones are chewed, they may splinter and this could injure your dog’s mouth or gastrointestinal tract as the bones are passed through. Cooked bones are more brittle and likely to splinter
  • Broken teeth – from chewing on tough bones
  • Obstructions – large quantities of hard bone material, which are not easily digested, may lead to a blockage within the gastrointestinal tract
  • Constipation

I want to feed my dog a raw diet, what can I do to reduce the risk?

The correct nutrition is imperative to the maintenance of the health of your dog. It is therefore important to feed a diet that is both nutritionally complete and balanced, whilst also being safe. Responsible raw feeding involves ensuring good hygiene and handling practice when feeding fresh, frozen or freeze-dried raw food:

  • Purchase products that are in good condition. Product packaging should have no visible signs of damage
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after handling your pet and their food
  • Wash and disinfect all surfaces and utensils after handling raw food
  • Remove any left-over food and disinfect your pet’s feeding area as soon as they have finished eating

Zoonotic infections, a disease which can spread from dogs to humans can be a serious problem with raw feeding, especially to those who may have weaker immune systems. The following groups of people need to take particular care around raw food:

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  • Children
  • The elderly 
  • Pregnant women
  • Immunocompromised individuals – for example people who may have cancer or are having chemotherapy treatment

It is important to consider whether feeding a raw diet is safe if sharing a household with higher-risk individuals. Some producers of raw food diets are members of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PMFA) which must adhere to strict guidelines such as screening their food for salmonella. 

Summary

Nutrition is essential in the maintenance of your dog’s health and therefore it is vital to feed a diet which is nutritionally complete, balanced and safe for both pet and owner. Feeding natural animal bones to dogs has well-documented risks to be aware of. Before you consider any new diet or change to your dog’s food, it is important to consider the risks and to discuss these with your vet who can advise you further.

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References;

Davies, R.H., Lawes, J.R. and Wales, A.D. (2019), Raw diets for dogs and cats: a review, with particular reference to microbiological hazards. J Small Anim Pract, 60: 329-339

Martinez‐Anton, L., Marenda, M., Firestone, S., Bushell, R., Child, G., Hamilton, A., Long, S. and Le Chevoir, M. (2018), Investigation of the Role of Campylobacter Infection in Suspected Acute Polyradiculoneuritis in Dogs. J Vet Intern Med, 32: 352-360.

Schlesinger, D. P., & Joffe, D. J. (2011). Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 52(1), 50–54.

Freeman, L. M., Chandler, M. J., Hamper, B. A., and Weeth, L. P. (2013). Current knowledge about the risks and benefits of raw meat–based diets for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, December 1, 2013, Vol. 243, No. 11, Pages 1549-1558.

Weese, J. S., Rousseau, J., & Arroyo, L. (2005). Bacteriological evaluation of commercial canine and feline raw diets. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 46(6), 513–516.