Saturday, October 3, 2009

Feeding dogs bones: the great debate

Williston runs on bones. This little beagle regularly chows down on bones and is pretty happy about life. Now if you want to start a great debate, ask a room full of dog people, including veterinarians, about feeding bones. Controversy ensues, and no one agrees.

Proponents of feeding bones talk about the benefits:

  • Healthy teeth – chewing bones scrapes plaque from teeth, keeping gums healthy, which keeps breath fresh and eliminates unhealthy and expensive dental cleanings. (Unhealthy because dogs need to be sedated for most dental procedures.)
  • Exercise – eating bones is a full body experience for a dog – they get right into it, holding the bone down with their paws and tugging at it through their back and shoulders with their jaws
  • An outlet for chewing – particularly for young dogs who are teething, most will chose to nosh down on a raw bone instead of your favourite piece of furniture
  • Nutritious – provides calcium and other nutrients
  • Entertainment value– chewing bones is an endurance activity where dogs spend hours at it making their days happily pass by

Opponents talk about the risks of feeding bones:

  • Serious health problems – choking or gastrointestinal obstruction (GI) occur when bone splinters or chunks break off and lodge in the dog’s throat restricting breathing, or somewhere in the dog’s intestines causing life-threatening circulatory problems
  • Bacteria – ingesting bones brings salmonella and parasites into your home that can infect your dog and family
  • Cracked or broken teeth – vigorous bone chewing can break pieces of teeth causing pain and expense
  • Digestive problems – dogs vomit or get diarrhoea from eating bones
  • Obesity – dogs eat too much, then get fat
  • Aggression – by eating raw bones, dogs become aggressive

I'd love to find some science-based information on this heavily debated topic.

In my opinion RAW bones – never cooked or smoked - are good for some, but not all dogs for the reasons stated above. Cooked bones are much more likely to splinter and cause harm and should never be served.

Most dog toys and treats are not government regulated, so many of the negatives that can happen with bones, can happen with other pet-store supplied goods. Really, how healthy is that pig’s ear you just fed your dog?

Bones can cause serious health problems, and so can lots of other things. We know of dogs that have eaten rocks, bath towels, Power Rangers and baby soothers that have gotten lodged in their intestines. All of these needed veterinary care and in some cases painful and expensive and surgery – and in one case, death. There are risks, and those risks are present every day when you live with a dog.

If your dog gets digestive problems, cut back on the amount of bone you’re serving – it’s likely the rich marrow that’s causing the problem.

Obese dogs are given too many calories. Those calories can come from food, treats or bones. It’s up to humans to provide suitable serving sizes.

Aggression and food aggression in particular is not caused by bones. All dogs should be trained to give items, including food and bones, to their people.

If you want to serve bones as part of your dog’s diet:

  • Buy raw bones with meat attached. If you’re unsure, go to a specialty pet store and they can guide you in the right direction. Keep the marrow, and remove large chunks of fat. The serving size should be appropriate to your dog’s size.
  • To minimize bacteria issues, feed bones, and all meals for that matter, in a place away from people– eg. outside or on a washable mat. In the book Not Fit for a Dog, Veterinarian Michael Fox recommends scalding raw bones to reduce the risk.
  • When giving bones or other foods or toys, supervise your dog so you know they’re ingesting properly and not choking.

Do your own research and make choices that are right for you and your dog. If you love heated, controversial debates, next time you’re out with dog people, bring the topic up.

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