The joy of bones

Jonathan Self

Elsa, our whippet, is (and I am embarrassed to admit this) too lazy to spend time with a marrow bone but she will delicately gnaw at a chicken wing. Cosmo, our Bichon, buries any chicken wing you give him although generally forgetting where. If not stopped, he drags his marrow bones up onto our sofa pushing them between the cushions for later. Thinking of earlier dogs each has had their own approach to bones. Darling was passionate about lamb ribs, Bertha about turkey necks and Barbara’s excitement when given a rabbit carcass knew no bounds.

Yet, if I am honest, over the years I probably haven’t given our dogs as many bones as I should. This is partly because there is tiny ground up bone in our food, so I know they are benefiting from its nutritional value. And partly because since we generally have several dogs in residence (only having two at the moment is unusual) our home begins to resemble a charnel house if they all have bones on the go.

The fact is that dogs not only love bones, but they need them, too. Even if you are feeding Honey’s (most of our recipes include one one-third, finely ground, raw meaty bone) your dog will really benefit from the occasional bone. Before I explain why, a word of reassurance.

Don’t worry ­­– be happy (for your dogs)

You may be worried about giving your dog a raw bone to chew on. Perhaps you are concerned that your dog will choke or, worse, that the bone will cause a blockage. Rest assured, there is nothing healthier, safer or more nutritious for a dog than a raw, meaty bone. In the wild, providing they have a choice, all animals eat what is best for them. For dogs, this means small prey or, if hunting in a pack, a share of larger prey. They are thrifty, too. Nothing is wasted, and that includes the bones. Initially, bones are ripped, torn, chewed and sucked to remove all the meat and marrow. Then they are gnawed, crunched and (if small enough) eaten whole. There is plenty of scientific evidence to prove this. In Australia, for example, S. J. O. Whitehouse studied the diet of hundreds of wild dogs and found that they regularly ate bones. A. E. Newsome did similar research with similar results. In the UK, Neville Buck studied a wide range of dogs and wolves at Howletts and Port Lympne wild animal parks and came to the same conclusion. Remember, too, that a dog’s digestive system works very differently to ours. They have much stronger stomach acids (as strong as hydrochloric acid), so raw bones pose no problem once swallowed.

Bones are packed full of vital nutrients

Bones contain a huge number of nutrients that are vital to your dog’s health. These include:

  • Minerals, including calcium, magnesium and phosphorous
  • Protein-containing essential amino acids, including lysine
  • Essential fatty acids
  • Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and E)
  • Blood-forming nutrients (these are in the marrow), including copper and iron

One of the leading experts on the nutritional benefits of bones is Dr Conor Brady (author of Feeding Dogs and founder of the brilliant website, Dogs First). He says:

“Dogs eat whole prey. That’s what those big, back teeth are all about. They are bone crunchers and consumers. It stands that they gain some nutrition from them. In fact, they say bones feed bones in dogs. First off, a raw meaty bone  contain lots of fresh cartilage which is a source of glucosamine, collagen, chondroitin and vitamin C to your dog (how does it make sense to wait until their joints are ruined before adding this stuff into their food?!). Bones also contain lots of protein and minerals vital for bone growth, including lysine and easily assimilated natural calcium, as well as micro minerals, such as selenium, copper and magnesium. These are all essential to young pups and brood bitches, as they help build strong teeth, joints and bones. On top of this, raw bones provide some much needed roughage in their diet. They have a cleansing/scouring effect on the dogs digestive tract, and the roughage encourages healthy faecal motions that stimulate the anal glands.”

Bones are vital for oral health

Meaty bones are nature’s toothbrushes. They keep your dog’s teeth clean and gums healthy. They stop the build-up of plaque and prevent decay. As a result, your dog shouldn’t develop any of the nasty oral diseases to which many of those on processed food are prone. It will also mean he or she has sweeter breath. You may be interested to know that a growing number of vets believe that there is a close connection between oral health and general health. One veterinary dentist who has studied this is Dr Gary Beard of Auburn University in Alabama. He has written a paper pointing out that heart failure, hepatic compromise, renal failure and other serious diseases in dogs could be a direct result of poor oral hygiene. Another US vet, Dr Richard Hamlin, of Ohio State University, agrees. He believes that poor dental hygiene in dogs can lead to diseases of the heart, liver and lungs.

I just want to quote Dr Brady again because he makes a good point regarding bones and oral health:

“Mark et al (2016)  evaluated beef bones as chew items to reduce dental calculus in adult dogs. They found raw bone consumption reduced dental calculus by 57% after three days and by 82% after twelve days. Again, no complications such as tooth fractures or intestinal obstructions were observed during the trial.”

Enough said!

Bones are great for mental health

Two further benefits of giving your dog bones should be mentioned. They provide your dog with exercise, strengthening their jaws and upper body. They keep your dog occupied (dogs that have a bone to chew are happier and calmer). Indeed, when dogs chew on bones it releases Dopamine, which makes them calmer and leads to better behaviour.

Three vital rules

From the above you will gather why I feel I should probably be giving our four-legged family members more bones. Before I explain what sort of bones three vital rules:

  • Bones must always be raw. Heat changes the chemical compounds in bone, making it brittle and indigestible, and therefore more liable to splinter and cause gut issues. Cooked bone should never, ever be given to a dog.
  • Dogs should be supervised when they have a bone – particularly for the first few times. You may like to limit your dog to just 20 to 30 minutes with the bone – you can always re-offer it to them on another occasion. This policy stops the dog taking in too much bone at once. Incidentally, some dogs like bones so much that they can become a little possessive, especially if guarding behaviour is something that has already proved an issue. In this situation, you may wish to stick to chicken wings and other soft bones that they will chew and swallow in a single sitting. Another approach is to keep bone sessions short.
  • One of the benefits of bones is that they help to firm up poo. However, if feeding bones during hot weather, make sure that your dog is also drinking plenty of water as otherwise he or she may become constipated.

Be marrow minded

Of all the bones you can give your dog, the most desirable (from the dog’s perspective) is likely to be a marrow bone. Why? Marrow bones (yum, yum) can be a complete meal in themselves because they are bursting with nutrition. However, do remember they also contain a higher percentage of (good, healthy) fat and so should only be given in moderation to dogs who need to lose a little weight. I don’t generally recommend marrow bones for dogs that are really focussed chewers, as they can sometimes hurt their teeth in their enthusiasm.

Know your bone

Raw feeders divide bones into two main types: licking/chewing bones and eating/swallowing bones.

Licking/chewing (and gnawing) bones help to keep teeth clean and gums healthy. Into this group fall marrow bones (although they also contain a good deal of nutrition) and knuckle end bones.

Eating/swallowing bones are part of the dog’s daily nutrition if on a raw food diet and provide about a third of the nutrition. Into this group fall chicken or duck wings, backs (carcasses) and necks, as well as lamb ribs, lamb necks, pork ribs, pork tails and pork trotters.

Choosing the right bone

The type of bone that is suitable for your dog will depend on your dog’s breed, size and personality.

Some dogs are ‘hard’ chewers. Once they get their paws on a bone their main objective is to finish the whole bone as quickly as possible. These dogs are better served softer eating/swallowing bones. A knuckle end can be tried but it is important to remove the bone completely once they have chewed it down to a size that they could swallow.

Other dogs are ‘soft’ chewers and can (happily for them) be given any sort of a bone.

As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the bone, the better; in most cases it should be at least the size of the dog’s head.

Bone no-no’s

Bones that have been air-dried, smoked or cooked (which denatures the bone and makes it brittle so will cause splintering when chewed) are to be avoided completely as they may perforate the GI tract. Also, please don’t serve denatured bone as it is indigestible and may cause blockages. I also suggest exercising caution when it comes to hooves. They can be sharp and may cut the mouth, tongue or gums.

Good news for poorly dogs

If your dog has chronic pancreatitis, the marrow can be scooped out of a marrow bone and replaced with mashed squash, pumpkin, carrot or cottage cheese and frozen as a low-fat option.

Some bone feeding tips 

Dogs love bones from pretty much any animal or bird you care to mention.

A good bone to start with is a beef marrow bone. We can supply them but alternatively ask the butcher to cut it to the right size for your dog: too large to be swallowed in a single gulp, small enough to handle.

In terms of size, the general rule is that a chewing bone should be longer than the width of the dog’s mouth.

Carcasses (yes, carcasses!) from chickens, turkeys and ducks are excellent, too.

Only feed raw bones. When a bone is cooked, it hardens and may splinter.

Choose bones from young animals. Most bones you obtain from a butcher are bound to be from a younger animal, but it is worth checking. Older animals (and birds) may have harder bones, which are again, more likely to splinter.

The first time you give your dog a raw bone, stay around to watch. Inexperienced dogs can become overexcited and there is a slim possibility of choking. For this reason, a large, meaty knucklebone is perfect. Lamb bones and especially ribs, although excellent (if fattening), can get caught in the mouth and should only be fed to more experienced dogs. If your dog always chews all the meat off first, then lamb necks need to be treated with caution.

If your dog is new to the raw food diet, I recommend limiting the amount of ‘bone chewing’ time to begin with. You could start with half an hour a day and build from that.

When bones are a bad idea

There are a few instances where bones should be fed with caution or not at all. If a dog has just had stomach or anal gland surgery, you should give bones a miss. Some dogs just can’t get on with bones, and this needs to be taken into account.

Free bone advice

If would like more advice about feeding bones please don’t hesitate to contact us at Honey’s. We can supply most types of raw bone sourced from our own producers and therefore from pasture-fed, organic and wild animals. Equally, we will be happy to provide tips on how to source elsewhere.