feeding-your-dog-bonesLast Sunday, I was outside the hospital (which is in my backyard) tending to the early-spring shrubs in the oh-so-bizarre warmth of 80 degrees in March in New England. The peace and privacy that is a Sunday, the only day of the week our hospital is closed, was broken by a car zooming up the driveway, wind-surfing Brittany spaniel bobbing out the back window.

For a moment, I thought it might be Jessie’s new owners bringing her back for a visit unannounced. But this dog could see me.

Pruning shears in hand, clad in dirty work clothes, I approach the car. A woman rolls down her car window and in heavy accent barks, “Are you open?”


Does it look like we’re open? “It’s Sunday,” I say. Deep breath. Compassion. Understanding. “Do you have an emergency?” I say.

“My dog has a bone stuck in her mouth.” The young Brittany in the backseat looks like she is smiling because indeed, she has a beef marrow bone stuck on her lower jaw.

My husband, Andy, opens the hospital for them and takes down their information as I begin to find the tools to try and remove the bone jammed around the poor dog’s mandible.

“Do you have a vet?” Andy asks.

“Oh yes, we have vet.” I see the rabies tag on Bella, a 9-month-old Brittany pup, from a hospital closer to Bella’s home. Maybe they did a drive-by there as well and found nobody in. Why did they drive 40 minutes to see me? I think they are friends of Jessie’s.

FYI, these drive-bys happen a lot, and I am always amazed that clients haven’t called first to make sure I’m at the hospital. I realize my clients know I live at my practice. But don’t I ever go, say, to the supermarket? Out for lunch? I think they think I have food air-lifted in so I never have to leave the premises.

If you have an emergency, unless you know you are going to a 24-hour emergency vet, or are going to your own vet during regular hours, always call first. The few minutes it takes to beep your vet or get instructions on where to take your pet can be, in some instances, life-saving.

In the case of Bella, I didn’t ask anymore questions. I was there. The dog was there. I could handle this without a full staff. Get the bone removed from the poor dog’s mouth and send her on her way!

With a Knick Knack Paddywack, Give the Dog a Bone… Really?

Circular bones caught around lower jaws, and sticks or bones lodged in the roof of a dog’s mouth, are very common emergencies. I don’t recommend giving dogs bones, for this and many other reasons.

If your dog has been chewing on a foreign object and suddenly begins pawing at its mouth with both front paws, try to carefully open and look at the roof of the mouth. If you see the object wedged there, try carefully to extricate it with pliers or forceps. If you can’t dislodge it, get to the vet (call first!).

When you see a dog with a marrow bone stuck on its face, your first thought is, How is that possible? How did that bone get stuck behind the lower canines?! Well, it happens, and you usually need a large implement like a bolt cutter to split the bone and remove it. In adorable Bella’s case, it was so tight against the jaw and she was such a gregarious but stressed puppy, we needed a little drug help before removing the bone.

I sent Mr. and Mrs. Drive-by out for a drive-through burger. We sedated Bella just enough to get the trusty bolt cutters between the jaw and the bone and, voila, Bella no longer looked like she had selected bad body jewelry at the tattoo parlor. She left the hospital in about an hour, running, jumping, eating. The bone was nothing more than a folly of youth.

These marrow bones are very hard to remove by yourself. You can hurt the jaw or the teeth if you try to pull it off (usually impossible). Trying to cut the bone with bolt cutters is dangerous and may require some anesthesia in order to do it safely.

Seriously, folks, BONES ARE A BAD IDEA.

Poor Bella looked like she had selected bad body jewelry at a tattoo parlor.

I probably see an obvious bone emergency every one to two months, and that’s not counting the HGEs (hemorrhagic gastroenteritis), the severe vomiting/diarrhea cases associated with bone chewing, and, unfortunately, the fatal or almost fatal emergencies that occur when bones become lodged in the esophagus or perforate an organ. These things really do happen.

Recently, I heard of a colleague who was presented with a dead Frenchie who had suffocated on a bone lodged in her trachea. Don’t give bones to brachycephalic breeds. These dogs can barely pass food down that throat and breathe, let alone swallow a bone.

Last month, a 13-year-old German shepherd that had recently survived a massive splenectomy surgery I performed (the splenic tumor weighed 9 pounds!) got into the family trash and consumed two large buckets of discarded chicken bones. I guess the loss of a spleen didn’t affect her appetite! This dog became deathly sick but survived. The radiographs of the stomach packed with pounds of bones were astonishing. She survived with a lot of veterinary supportive care, luck and a little help from that Guardian Angel of Stupid Dogs who lives in the sky.

If your dog eats a small bone or a piece of bone, your dog will usually pass it without a problem. But watch for signs of anorexia, vomiting, etc., and check with your vet if you know your dog consumed bones. If your case is anything like the case of my shepherd who ate the remains of KFC party buckets, you’ve probably got an emergency on your hands.

Old Mother Hubbard, Shut That Cupboard

Ah, the cupboard was bare! Yay for Mother Hubbard’s doggie.

When I discourage giving bones to bone enthusiasts, I often hear, “But he’s always had bones with no problem.”

Right. The majority of dogs do okay with the occasional bone treat. But if you give bones as a treat or as a chew aid, you are taking a chance on causing a complication. I almost lost a Boston terrier to a Nylabone ingestion, and these are generally thought to be very safe. This Boston, however, was actually able to bite off a 2-inch section of the Nylabone and swallow it whole. It became lodged in her intestine and obstructed her.

She made it, but suffered a big ordeal before coming out on the other (happy) side.

The BARF Diet

I stick my foot in controversy once again… And BARF!

A lot of research is being done about raw diets (BARF is an acronym for Bones And Raw Food), and more still needs to be done. But veterinarians are seeing more and more problems associated with pathogens from raw diets, unbalanced nutrition and damage to the GI tract because of raw diets and bones in raw diets. There is a lot of hype by some media-happy veterinarians, breeders and would-be experts about the fabulous benefits of raw diets. These benefits remain unproven. Research is ongoing.

I look forward to more solid evidence about the pros and cons of many diets. But there are certain risks associated with raw diets that you should be aware of. There is wide agreement about this in the international veterinary community, including among many alternative and homeopathic veterinary experts.

Pets eating a raw diet are at risk for the following:

  • Mild to serious infection and illness from GI pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.
  • Damage to the GI tract by bones causing anything from mild GI signs to transient bloody diarrhea to death.
  • Toxoplasmosis.
  • Creating a risk to their humans who can contract serious to deadly infection from salmonella, etc.
  • Nutritional imbalance.

However, Nature’s Variety raw foods meet the AAFCO’s standards for a totally balanced pet diet. This company also puts its diet through food trials and tests batches for pathogens. Raw foods from a few other companies also meet AAFCO standards, including Bravo! Balance Raw Food Diet, Primal Pet Foods and Steve’s Real Food for Dogs.

Human medicine dictates that therapy dogs traveling to nursing homes, hospitals, etc. should not be fed raw food because of the danger to the human patients. Legal experts tell veterinarians not to sell raw diets because the veterinarian could be implicated if a human in the household develops salmonella, etc. The overwhelming medical opinion recommends that you never feed a raw diet to a pet in a household containing children under the age of 12.

I was brought up in a very carnivorous household, eating very rare meat from an early age. If I choose to continue to eat under-cooked meat, which is considered a health risk, at least I know what I am doing and, with luck, would be aware of and treat a severe GI infection before it is too late. But you may not realize your pet is beginning to suffer from serious GI disease. Maybe the pet isn’t acting sick and you miss the warning signs. These pathogens can travel quickly. Your dog may become very ill in a short time.

‘Like a Dog With a Bone…’

In that carnivorous, old-world household of mine, giving a dog a bone was as natural as eating red meat, potatoes and vegetables every night of the week. (Tuna casserole on Friday. We were very Catholic.) My family considered it natural for Pepe the poodle to take his occasional T-bone, go under the end table, tear it to pieces and growl at us if we tried to go near him. Pepe the miniature poodle, aka Wolf Dog. (My family made a lot of mistakes with our dogs.)

When I adopted the now famous hound dog named Elvis, I had him in the house about a month when I threw him a bone. This usually mild-mannered dog was happily gnawing away on the bone on the ugly shag rug when I noticed him glare at one of my twin toddlers in the room. I approached to take the bone away from Elvis. Mild hound dog — now transformed into Mighty Warrior Dog because of the bone — almost took my hand off. Let’s just say I became master over dog and bone, and won. That was Elvis’ short sojourn into bone heaven. He never growled or threatened me again. Or anyone else.

Chalk up one more reason for leaving the bones at the butcher! Don’t enforce guarding behavior of any kind.

Here’s an early Easter poem from a non-poet:

May your days be bright and sunny
Enjoy that Easter ham

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  • Toast_particle

    I have to say I really like articles by Dr. Deb.  :)  I like the way you’re not afraid to speak your mind and relay personal experiences (and disasters!) It makes the advice more easy to relate to and shows us that even vets make mistakes with their own pets, as well as learning from them.
    I just wanted to add that pork bones are particularly prone to splintering, even the large long ones from a pork shank. I have only had one dog in my life, a pitbull/lab mix. He was the biggest, goofiest, most devoted and lovable guy. I learned from the mistake of giving him one of those thinking that as big as it was, he wouldn’t be able to hurt himself with it. He wasn’t aggressive about keeping it either. I trained him from a pup to be gentle when eating and not territorial about his food. Anyway, 2 days after I gave him that bone he was happily grinding away at it, all scraps of meat already gone, when I heard a loud CRAAAACK and a quiet yipe. The bone didn’t crack but one of his molars did. He had to have it removed and he was barely a year old. Lesson learned…

    • PetsAdviser

      Thanks for your comment. We really appreciate the feedback!

      Awww, that poor fella was having the time of his life gnawing away at his bone, and then… “a quiet yipe” and a broken tooth. Thanks for sharing this story, another real-world reminder that bones can be dangerous despite our careful monitoring.

  • millian

    OK, I had to respond because I have found there are more benefits to feeding my pets a raw diet than a dry factory processed food, no matter how natural is not natural for dogs, or cats for that matter.

    Maybe you can clear this up, but:

    1. It my understanding that the reason most dogs do not get salmonella or gastric upset is that their stomachs are shorter and carry the food in and out of the body rather quickly, a wolf vestige of eating as a scavenger. In fact, is has been discussed that our precious Fidos, no matter how poodle they are, are wolves at heart.

    2. In general there are few problems with dogs eating bones such as turkey necks provided they are NOT cooked ever, as this causes splintering of the bone. Raw bones bend like a rubber band and are excellent for teeth, i.e., no dental scaling needed, which puts our pets at great risk.

    3. The amount of fillers in dry food causes excessive poop that stinks more than a raw diet/grain-free binder-free. Dogs do not need corn, rice, peas, sweet potatoes. GI upsets, allergies, weakened immune systems, resulting death — these end up sounding like CHA-CHING $$ at the vet’s office.

    4. Another benefit of the raw diet is sweeter-smelling poop! And a quarter of the poop you have to pick up. Healthy poop is dense, tight, compact and dries to a small dark poop. Not the massive mounds our poor pets have to process from most dry foods hustled as “scientifically proven.” That said, I have had fantastic dry grain-free binder-free brands. Though pricey, they are worth it if you want to alternate dry and raw. Another perk is there is no disruption of the GI by switching to raw from grain-/binder-free dry food.

    It seems to me that given all the major life-threatening issues that commercial dog food represents, vets should be more supportive of us not having to take our pets in for things that could be prevented by diet and exercise. I would love to hear the vet’s take on this.

    • Dr. Deb

      I’m an advocate of keeping my patients healthy and not losing them to fatal GI or esophageal perforations from bones. Unfortunately, this can and does happen on a raw diet.  And no, I don’t like going in for any emergency in the middle of the night for a bone eater or a non bone eater!  It’s not about a bottom line.  Nobody comes out a winner if you lose a dog to a bone obstruction OR an auto-immune disease.  Good vets are plenty busy enough without wishing ANY harm on ANY animal. 

      All systems have evolved since dogs kind of split from wolves 9, 10, or 14,000 years ago, depending on who you read.  Even many raw fanatics have concerns about feeding raw to small breed dogs.

      Veterinarians worth their salt (poor gastronomic pun) have no financial gain when it comes to pet foods.  Some of the special diets help us with a specific medical problem and so I carry some Veterinary diets. But the mark-up is ridiculously small on these diets and they take up room in my clinic and I have to give up employee time for ordering and we have to listen to clients complain if their specific amount and type of food didn’t get shipped and they’re already out…SOOO, I don’t think most of us want to SELL food. We do it as a service and a medical help. We want to have our animals on the best diets to suit their needs. 

      I’m not a fanatic about pet food.  I am excited to see more and more research being done, particularly on raw and home cooked diets, making them more balanced, making them safer, etc. There is very little money around for this work but dedicated people are trying.

      Most dogs can eat salmonella infected foods and not get sick.  Some get sick.  Yes, there are risks in all foods but raw diets pose a particular risk to dogs that owners should be aware of.  They definitely pose a risk to humans.  The CDC has evidence of this.  

      I have seen fads come and go for a long time.  I tend not to get on bandwagons because EVIDENCE BASED RESEARCH may be right around the corner.  

      Many years ago, much of  the veterinary community was pretty hot on dry cat foods.  I don’t know, it just seemed to me that cats needed a variety and I did indeed want to give my cats something closer to a mouse than a hard kernel of brown crud.  Now we know why a “wet” diet (call it canned, meat, whatever you like) is far superior for cats than dry food.  In fact, if Americans could tolerate it, many nutritionists would like to have “mouse supper” on the shelf right next to “super supper.” But cats on raw diets only suffer from deficiencies. It’s a fact.

      I love that people are passionate about what they feed their animals because it means they care tremendously.  But I caution the zealots.  We need more information.  Luckily, the veterinary community is passionate too about learning and making recommendations BASED ON EVIDENCE.  Hats off to the people working hard, trying to raise research dollars.  They’re in it because they love what they do.  They don’t make a lot of money.

      • Rachel

        I have a hard time accepting a raw diet that dogs have been eating successfully for thousands of years as a fad. I would think the processed dry dog food that has been around 60 years a bit more of a fad wouldn’t you?

      • Anthony

        Rachel is right! The statement about the modern dog’s systems “evolving” is total crap. The digestive system inside ANY breed domestic dog 100% identical to that of the wild wolf. Don’t believe me? Then do the research and look it up. 😀 A Raw, whole prey diet is as natural of a diet as anyone can feed their dogs and cats. It’s us humans that have messed up our furkids by over breeding for money, switching to kibble and commercial based raw FOR MONEY, and over-vaccinating through the vet associations…FOR MONEY. It’s a sad reality, but a reality none-the-less. With that said, there are plenty of awesome vets out there that are on board with holistic styles of medicine and diets, even ones that aren’t officially deemed “holistic”. But the majority of vets are still on board with following what the “system” teaches them, which is based off of companies with financial gain in mine, i.e. learning a small section on diet in vet school from instructions sponsored by kibble manufacturers, and learning vaccine protocols from vaccine distribution sponsors and vet associations whom also benefit from such. The best way to take care of our furkids is to keep them as natural as possible, the way mother nature intended. Raw whole prey diet, first round of vaccines (most vaccines last a puppy’s lifetime…including rabies), then let them be dogs and love them for many years to come 😀

  • Msminnamouse

    I’m not interested in feeding raw meat diets but the “Prey model raw” diet seems to be all the rage currently and I’m curious about one thing. Is a diet that solely consists of meat, bone (let’s pretend the injuries from bones isn’t an issue right now) and animal fat even nutritionally complete, if fed in the correct amounts (if there even is such a thing)?

    • SilverMissy

      It’s not just meat and bone, Its 80% meat, 10%bone, 10%organs (5% liver, 5% other organs). That is a completely balanced raw prey model diet.

  • Erica Busch

    I just have to add in my .02… as far as research on raw diets, aren’t thousands of years of thriving dogs eating whole prey proof that this is the diet they were made to eat? I just can’t imagine feeding my dog what most Vets recommend – diets that are more suited to a cow than a dog, filled with corn and other grains that are unsuited to a carnivore, but packed with enough vitamins and fillers to sustain them. My personal experience, feeding raw for 5 years and premium kibble for years before that, is that my dogs are absolutely healthiest on raw. I totally agree that cooked bones are NEVER safe! I bought a sterilized round marrow bone for my Corgi puppy, from the pet store, and he also got it stuck around his jaw, had to get it removed at the Vet and his jaw was injured in the process. It was awful & I learned from that not to give any cooked bones, or bones they can’t break down and digest like any from large ungulates. That was my only bone issue. On the other hand, my dog almost died from a massive intestinal infection and HGE, while eating a popular kibble. He developed awful internal yeast infections, too, from a lack of good bacteria and probiotics on a Vet diet. On raw, he’s amazingly healthy! There might be risks of feeding raw (which I feel is non-existent if you’re feeding digestible bones & supervising) but those risks are so worth the benefits… think about how many dogs bloat, choke, and suffer from all kinds of health issues from kibble (both of my dogs’ fatty lumps also disappeared on raw). My dogs also have the nicest, cleanest teeth you’ll ever see on a 13 & 6 year-old, no chips or cracks or tartar! Life has risks, but if you’re smart and educate yourself, you can minimize the risks to your dog. (:

  • Bee

    so these raw foods are okay ?  Nature’s Variety raw foods meets the AAFCO’s standards for a totally balanced pet diet. This company also puts its diet through food trials and tests batches for pathogens. Raw foods from a few other companies also meet AAFCO standards, including Bravo! Balance Raw Food Diet, Primal Pet Foods and Steve’s Real Food for Dogs.

    • PetsAdviser

      Hi Bee,

      Yes, that’s what she’s saying, that certain raw food diets that meet AAFCO standards and don’t contain large bone chunks are probably okay.

  • Msminnamouse

    Are cooked duck feet okay (with the claws removed)? I’ve been seeing these in boutique dog stores.

  • Dr. Deb

    The duck feet probably pose the same risks as pig ears, etc.  If the dog swallows too big a piece, it can cause gastritis or an obstruction.  But overall, I think these look pretty safe.  

  • Rachel

    lol how much are you getting from the dog food industry to dissuade people from feeding a raw diet which is what these animals have been eating for thousands of years? The absolute trash they put in kibble and the incredible poor quality control is a crime IMO and to support it’s use exposes you as a shill. Good solid raw food is the way to go period!

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      You know nothing about Dr. Deb, and it’s really ridiculous that you would call her a shill for the pet food industry. What she was doing — which you would have seen had you actually read the post — is warning people not to feed bones because she has personally had to surgically remove them when they get caught in dog’s mouths. She then goes on to offer alternatives like certain RAW foods that do not use bones. You want to feed bones, you do so, at your own risk. But how dare you make those accusations without knowing anything about her.

  • SilverMissy

    Been feeding raw diet for 3 years, know people that feed for over 20 years. We all feed RAW bones and we all avoid feeding bones that are from weight-bearing animals such a cows, moose, etc. We NEVER feed bare bones, always attached to meaty pieces. And when we do feed large chunks of beef (we feed whole prey model) we take the beef bone away once the meat as been picked off. Raw bones are okay to feed if you know which wants are a) not teeth shattering and b) are edible. Never feed bone with kibble waaay to much calcium…. better yet, ditch the kibble, its crap!

  • beenice

    Every raw feeding post I read has different opinions about which raw bones are safe. Dr. Karen Becker DVM says grind bones up to be added to food or use the big weight bearing bones for teeth cleaning and recreation. Some say give chicken necks others call them a choking hazard. Wolf/Dog comparison is tricky because wolves have a bite strength of 1500 lbs/sq. in, and a German Shepard , as an example for comparison, only 750. We tried our boxer of 5 mo. on raw for 3 weeks using chicken legs/thigh bones. He kept throwing up bone pieces or passing them in his stool. Then I read brachiocephalic dogs like, boxers, bull dogs, pugs…do not have a jaw shape for chewing raw bones. Ugh, so many opinions, just like diet ideas for humans.