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Giving Dogs Bones: The How and Why

With the recent scares, recalls, and revelations of questionable ingredients in commercial dog food, it’s no wonder that many pet owners are looking for a better way to feed their canine companions. Homemade dog food is one, noble option that many, including us, have turned to.

Because dogs have co-evolved with humans for so long they can eat, digest, and derive nutrition from many of the foods that humans eat (check out NOVA’s Dogs Decoded Documentary, here on youtube, for more on the bond between dogs and us). That is, many of the foods humans used to eat. Hunter/gathers didn’t frequent McDonald’s, and your dog shouldn’t either.

One thing that is a great supplement to your dog’s diet are bones. Dogs love to chew on and eat bones. They have been doing it for thousands of years, both in the form of leftovers from humans, and from wild game they took down themselves.

Bones supply calcium, an essential mineral and nutrient for healthy canine growth, development, and well being. Without a healthy dose of bones, you must supply this calcium in other ways, either in the form of supplements or in egg shells. But the most natural way for dogs to obtain calcium is by eating bones.

Chewing on bones also helps to keep a dog’s teeth and gums healthy. If a dog doesn’t have bones to gnaw on, they may turn to other sources, such as your furniture, shoes, or tool handles. A nice bone session also lets a dog focus his energy, and is good mental stimulation. These kind of activities, like a long walk, can do wonders to improve poor behavior and help calm stressed or nervous dogs.

Our number one resource for all things pet health has been Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, and in it Dr. Pitcairn lays out a few guidelines to consider when giving your dog bones. First, avoid chicken bones as they easily splinter and can hurt your pet. Try to focus on bones larger than your dogs head, so that they won’t be able to swallow it whole.

Don’t feed cooked bones, only raw ones. Cooked bones also tend to splinter and could be dangerous. Also, avoid feeding frozen bones because your dog may chip or break a tooth. Let them thaw out a bit first.

Dr. Pitcairn also recommends giving your dog a “bone fast” where he eats nothing but bones and has access to plenty of clean water all day. This simulates the natural conditions of predators, and can help clean out your dog’s system and keep him healthy and strong.

Here are some of the things we have learned while feeding bones to our young dog Bolt:

Always watch them carefully; Bolt can chew through a bone in almost no time, especially the epiphyses, or ends of the bone. These smaller pieces can become choking hazards.

Watch out for food aggression issues when feeding bones, especially with dogs that have shown this behavior before. When Bolt was little, he had some food aggression issues–we solved them–but a nice meaty bone can be sooo delicious that your dog may forget himself a bit, and get defensive over it. I try to make sure that he sits, and drops the bone before I take it, and I like to “trade” a piece of meat or other snack for the bone.

I wouldn’t give a dog a bone when other dogs are around. Again, such a treat could lead to a fight and some hurt feelings. If you have two dogs, separate them and give them each a bone to chew on.

As long as you follow a few simple guidelines, feeding your dogs bones is a great way to improve their nutrition, health, and behavior. Introduce bones slowly to their diet, and always watch keep an eye on them.

If you can’t or don’t want to feed raw bones to your dog, try making bone broth. Basically a super charged stock, where bones are cooked down in water (with a touch of vinegar or lemon juice) for hours until they turn to mush. When you can smush the bones between your fingers, it’s done. Add a scoop to the top of your homemade dog food for an extra jolt of calcium and other micronutrients that are present in the bones. Your dog will love it.

3 Comments

  1. Great post Jason! Have y’all heard of giving dogs deer and elk antlers? That’s what we keep around for Max. They’re a little expensive to buy but y’all could probably get ones from the deer you eat. The ones sold in pet supply stores are harvested from the naturally shed antlers of deer and elk. They’re awesome because they last MUCH longer than traditional bones, they’re very safe, they’re nutrient rich, and they help keep plaque buildup down on their teeth. They wear away slowly as dogs chew on them. Once they get too small we throw them away but Max can make a 6 inch bone last weeks and he is a very powerful and persistent chewer. He loves them but I’ve heard a few dogs won’t take to them immediately… in this case you can boil then for a minute or two to bring out the smell of the marrow and they usually are all over them then. We’ve really been happy with these. Max has too :) only precaution is not giving them to dogs until they get their adult teeth as they are very hard and puppies may hurt their teeth on them. Love you guys!

  2. I should add that I’ve read online a few sources where dogs have been breaking their adult teeth on antlers but I think it’s like you said… it all comes down to observing your dog as he or she chews. If the dog is trying to bear down too hard or attempting to break the antler in half then it may not be a good treat for that particular dog. Ours is obviously just having a casual chew and enjoys the slow wearing away by chewing on either end of the antler. I’m sure people are also making a mistake in giving them to dogs who may have dental problems due to being older or may have a calcium deficiency to begin with and their teeth may be more prone to breaking. What are y’all’s favorite bones to give?

    • Thanks sarah! That’s really cool. I’ve never heard of giving dogs antlers, but that makes perfect sense, we’ll definitely have to try it. Bolt gets a mix of upper and lower arm/leg bones, and he can devour them in about 25 minutes (it would be completely gone if we left him alone). We need to get bolt and max together for a dog date!

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