The use of Bones as an Oral Health aid


Dem bones, dem bones, dem doggy bones!

Australians associate the chewing of bones with cleaning their dog’s teeth. There really is no way of getting around that. We feed them all types of bones, little bones, brisket bones, turkey necks, dinosaur bones, big bones and bad bones. However they are not always the best, and sometimes they are actually very bad for your pet’s dental health.

In the United States of America, their Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has released a statement ( outlining Bones should NOT be given to your pet. This is not without reason, however I tend to approach it like talking about sex and drugs with a teenager – from a harm minimisation point of view. I don’t think outright banning is going to help, because those that will continue to utilise bones need some guidance.

First of all, why do we use bones? They’re natural! They are what they are designed to eat! Well yes, I guess. But this doesn’t necessarily give bones any magical propertys to clean your pet’s teeth. There is no doubt that dogs and cats (in the wild) have to use their teeth to eat and will eat bones. This absolutely, in those animals, seems to help reduce the amount of plaque and calculus (tartar). Is it the answer to all our pet’s dental woes? No. Unfortunately there are a couple of things going on here. Firstly, your cute little muffikins is not a wild dog. It’s mum and dad weren’t, and neither were it’s relations going back 20 generations. The breeds we have running around today are far removed from wild ancestors and as part of that their oral anatomy is different too. Their teeth do not work together like their ancestors did. Secondly, it has been shown in a few studies now that although we see a reduction in plaque and calculus in the animals that do have a wild and natural diet incorporating bones (actually of course the whole animal), we don’t see a massive reduction in the levels of disease as compared to our domestic pets. Unfortunately disease occurs under the gumline, and whilst wild animals are seemingly helped by eating a natural diet, they still do get dental disease and could do with a scale and polish once in a while.

So bones are used to help our pet’s gnaw and physically reduce plaque build up. I think this is going to occur, and whenever we can reduce plaque, we can help their oral health. But can bones be that bad? Yes they can. Certainly as a Veterinarian (ask any Veterinarian) I have seen many problems caused by bones. When a GP Vet I would see many dogs suffering from constipation that we associated with bones. Dogs with food poisoning and even Pancreatitis (not strictly bone problem) would be hospitalised. All Vets have seen a dog, and maybe even the odd cat, with a piece of bone stuck. Sometimes they stick in the mouth (longest time I’ve seen one stuck – 10 months), but even worse sometimes they get stuck further down in the oesophagus or in the intestines, requiring massive and dangerous surgery to retrieve. As a Veterinary Dentist I see the effects every day of bones – broken teeth. These broken teeth abscessate and cause massive amounts of pain for the dogs.

So yes bones can have positive effects, but they do have risks – some of those risks can be fatal.

So what bones?

Raw. Never cut. Never, ever cut.

Raw bones that are trimmed down seem to be the most tolerated by dogs. They are not as associated with constipation and if trimmed well, not associated with too many other tummy upsets. Raw seem to not be as fragile either, so less likely to splinter into shards, causing punctures.

Why not cut, like ever cut? Because a cut edge of a bone is easy for the dog to bite over. This involves the large carnassial teeth of the dog overlapping the bone and getting the cut edge stuck between them. As the dogs inevitably bite harder, the top tooth (the upper carnassial or Premolar 4) get a force sideways and ends up fracturing – developing a slab fracture, and subsequently the tooth dies and gets an abscess.

So raw and never cut? What size?

Big. Really big! Even if your pup is 2kg, get a big cow femur (not cut!) from the butcher and let them gnaw on the knuckles. Once they’ve gotten rid of the cartilage, throw the bone in the bin. Big dogs, little dogs, they mostly enjoy these large bones. Chicken frames, necks and wings are generally just treats, and offer minimal resistance when chewing.

I am not a huge fan of bones; I see too many animals affected by them (not all are of course). However, I realise that people still want to use them. If you do please follow these guidelines:

  • Raw
  • Never cut
Dog holding a bone in its mouth