What Every Dog Owner Should Know About Dog Bones

Bones should be large enough for your dog to get his mouth around but not small enough to pose a choking hazard.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

Given the choice, most dogs would rather chew on bones than your shoes or furniture, but finding those that offer your pooch long-lasting chewing pleasure while posing minimal health risks can be a challenge. Most leading vets advise against natural bones. And though you see rawhide chews in every grocery store doesn't necessarily mean they're harmless. A bone should be large enough to fit comfortably between your dog's jaws but not so small that he could choke on it. Your dog's chewing style is also important: A voracious chomper is more likely to run into bone-related problems than a dainty nibbler.

Real Bones

Carmela Stamper of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine says unequivocally: "Bones are unsafe, no matter what their size." Risks of allowing dogs to chew on natural bones include broken teeth, jaw injuries and perforations of the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract caused by sharp splinters. Veterinarian T.J. Dunn concurs wholeheartedly, disagreeing with the argument that bones are "natural" for dogs to chew on because their ancestor, the wolf, does so without adverse health effects. That's just an assumption, not an irrefutable fact, Dunn says. If a wolf suffered a serious internal injury from a bone, it would die in the wild, not be taken to a vet's clinic for autopsy.

Views on Rawhide Bones

The American Animal Hospital Association calls rawhide chews "pretty harmless" but adds that "moderation is the key." Among the dangers: Dogs can choke on them, or the rawhide can ball up in the stomach to form blockages. U.K. dental veterinarian Norman Johnstone takes a dim view of rawhide unless it's softened in water before being given to your dog. Research has shown that "surprisingly small amounts of force" can fracture dogs' teeth, he says. For example, dry rawhide strips need more than 440 pounds of force for a tooth to pierce them -- and that's more than twice the force needed to fracture the tooth. Also be mindful of your dog's chewing style, says Virginia dog trainer Karen Peak. Dogs who chew up and wolf down rawhide as fast as they can are the most vulnerable to potential problems.

Concerns About Rawhide

Most consumers don't realize that rawhide is a by-product of the leather industry, not the beef, writes Nancy Kerns, editor of "The Whole Dog Journal." Since few tanneries now exist in the U.S., more than $1 billion worth of hides are exported to China annually. Typically, weeks or months pass before these hides reach their destination, whereupon they're treated with a variety of potentially toxic chemicals. To mask discoloration from decomposition and increase shelf appeal, the rawhide is bleached and often gets an additional coat of the industrial whitening agent, titanium dioxide, used in paint and plastics. In 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, classified this chemical as a type 2B carcinogen, concluding that it causes cancer in animals and possibly in humans too.

Manufactured Dog Bones

While synthetic bones made of nylon, plastic or rubber are the least likely of all to harm your dog, not everyone likes the idea. Nancy Kerns says, "I wouldn’t eat plastic...and I don’t allow my dog to chew up and swallow bits of plastic-based chew toys, either." Still, manufactured bones tend to be tougher and longer-lasting than rawhide and can be infused with tastes dogs like. Even so, Karen Peak cautions again, "you must know your dog." Extremely aggressive chewers can tear up rubber and swallow the pieces, or splinter a nylon bone. Few dogs find synthetic bones as palatable as rawhide, but buying those that you can stuff with peanut butter or cheese will solve that problem.