Can Dogs Digest Bones?

can dogs digest bonesI’ve worked with hundreds of different animal species over the years, and I’ve seen an unfortunate number of medical emergencies during this time.

While just about any acute health problem can cause anxiety for both the pet and its owner, choking represents an especially terrifying event, regardless of whether you are talking about lizards, cats or fish.

Unfortunately, many dogs suffer through this type of horror each year, and the offending item is often a bone.

It’s just not a good idea to give your dog bones.

But My Dog Loves Bones!

I can already hear the pushback. Many people have fed their dog bones and have done so without any problem. It’s part of our culture – why do you think we call them “doggie bags?”

Giving your dog a bone almost always results in a happy pup, but this does not mean the practice is safe. After all, most sky divers survive their plunge from a plane, but this hardly makes the activity “safe.” The fact is, while your dog adores them, bones are a high-risk snack for dogs.

Given that the only upside to the practice is a few moments of tail-wagging and lip-smacking (which can easily be achieved with some good ‘ol fashioned haunch scratching and a carrot or other healthy and safe treat), the risk-reward algebra suggests that bones shouldn’t be given to dogs.

It’s difficult to find reliable statistics that track the number of choking-related fatalities that occur each year, but it isn’t hard to find accounts from veterinarians who have seen the problem all too often. In fact, some claim that “bones…are the most common type of foreign body found in the esophagus.”

Dog Bone-Eating Basics: Can Dogs Digest Bones?

Just to be clear, yes, dogs can digest some bones. This is not a great feat in the animal kingdom; bears and hyenas consume bones, as do tortoises and vultures. Even rabbits have also been observed to feed on them too. In fact, you can even digest some bones (if you really want to).

The behavior is so common that biologists even have a name for it: osteophagy or osteophagia.

While the specific reasons animals exhibit the bone-eating behavior may vary, most scientists suspect that munching on bones typically accompanies a shortage of essential nutrients from other available foods.

This doesn’t mean that dogs who like bones have nutritional deficiencies, but it is thought to explain the evolutionary development of how dogs have acquired this skill, in the broad sense.

One Of These Bones Is Not Like The Other

But note that I said that dogs can digest “some” bones. And that’s because not all bones are created equally. Some bones tend to crumble when chewed, while others fracture, often yielding razor-sharp edges that can damage your dog’s digestive system.

Many of the bones found in birds, for example, are very thin, full of air sacs and easy to break. This helps them to keep their weight low and improve the lift-to-body-weight algebra. By contrast, the bones of a cows and pigs are much more massive so they can support the bulk of such large animals, who rarely fly (unless hell freezes over, that is).

is it safe for dogs to eat bones

Even among the bones of a single species, there is great variation. Some bones are extraordinarily dense, while others are filled with hollows and weigh practically nothing. Some have a central void that contains nutrient-rich marrow, while others carry their marrow in flatter, thinner pockets. Still other bones have no marrow at all.

A couple of factors determine how well your dog will digest a given bone.

  • The size of the bone
  • The type of bone
  • The size and health of your dog
  • The condition of your dog’s teeth
  • Your dog’s relative tendency to chew her food

When Bone-Eating Goes Badly

Thousands of dog owners give their pup bones each year. Most probably digest the bones without problem. But this does not mean that bad things don’t happen, because they are far too common.

Starting from the point of entry, let’s examine some of the problems that can occur after offering your dog a bone:

  • Dogs have pretty strong jaws (I’ve written a little more about the subject here), but that doesn’t mean they can eat anything they want. Bones, rocks and other hard items often lead to chipped, broken or dislodged teeth, which can be very painful for your pup and expensive for you to have repaired.
  • Occasionally, dogs will swallow food items that are too large, which become stuck in the throat. Any such swallowed object can quickly result in an emergency situation, but bones may not only block the throat and limit or prevent proper breathing, they also may cause serious wounds to the esophagus.
  • Even food items that reach the stomach safely can cause further harm. While the strong acids and grinding contractions of your dog’s stomach will start to break down the bone, this process can proceed at a variety of speeds, depending on the size and type of bone.
  • Bones – especially sharp fragments thereof – are quite capable of piercing or scraping the intestines. This can have lethal results, particularly if the contents of the intestines compromise the blood stream.
  • Any intact bones (or fragments thereof) can cause lacerations and trauma to your dog’s anus as she tries to pass them.

Uh-oh, You Fed Your Dog a Bone, Now What?

First thing’s first: Don’t panic. Your dog may digest and pass the bone without trouble. The key is to watch for signs of trouble and act accordingly – particularly if the symptoms appear acute.

If your dog exhibits any of the following signs, contact your veterinarian immediately and follow the advice given. These may indicate that your dog is choking, which can be a medical emergency:

  • Extreme stress or panic
  • Pain
  • Rubbing their face or neck on the ground or other objects
  • Increased salivation
  • Repeated attempts to vomit
  • Gagging

Most of these signs would occur shortly after your dog eats a bone. However, it is also important to watch for signs of trouble further along the digestive tract. These include:

  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Intestinal upset
  • Inappetence

While an intestinal obstruction may not be as acute as a choking problem (as choking can block your pup’s airway), it is still a medical emergency that requires urgent care. Contact your veterinarian at once, and proceed as instructed.

It is always wise to familiarize yourself with the canine version of the Heimlich maneuver and other potentially life-saving techniques, which may prove invaluable in such circumstances.

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So, while your dog may digest bones, it is far from guaranteed that she will. Accordingly, it is wiser to err on the side of caution and abstain from offering them. Offer your pup a safer alternative instead!

Some of the chewable treats and toys you can consider include:

  • Indestructible Toys – Just because your dog likes to chew doesn’t mean you have to let him actually eat anything. Most dogs are just as happy chomping on a good, durable chew toy as they are a bone.
  • Treat-Dispensing ToysTreat-dispensing dog toys hold treats or flavored pastes that not only give your dog something to chew, they give him a delicious incentive to do so.

We’d love to hear your questions and experiences with dogs that have eaten bones in the comments below!

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