Ask a Vet: Can Puppies Eat Raw Bones?
It's a hotly debated topic online - can puppies eat raw (never cooked) bones?
Anyone who has a new pup will naturally want to safeguard against anything potentially dangerous and there's a lot of conflicting advice out there regarding bones.
So, we asked vet Dr Nick Thompson for his professional opinion - is it ok to feed bones to dogs?
Is it OK to feed dog bones?
In 1998 Dr Ian Billinghurst wrote the seminal book, 'Grow Your Pup with Bones'. In the last twenty-five years, his recommendations have remained as relevant as before, perhaps more so as we discover progressively more problems with feeding pups on ultra-processed dry kibble and canned food.
The Australian pioneer of raw feeding observed that he saw more problems and more diverse disease in dogs in city practice than he ever saw in rural practice in the outback. He rightly concluded that the artificial food fed to urban dogs was a major source of illness.
Bones, he concluded, together with fresh, natural, species-appropriate food, are integral to the healthy development of young dogs.
Look at recommendations based on Billinghurst's principles for safely feeding pups on bones.
Introducing puppies to bones
What age can I give my puppy a bone?
Pups can start on raw bones (never feed any dog cooked bones, ever!) as soon as they have teeth, even the first little needles they grow in the first 2-4 weeks.
Best raw bones for puppies
I recommend starting pups with large, soft, chewable items like chicken wings, carcasses and necks of duck, chicken, and turkey. Initially, they just mouth them, but even this is beneficial through the probiotic effect of the foods and simply learning to use their mouths effectively – mouth-eye coordination, if you will.
Chewing like this will set them up for a life of safe bone chewing. Pups learn very quickly how easy and enjoyable chomping bones really is.
Benefits of raw bones for puppies
The benefits of feeding wings, necks and carcasses are multiple.
First, but not foremost, is the exposure to natural, non-synthetic minerals like calcium, magnesium and iodine.
Pups fed on kibble biscuits and tinned food only get these essential elements as artificial food additives with poor bio-availability relative to authentic food sources.
Raw bones for puppies
Think about it - most young dogs mature in 1-3 years, a feat that takes humans 16-20 years! No wonder they eat like their lives depend on it – they do! I feel obliged to provide our pups with the best and most readily available minerals we can lay our hands on.
Secondly, bone pieces are used by the gut as pre-biotics – feeding good bacteria in the gut to promote a healthy microbiome, good digestion and good firm, pick-up-able stools. Omnivores like us use vegetable fibre for the same purpose.
Finally, the exercise, entertainment and educational value provided by bones cannot be underestimated. Champing at carcasses and necks stimulates and strengthens the pup's head, neck, and jaw musculoskeletal development. Gnawing and ripping at chewy bones teaches pups how to handle bones in later life.
Also, hierarchy and social skills are exchanged from other pups in the litter and by the bitch in the presence of food items that cannot be eaten immediately. Lessons learned in the first eight to ten weeks of life will serve the pup, then the adult dog, in social interactions with their own kind and humans for years.
Bones for puppies teething
The first few months of raw feeding are easy. After this, things don't really get any more complicated, just different.
Softer carcasses and necks are the basis of good chewing material for the older pup, but when adult teeth come in by about six months, more rigid bones can be added. Ribs, brisket, chicken thighs, skull and jaw bones can be given.
Cattle bones, including marrow and knuckle bones, are best left for experienced adult dogs who know how to handle the more brittle items.
Chicken, rabbit, lamb and goat bones are less brittle and usually fine at this stage.
How to feed bones to puppies
This seems obvious, but I'll just give you a few tips I've learned.
Frozen bones can be fed to pups. They are very soothing to teething pups. Some dogs even prefer cold bones to room temperature.
If removing bones from the pup is an issue (guarding a high-value food resource), give bones half an hour before food. When you put pup's food down, they will be distracted, and you can remove the bone.
If you have a bones/chew guarding problem, it's worth talking to a trainer or behaviourist to get on top of it quickly.
Giving bones daily and leaving them around the house will reduce the value of any one bone and reassure the young dog that there's no need to be possessive and growly because they're never in short supply.
What about bones getting stuck in the puppy's gut?
Freeman et al., in their massive 2013 review in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, quote four papers (Rousseau et al., 2007, Gianella et al., 2009, Frowde et al., 2011 and Thompson et al., 2012) discussing oesophageal and gastric foreign bodies in a total of 196 dogs and 33 cats.
They state that 'Bone foreign bodies were present in 30-80%' of the foreign body cases seen. A word search in all four papers reveals not one hit for the word 'raw', suggesting that raw bones may not be a problem.
Hayes et al., in their 2009 study of items retrieved from the intestines of 208 dogs, noted: 63 latex teats and 38 plastic or rubber objects. 30 bits of string or rope, 19 Stones, 15 Balls, nine corns on the cob, five bits of leather, five bits of metal or coins and just three pieces of bone and these authors, too, do not specify if the bones were cooked or raw.
My conclusion from these statistics provided in these papers and others is that the benefit of carefully feeding bones to pups from a very young age is both safe and necessary.
Indeed, if you don't feed bone, the chance of your pup having gum disease (periodontitis) by the tender age of two years is 80%. The treatment for periodontal disease is usually antibiotics and sometimes surgery.
Surgery for a two-year-old pup because of a preventable dental condition? Yes, it's hardly believable, but this is the norm in kibble and canned meat-fed pups.
Mother Nature has been 'growing pups with bones' for over 45 million years. Ian Billinghurst, in 1998, showed us how safe, simple and necessary they are for healthy, happy young dogs.
Thank you to Dr Nick for his helpful advice - you can find more from him here and on his website.