A Canine Nutritionist's Guide to Safe & Healthy Bones for Dogs

Next time you're on the prowl for dog-safe bones and chews, keep these handy tips in your back pocket.

Updated February 26, 2024
Dog chewing on dog bone

Unlike humans, who keep their teeth clean by brushing regularly, dogs chew on bones to remove tartar buildup and debris from their teeth. Bones are not only fun to chew, but they also give your dog something to do, which keeps him mentally happy.

I'm a certified canine nutritionist, and bones are a huge topic that I discuss with my clients, especially if their puppers are on a raw food diet. Not all are safe options, and some can be super dangerous.

Professional Thoughts on Bones and Chews for Dogs

Before we do a deep dive into the world of bones and chews, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you go along. If you want to make a decision based on veterinary approval or take their opinions into consideration, here's what they have to say.

American Animal Hospital Association Wants VOHC Approval

According to the AAHA, you should "be sure to look for products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. Products that aren’t approved by the VOHC, or those that are too hard to bend or break easily — like animal antlers and bones, synthetic bones, and others — can easily fracture your pet’s teeth."

The FDA Warns Against Jerky Treats

According to the FDA, "As of December 31, 2015, the FDA has received approximately 5,200 complaints of illnesses associated with consumption of chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats, many of which involve products imported from China, which produces much of the jerky pet treats on the market."

The CDC Isn't a Fan of Raw Feeding

The CDC does not recommend feeding your pet any raw meat. According to the CDC, "Raw pet foods contain protein from an animal, like chicken and beef, and have not been cooked or heated to a high enough temperature to kill germs."

AVMA Recommends Talking to Your Vet

Most of us grab bones to stimulate our dog's mind and help clean their teeth. The AVMA warns that "There are many pet products marketed with claims that they improve dental health, but not all of them are effective. Talk with your veterinarian about any dental products, treats, or dental-specific diets you’re considering for your pet, or ask your veterinarian for their recommendation."

Safe Bones for Dogs Aren't Heavily Promoted

Some of the info I'll tell you about is widely distributed, but there's a handful of other tidbits that aren't well-known even in the dog community unless you dive deep. I didn't learn some of this information until after I had worked professionally in the industry (not even in the courses I took to get certified). I learned a ton from insider peeks into pet food companies and talking to holistic vets who had concerns. 

Safe Dog Bones and Bone Alternatives

A smart pet consumer should be aware of the different kinds of chews and bones on the market. Unfortunately, the way the bone or chew is advertised has a lot to do with how many pet parents shop, and the general thought is that these pet marketing companies have our pets' best interests in mind.

You'd think they would since our dogs are quite literally their customers, so they'd want them to truly enjoy a healthy snack. The truth is that some do and some don't. 

Make Sure You're Looking for the Right Kind

If you're searching for a specific type of bone, you might be questioned about which variety you need. In dog nutrition, bones are categorized into two types: edible and recreational, and each type serves a different purpose. 

Need to Know

Any bone can cause a choking hazard. Supervise always.

Recreational Bones and Chews Are for Fun

Most of the time, we're grabbing recreational bones when we run out to get a bone for our dog to work on. Recreational bone types offer mental stimulation, help with tartar and plaque on our dog's teeth, and exercise their jaws. These types of bones include marrow bones, hip bones, and femurs. 

Need to Know

Browns Bridge Veterinary Hospital warns that "hard bones like weight-bearing bones from large animals are particularly risky."

Dr. Jodie Gruenstern recommends these bone types to the patients in her practice. She says, "A dog needs to stick his canines into a femur bone to remove the marrow. Cut marrow bones usually range in length from 2” to 5”. The size of the bone determines the quantity of marrow contained within. Unlike duck necks, marrow bones are minimally ingested; they’re gnawed, but only the marrow is eaten."

If You Grab Raw Meaty Bones

Keep in mind that raw meaty bones (commonly known as RMBs in the raw feeding world) are controversial, and not everyone will agree with providing them. As far as organizations go, the CDC doesn't recommend raw feeding, as we talked about at the beginning of the article. But if you're determined to feed raw foods, they recommend asking the question, "Does your company test all your final products for common foodborne germs like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria?" 

Need to Know

The CDC has more tips in their article about pet food safety

Antlers Are a Popular Natural Chew

Antler chews have become a popular alternative for bones in recent years. These antlers come from deer and elk that have naturally shed them. Some types can splinter, especially if they're older or come from deer, so as always, dogs should be supervised when chewing them.

Dog chewing on antler

According to the AKC, "For owners of powerful chewers that destroy conventional chew toys in a manner of hours, antlers may seem like a gift from nature herself." They explained, "After all, chewing helps reduce plaque and tartar buildup, and it also redirects destructive tendencies and anxiety into an acceptable outlet."

Quick Tip

Antlers tend to be pricier than other types of bones, and not every dog loves them due to their lack of a strong odor, so it's best to buy one and have your dog try it before you buy several.

Grab Some Bully Sticks

Bully sticks are a recreational chew, which means they're good at keeping your dog busy. If you don't like the pungent smell, you can save these chews for nice days outdoors or time in the crate. The spiral bully stick, AKA pizzle, makes your dog put in some extra effort. 

According to the AAHA, "Pet owners who feed their dogs bully sticks may unknowingly be adding excessive calories and potentially harmful bacteria to their dogs' diets." I haven't found any other stances on these chews. As a canine nutritionist, I believe that many of the problems with chews are associated with so many ingredients being thrown into the mix.

Need to Know

Before anything else, if a client is looking for some good chews, I recommend single-ingredient products. 

Try Out Other Types of Tendons 

If your dog loves bully sticks, there are other types of tendons available that are equally good for dogs, including tracheas, or "moo tubes." For an extra-long-lasting chew treat, stuff a trachea with peanut butter, low-fat yogurt, or smashed bananas and freeze it before giving it to your dog.

Edible Bones Are for Nutrition

Dogs don't spend a ton of time on edible bones. This kind of bone is usually used by raw feeders. They're high in essential nutrients, like calcium and phosphorus, making them crucial to any raw-fed dog's diet. If you want to give your dog's health a boost, you can also use these as a kibble topper. 

Quick Tip

In my professional opinion, chicken feet can be a huge help to raw feeders so they can get their bone balance right.

Where to Grab Raw Meaty Bones

Raw meaty bones can be purchased from your local butcher or grocery store. You might not see them clearly advertised, though. Unless someone is going to make bone broth, most people don't add bones to their grocery list. You might have to ask someone behind the meat counter.

One of my favorite places to grab bones, and where I recommend my clients grab bones if they can, is the local farm. Not only are they fresh, but dog lovers often prefer farms over other places since it can save some cash. Bonus points if you grab a bone from a grass-fed or free-range animal. I won't go into all the deep details, but grass-fed farm animals and those that free-roam offer more nutrients. 

Don't Feed Your Dog These Bones

Real life isn't like in the cartoons, where every bone is good for our dogs. Our dogs do love to mow down on any bone, but there are some that you should completely avoid. Being able to tell which ones are good and which ones aren't can literally save your dog's life.

Weight-Bearing Bones Can Damage Teeth

Weight-bearing bones, like those from the legs of cows or other large animals, pose a real hazard for dogs who love to chew aggressively. These bones are incredibly hard and can lead to dental damage, like cracked teeth, or even more serious internal injuries if splintered pieces are swallowed. For dogs who are more gentle with their chewing habits, these bones can be a safe option under the right conditions.

It's crucial to only offer them raw, with some meat still on the bone, to keep them stimulated and gently nibbling the meat off. Always supervise your dog when they're enjoying these kinds of treats, and quickly intervene if necessary.

Avoid Bones That Have Been Cut by Machines

Machine-cut bones come with sharp edges that can harm your dog's intestines. If you end up with one, don't just toss it out. Instead, put it to good use in your bone broth.

Cooked Bones Splinter

Raw bones tend to break, while cooked bones are prone to splintering. These splinters can harm your dog's teeth, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract. According to VCA Hospital, "In some cases, bone fragments may completely penetrate the walls of the stomach or intestine, allowing food and intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen."

Rawhide Isn't a Chew

You should never feed your dog rawhide. When I was younger, I remember all the dog lovers being super excited about all those really long rawhide "bones" at the pet store. And if you don't know how they're made or what they're made from, you may have bought these for your pup. Marketers are really good at advertising these and even decorate their wrappers based on the holiday. 

Rawhide dog bone

Here's what you need to know.

The Pieces Pose a Choking Hazard

There is a choking hazard associated with rawhide. Pieces of rawhide can be easily broken off by aggressive chewers and accidentally swallowed, and get stuck in your dog's throat.

They Can Damage Your Dog's Throat and Esophagus

Pieces of rawhide can actually scrape a dog's throat and esophagus on the way down to your dog's stomach. When they swallow those pieces, they can actually cause some damage. 

They Can Cause Obstructions

Even if a rawhide is swallowed and passes through the esophagus without getting stuck, it can potentially create a physical obstruction once it reaches the intestines.

Rawhide Isn't Regulated

Rawhide production is not regulated in many countries, and this can mean that toxic products like arsenic are used as preservatives.

There's Dangerous Bacteria in Rawhide

Rawhides also bring a risk of salmonella and E. coli bacteria, which can be dangerous not only to your dog but to you as well from handling the rawhide.

Related: Beef Hide Versus Rawhide Dog Chews: Are They Safe?

Feeding Bones From the Table

Knowing that natural dog bones can be safe for dogs might make you think it's okay to feed them bones that you have available before cooking. This can be safe, depending on the type of bone. 

Don't Feed Cooked Fish Bones

You should also never give them cooked fish bones. One of the suggestions I had in nutritional consultations, though, was adding raw fish to their dog's bowl, especially if they were feeding raw. Raw fish bones can be consumed easily (understand that every bone poses a risk), and the flesh contains healthy omegas. 

Offer Bones for a Limited Time Span

Bones should be taken away from the dog after about 15 minutes and placed back in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them from spoiling. You can give them to your dog again and repeat the process, but be sure to throw them out after no more than four days.

Adjust the Bone Based on Your Dog's Size

The size of the bone should fit the size of the dog. A thick knuckle bone is too much for a chihuahua, and likewise, a smaller bone might be hazardous to a big dog. As a rule of thumb, the AKC recommends that "bones should be larger than the length of the dog’s muzzle, so it will be impossible to swallow whole."

Quick Tip

Do not cut the bones into smaller pieces and give them to your dog. This can quickly become a choking hazard.

Bonus Tips on Giving Your Dog a Bone Safely

Just to add a little extra to the mix, there are a few more things you might want to keep on your radar. Beyond the basics we've already covered, there are several other considerations that could impact your dog's health and happiness.

Look for Chemical-Free Bones

Always look at the ingredients before you buy dog bones to be sure they're chemical-free. If they appear greasy, that is usually an indicator that they might not be the healthiest thing to put in your dog's mouth. Look for specific certifications like USDA Organic, which have strict standards.

Go With Your Gut

As a rule of thumb, always observe your dog's behavior with a new treat. If you think it may be dangerous for your dog to chew, go with your gut instinct and take it away. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Always Supervise Bones and Chews

I honestly can't emphasize this enough — always supervise your dog with any type of chew, so you can remove it if it gets too small and becomes a choking hazard.

Remember to Wash Your Hands

Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after handling any item your dog has been chewing. If there's any bacteria that your body isn't used to, you could get sick. 

Use Caution in Multi-Dog Households

If you live in a multi-dog household, make sure that it's safe to give bones to your dogs. Some dogs will guard bones and chew, and it can even lead to serious fights. You may want to crate each dog while they are enjoying a chew to keep everyone safe and happy.

Giving Your Dog a Bone — Or Not!

Although no bone or chew is truly 100% safe, there are definitely better choices than others. Speak to your veterinarian if you're concerned about your dog's chew choices, and always supervise your dog's chew time to make sure you've chosen the best options for them to enjoy.

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A Canine Nutritionist's Guide to Safe & Healthy Bones for Dogs