Bones should be given to dogs with care, caution

Photographs provided Roxanne, an 8-month-old Shih Tsu, swallowed a lambchop bone. She needed surgery to remove it.

Q I have an ongoing argument with the rest of my family regarding giving bones to our dog. I think that it is safe and natural for dogs to eat bones. After all, they are descended from wolves or wild dogs, which seem to have no problem with bones. My wife says feeding bones to dogs is unsafe despite any possible health benefits. Who is correct here?

A: Each side of this argument has valid supporting points. It is neither completely safe, nor is it completely unsafe, to allow dogs access to bones.

I (Dr. Henri Bianucci) like your ancestral argument. Understanding dogs in terms of their wild cousins aids in our understanding of their health and behavior. But the comparisons cannot be direct on all counts. For example, wolves live in harsh climates and endure deprivations that domestic dogs would be unlikely to survive.

Wild canids have evolved consuming prey, bones and all. The ones that weren't bright enough to swallow bones of a safe size and shape choked to death on the tundra long ago and excused themselves from the gene pool. Our dogs have not experienced this selection pressure. So they do not have their collective unconscious directing their consumption criteria and will indiscriminately consume bones of all sizes and shapes. They rely on us to make the choice about which ones are safe.

Imagine that you are a dog that night after night sees an endless procession of meats — steak, chicken, pork chops — parading across your owners' table. But every day they pour some dry kibble into your bowl and pat you on the head.

When you finally get a shot at that pork chop bone offered by cousin Ed, are you going to slowly chew down to the marrow and tease off small fragments of sinew? No, you are going to inhale that thing before someone stops you. But you may find that it never makes it to your stomach.

The cons Every year we treat dogs who have a bone stuck in their throat, which can be a life-threatening thing. We will either try to extract it through the mouth or push it into the stomach, where it will be digested.

When this fails, surgery is required. This surgery often means going into their chest cavity and through the esophagus to retrieve the bone. This is not only a dangerous procedure, but the esophagus is a sensitive structure and long-term, irreversible damage may result.

Cooked bones are worse than raw because they are hard and may splinter. Any bones with sharp points and irregular shapes that can be swallowed may hang up in the throat. Large amounts of bone at a time can cause severe diarrhea or severe constipation. Consuming large amounts of bone at a time is unnatural and unhealthy. Generally, if bones pass the throat, they will not cause a problem, but not always. Sharp bone splinters have caused gastric and intestinal perforations.

Last week, I received a call from a referring veterinarian saying that it appeared as if her patient had swallowed an elephant tusk. Roxanne, an 8-month-old Shih Tsu, had swallowed a lamb chop bone. Although those bones are relatively small to people, Roxanne weighs only 8 pounds, so this bone was enormous relative to her, distorting her stomach and spanning the length of her abdomen. The X-rays were shocking, even to me.

We immediately took Roxanne to surgery, where we discovered that the bone had perforated her stomach. This would have lead to a fatal infection if not treated surgically even though it had cleared the esophagus. I'm happy to report she is doing well.

The pros Bone does provide essential minerals, and a chewing bone is a good way to help teeth clean and healthy and exercise the periodontal ligaments (which help keep teeth attached to the jaw bone).

Despite the healthy and natural benefits to bones, they are not a normal part of the domestic dog's diet and must be introduced with caution and good judgment. My rule would be to provide only bones that cannot be swallowed and will not splinter or be reduced to a bite size quickly. The bones should be the thickness of the dogs muzzle, or larger, and twice as long. Remove them when they are reduced below that size.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.