Plenty of topics polarize the dog world: coconut oil, shock collars, essential oils, raw diets. The list grows a little more each year. Mixed into that controversy is the feeding of recreational bones or marrow bones. Is it safe to offer your dog bones? What kind of marrow bones for dogs are safest? What are the risks involved? If these questions have circled your mind, we have the answers.
Marrow is a fat-rich material located in the central cavity of bones. It contains iron and natural antioxidants, which are beneficial to dogs (and anyone else that chooses to snack on it). However, you need to keep in mind the high-fat content. If your dog’s overweight, marrow bones require a diet adjustment to prevent packing on extra pounds. (Or you need to add some extra activity to compensate)
The fatty nature of marrow presents an additional concern for dogs prone to pancreatitis. If your dog has a history of pancreatic flares, marrow bones are NOT a good choice. You don’t want to cause a trip to the hospital.
The Benefit of Bones
Obviously, you’re not going to scrape marrow out of a bone and dump it into your dog’s food dish. (At least, hopefully not) You present them with a marrow bone. The bone itself tends to come with meat, cartilage, or other soft tissue still attached. Bone provides a great source of calcium and phosphorous, while the meat is high in phosphorous. Both are essential components of your dog’s diet.
The act of chewing on the marrow bone provides additional benefits for a dog’s health:
- Chewing on the hard surface scrapes tartar from their teeth
- Tearing the meat away provides a leg, neck, shoulder, and back workout
- Dogs LIKE chewing, and marrow bones for dogs are better than less savory alternatives (such as the furniture)
The Problems with Marrow Bones
Marrow bones for dogs sound like a dream come true, right? Unfortunately, there are downsides to these natural chew toys. And it isn’t just the fat content of that rich marrow center.
Marrow bones can come from any part of the body. That means rib bones, tails, necks, hip bones, femurs, or knucklebones. Typically, you purchase marrow bones from cows, buffalo, turkeys, or chickens. Cow and buffalo bones are HARD. This translates to a risk for broken teeth.
Dog teeth have nerves the same way ours do. They may not show the pain of a broken tooth, but it’s there. Worse, that crack or break allows bacteria access to the bloodstream. That’s the LAST place you want nasty oral bacteria getting!
Dogs that have never received marrow bones before tend to get excited over chewing. They position the bone between their morals to crack it open and access that yummy marrow. If your dog’s had marrow bones in the past, they’re less likely to chomp away. You should still monitor chewing sessions AT ALL TIMES as a precaution. Paying for root canals, extractions, or organ damage is NOT fun.
The Jaw Ring
It might look funny in memes or videos, but one of the most common emergency vet visits concerns marrow bones and your dog’s jaw. Improper size selection results in the bone becoming trapped around your dog’s canine teeth. The lip then swells, locking the bone in place.
The result? Anesthesia and bolt cutters or a saw to remove the offending bone. (Face it, you wouldn’t hold still without anesthesia, either) Those marrow bones don’t slide back off on their own. ALWAYS choose a bone appropriate in size for your dog to prevent this from happening. The vet bill isn’t worth the humor, nor is your dog’s discomfort.
While marrow bones are designed for chewing, they ALL carry the possibility of splintering. Your dog may crunch small pieces. In a perfect world, your dog will swallow the piece. It’ll pass into their stomach, where gastric acids will soften the hard bone or even dissolve it. Then the bone will pass harmlessly through the system. Seeing white, chalky chunks in your dog’s stool following a marrow bone is normal.
However, that perfect world doesn’t always happen. There are plenty of places for things to go wrong:
- Small pieces can lodge in the esophagus. You won’t see them, and your dog can choke.
- Pieces won’t break down in the stomach. Instead, they’ll cause intestinal obstruction, requiring surgery.
- Sharp fragments (possibly caused in the stomach, perhaps from your dog’s chewing) can puncture the intestine. This is known as intestinal perforation, and it’s critical. This can lead to sepsis (bacteria running rampant inside your dog’s body), which can be challenging to get under control.
- Too MUCH bone can get ingested, resulting in rectal impaction. This happens when the bone fragments form a cement-like substance in your dog’s feces they can’t pass on their own. Your dog may need surgery to correct the problem.
Feeding Marrow Bones
Should you elect to add marrow bones to your dog’s diet, include them as an occasional treat, or make them part of your dog’s dental care plan, there are important rules to follow. You want to keep your dog safe, but yourself and your family safe, as well.
Sourcing Marrow Bones
The BEST place to obtain marrow bones for dogs is your local butcher, the meat counter at your grocer, or the frozen section of your local pet store. Why? Marrow bones need to stay frozen or refrigerated to prevent bacterial growth. Remember, marrow bones have meat attached to them. Meat SPOILS at room temperature. You don’t want to give your dog rotten meat.
If you’re at a meat counter, ask for the marrow bones to be cut on the vertical. This provides those typical half-circles you’re familiar with. The vertical cut is the safest for your dog to chew on. Horizontal cuts splinter.
Long femur bones prompt the most damage to teeth. Small neck bones are the most likely to get swallowed whole, causing choking or intestinal obstructions.
It sounds a little strange, but try to avoid marrow bones from older animals. The longer an animal lives, the more chances it has for exposure to environmental toxins. (You don’t want your dog chewing on that kind of thing) Lamb, chicken, and young cow bones are your best option. Try to avoid bones from pigs and ANY rib bones – they crumble easily.
Bones to AVOID
You’ll see a lot of bone options in pet stores. Most don’t contain marrow. They get processed differently than the marrow bones you get from the butcher. This presents potential problems. For instance, in 2015, the FDA processed 35 reports of dogs suffering reactions from commercial dog bones.
Dried bones get harder. They also tend to splinter and shatter. Bones processed with preservatives may contain chemicals you DON’T want your dog exposed to. Skip them.
NEVER offer your dog cooked bones! Cooking marrow bones dehydrates them, making splintering and breakage thousands of times easier. A splintered bone is more likely to cause that nasty intestinal perforation you DON’T want.
Supervising Your Dog with Marrow Bones
You should NEVER give your dog a marrow bone and walk away. The risk of problems is too high. If you’re going to feed marrow bones, follow these handy tips:
- Supervise: Always stay in sight of your dog. If they break off a piece or get too aggressive in their chewing, you can step in immediately.
- Use towels: Remember those bits of meat? Do you want them scattered across your clean floor? Probably not. Lay down towels or put the marrow bone outside.
- Clean EVERYTHING: Your dog’s stomach can handle the bacteria on the meat, but you and your family can’t. Clean everywhere the marrow bones touch.
- No bones for dental work: If you paid for crowns, braces (yes, dogs get braces), or other crucial dental work for your dog, then skip the marrow bones.
- Feed after meals: If your dog’s full, they’re less likely to chow down on that marrow bone.
- Limit chew time: Your dog doesn’t need their bone for more than 15 minutes.
- Refrigeration: When your dog finishes with their marrow bone, pop it in the fridge for safekeeping.
- Throw out used bones: By the time your dog turns that bone brittle, it’s time to go. Throw the marrow bone in the trash and get a new one.
- Don’t overdo it: Dogs don’t need daily marrow bones. Twice a week is PLENTY.
Best Marrow Bones
Ideally, the best source for marrow bones is fresh and local. Not everyone likes the idea of bits of meat hanging around the house or yard, though. If you’d rather keep the cartilage to a minimum, you have the option of online sources. Keep in mind, though, these marrow bones are dried. That makes them harder than fresh bones, which means they have a greater chance of breaking teeth.
We tend to overlook antlers in searches for marrow bones, but antlers contain marrow pockets. Devil Dog provides a range of sizes to suit various dog breeds. Their antlers are naturally sourced from the Rocky Mountains. (If you wondered, elk shed their antlers seasonally) This provides your dog a non-synthetic chew that’s clean and doesn’t produce an odor. Antlers are less likely to splinter than marrow bones, and they offer the same nutrients.
Downsides? Antlers cost more than marrow bones for dogs. (“Trophy hunters” spend time scouting the dropped antlers in the forest) Also, they’re HARD. Your dog can easily break a tooth.
K9 Connoisseur provides cow bones with the original marrow if you want a larger option for your dog. The smooth surface prevents cracks where mold can invade (maybe still consider keeping them in the fridge, just to be safe). The sturdy bone allows plenty of chewing time. If your dog scarfs down all of the marrow, you can even refill the center with your filling of choice.
The downsides? The bone itself is HARD. Dogs ended up with chipped and broken teeth. Some people also found they broke easily. Always make sure you supervise your dog during chew time.
If you’re worried about your dog getting a marrow bone trapped around their jaw, K9 Connoisseur’s Knee Cap Bones solve the problem. The unique shape of the knee caps massages your dog’s gums as they chew, providing needed dental benefits. The natural smokey flavor appeals to most dogs, and you don’t need to worry about unwanted ingredients. The bones come from grass-fed cattle, and they’re equivalent to human-grade (which should ease your concerns on safety).
So what are the downsides? Be careful about sizing, as people found issues with the bones getting caught in their dog’s jaws, as well as choking on the small bones. Also, the smokey coating caused some GI upset, so watch if your dog has a sensitive tummy.
Not every dog is a fan of peanut butter (our dog thinks it’s poison). Pawstruck thought of everyone. They provide options of peanut butter, beef, cheese, bacon, or even one of each. The roasted bones come in a variety of sizes to match each dog breed out there. The smokey flavor encourages your dog to sit down and gnaw, cleaning their teeth while enjoying their filled treat.
Downsides? The roasting process makes the bones pretty hard. Watch your dog’s teeth. Also, some dogs had trouble getting the filling out of these bones. You may need to scrape the middle out for them.
While Pet N’ Shape’s bones don’t contain marrow, they provide your dog with a natural bony surface to chew for days. The beef bones are sourced from grass-fed cows and don’t have any flavors or preservatives, so there’s nothing you need to worry about. You can fill the empty cavity with any filling your dog enjoys, providing plenty of happy chew time.
The downsides? The bone width is a little too thin for larger dogs. They were able to break through in no time, creating splinters. Also, the outer coating tends to rub off quickly, and it attracts insects. Make sure you keep this a strictly outdoor chew toy.
Not interested in trying to stuff filling into a bone yourself? Redbarn took the task off your hands. The six-inch cow femurs come pre-filled with delicious peanut butter. If you have multiple dogs (or want to keep a ready supply on hand), you can order packs of up to five. The hefty bones last through months of steady chewing, and (if you feel up to the job), you can refill the center.
So what are the downsides? Those femurs are STRONG. They can break teeth. Other people found they tended to splinter. Monitor your dog closely when they’re chewing. Also, some dogs had GI upset from the peanut butter. Just watch for signs their tummy disagrees.
Fatty Treat with Benefits
Marrow bones provide dogs with extra sources of iron, calcium, and phosphorous. However, they also present health risks if you don’t provide constant supervision. NEVER leave your dog alone with their marrow bone. And, for the best options, look to your local butcher.
You CAN safely feed marrow bones to dogs. You just need to keep all of the facts in mind.