Updated: May 19
Bones are part of a fresh food diet, they provide both mental and physical enrichment as well as the obvious dental benefits. I think we have all heard at some point that dogs shouldn't eat bones because they could damage their teeth but that's a pretty broad statement - it often comes from Vets who spend their days working with dog owners who have given inappropriate types of bones to their dogs or didn't supervise their dogs whilst eating bones.
In early 2020, there was a study released called Evaluation of teeth injuries in Beagle dogs caused by autoclaved beef bones used as a chewing item to remove dental calculus - this study evaluated the impact of bone mastication on the dental roots, enamel, and gingiva of dogs.
The outcome was as follows:
Bones were highly effective for DC (Dental calculus) removal and gingival inflammation reduction.
Despite the hardness of bones, no lesions or teeth root and enamel fracture, or esophageal or intestinal obstructions—complications related to bone ingestion—were noted.
However, SB (spongy bone i.e. femur bone) showed some gingival lesions (n = 4) and bone remnants between teeth (n = 2). Gingival lesions were caused by the daily and continuous supply of new pieces of bone for 13 days. Specific pieces of bone should be used for oral home care programs because they shortly remove almost 90% of DC, allowing longer intervals between periodontal cleaning procedures.
Both the types of bones used in this study were highly effective in removing dental calculus. Bones used were cortical bone (CB) and Spongy Bone (SB). The SB allows the teeth to penetrate in the matrix, thereby increasing the surface contact between the tooth and bone and promoting sufficient friction to remove thick deposits of calculus in a few days. Conversely, the CB, owing to its hardness, requires more time and mechanical work to promote similar cleaning. The consistency and porosity of SB allowed greater mechanical action, facilitating breakage, which justifies the presence of bone between the teeth in two dogs in our study. The permanence of these pieces may produce a foreign body reaction in a long-term, causing damage to the health of these animals.
The masticatory behavior of dogs interfered with the dental calculus removal. Dogs preferred to use premolar and molar teeth to chew than the canine teeth. This is because of the different functions assigned to the teeth according to their morphology. Premolar and molar teeth (the back teeth) are responsible for mastication and grinding because they have a broad and flat surface, whereas canines serve (the vampire pointy teeth) to seize and tear the food.
Veterinarians and trainers restrict the adoption of bones in the diet, because several studies have shown the association of the consumption of bones with chocking, visceral perforation, and esophageal and intestinal concretion formation. However, consumption of carcasses containing bones is a common habit in wild dogs and wolves, and the occurrence of dental calculus and oral diseases is extremely low in those species. 157 wild canid skulls and demonstrated that only 2% of the sample had periodontal disease suggested by alveolar bone destruction.
Accidents with bones in dogs are related with the type and size of bones consumed. This trial was conducted using specific bones that were cut into pieces and were considered to be safe for Beagle dogs to avoid swallowing.
Although there was an improvement in the visual appearance of the gum, there was no reduction in plaque and calculus under the gumline. The maintenance of subgingival plaque and calculus is the etiological factor of loss of dental adhesion to its alveolus, characteristic to periodontal disease. Thus, bones are not efficient in removing plaque and calculus under the gumline, they are only able to remove it on the crown.
Daily tooth brushing is the most effective home-based method for the removal and control of dental plaques. A polytene brush appears to cause less tissue damage than the nylon brush. I have no ideal what what a polytene brush is and Google was unhelpful!
Whilst this was a small study (6 male and 6 female Beagles) that was only conducted for 13 days, we can still take home some good points.
We have to accept that when feeding bones to a dog that there is always a risk, whether that be of dental injury or trauma.
It is important that dogs are supervised when chewing bones so that if anything happens you are there to help i.e. a bone caught on teeth, choking etc. Supervising also allows you to see how appropriate your dog is as a chewer and gives you feedback as to the type of bones your dog is and isn't safe with.
Looking in your dogs mouth regularly i.e. weekly is a great habit to get into. I'm always looking in my dogs mouths especially with my older Dane whose tartar has become worse since starting pain medication - I presume this changes the composition of saliva or similar.
A lesson I learned recently was that I was not being as through as I should have been, I wasn't looking all the way back to the furthest away molar. which in his case is quite far back! My lesson started in the early afternoon where I noticed his right eye looked a little weird, now if you look closely, just a bit down under that eye, you'll see there is a little swelling compared to the other side - I completely missed this on the day. That evening Gavin was taken to the Vet and by bed time, the right side of his face was HUGE, it was quite shocking! Luckily the Vet had a pretty good idea what it was and got us onto the right medication that night. The furthest away molar looked to be the problem and when I looked myself I couldn't believe I had missed that, it was clearly unhealthy with a lot of build up on it.
Check out the swelling here - the photo just didn't do it justice.
It continued to get worse over the next couple of days even though he was on anti-biotics and of course I did the pet parent "think worse case scenario" thinking he may some form of oral cancer hahaha. Well, like most things in Gavin's life he just took his sweet as time to start reacting to the medication.
Over the next week the swelling changed daily, large amounts of fluid sat in the lower jowl and around his throat but he eventually started to get better!
What a worry he was to me and his Dad! In the first 2 days he refused food and water, even bone broth. We even had trouble opening his mouth to try and get the anti- biotics into him. What did work though was NZ K9 Naturals 100% canned Tripe! He accepted the liquid from the can and then accepted the meat so this is what he ate for 4 days. I then started him on soft raw food which he was happy to eat, the anti-biotics and pain killers were working. No bones were given at this time during recovery.
Once Gavin was recovered from this tooth abscess, he had the tooth out, it was fractured and had nerve root issue.
His Vet gave us the go ahead to give bones again after a week and we started on soft bones, he was so happy and boy oh boy, were his poos much happier!
We're now a couple of weeks post surgery and he's as happy as Larry. One of the interesting things that was discovered here is that this dental pain must have been going on for a long time, I mean months, because his behaviour changed post having it out. Gavin suffers from degenerative disc disease and we had thought some changes we saw in his behaviour were related to this but it turns out, it was the tooth! I wanted to give myself a good slap as I recalled a study I had read a few years ago and totally forgot about that connected noise sensitivity with pain. Gavin had suddenly become incredibly upset at heavy winds to the point he had to be given Valium during windy storms and this is a dog that would sleep through storms all his life and he was now 7. Update after recovery: Gavin no longer has noise sensitivity and is much happier in himself in general, we suspect that tooth was causing him issues for some time. I hope that our experience has given you some things to think about and hopefully you'll learn from the mistakes I made.