One of the most controversial topics in veterinary medicine today is whether guardians should give bones to their dogs and cats. While there is growing interest in homemade and even raw meat based diets in dogs and cats, there has been an equal interest in the feeding of bones to our pets as well. In fact, the feeding of raw meaty bones to dogs and cats is a major part of the BARF (Bones and Raw Food) diet, developed by veterinarian Ian Billinghurst of Australia. Many guardians around the world have seen huge differences in their pets’ health when incorporating bones into their pets’ diets.
Not only are bones a major source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, but they also have been an excellent way in my experience and opinion of keeping pets’ teeth clean and free of tartar and gingivitis. Feeding dogs marrow bones, beef backs and chicken backs as well as feeding cats raw chicken wings can make a remarkable difference in the health of the teeth and gums of dogs and cats. The key is to NOT feed cooked bones which can easily splinter and cause obstruction, but to use fresh raw bones at least a few times weekly. In my opinion, feeding a diet of 50% raw meaty bones as part of Billinghurst’s BARF diet can be overkill in terms of exposing pets in the United States to potentially toxic levels of mercury, lead and arsenic, which are also concentrated in the bones of cattle, and easily measured and quantified. However, allowing pets the ability to chew up and/or ingest raw bones a few times weekly can go a long way in providing necessary minerals for healthy bones, teeth and other organ systems.
Many of the calcium sources in processed commercial pet foods comes from questionable sources, as evidenced by cryptic listings on ingredient labels with terms like “meat and bone” or “meal as a source of calcium,” which leaves this ingredient wide open as to what the actual meat and bone meal consists of and where it came from. And while most veterinarians are strongly against giving raw bones for fear of E. coli or salmonella exposure, salmonella has actually been part of a normal cat’s digestive tract flora. In most cats there are few problems unless they are immune suppressed and/or on immune suppressive therapy. However, it is extremely important for pet parents to thoroughly wash their hands after handling raw bones.
Although they are domesticated, dogs and cats’ digestive tracts are still identical to their wild dog and cat relatives, and the anatomy of both their teeth and digestive tract hardly evolved to chew on carbohydrate based processed dry kibble. Over the years I have received many distressed phone calls from feline guardians when their outdoor cat has killed and ingested a bird. The fears of poisoning and obstruction are often raised, however, I have yet to see a cat have any problem after killing and eating a healthy bird, as that is what they evolved to eat – bones and all! As for other imitation bones, giving processed chewable toys like rawhides, beef jerky and other related products are full of toxic ingredients in many cases, as well as preservatives and flavor enhancers that are hardly health promoting in our dogs and cats.