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Can Dogs Digest Bones?

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Dog Health By Ben Team 6 min read May 24, 2021 16 Comments

is it safe for dogs to eat bones
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I’ve worked with hundreds of different animal species over the years, and I’ve seen an unfortunate number of medical emergencies during this time.

While just about any acute health problem can cause anxiety for both the pet and its owner, choking represents an especially terrifying event, regardless of whether you are talking about lizards, cats or fish.

Unfortunately, many dogs suffer through this type of horror each year, and the offending item is often a bone.

It’s just not a good idea to give your dog bones.

But My Dog Loves Bones!

I can already hear the pushback. Many people have fed their dog bones and have done so without any problem. It’s part of our culture – why do you think we call them “doggie bags?”

Giving your dog a bone almost always results in a happy pup, but this does not mean the practice is safe. After all, most sky divers survive their plunge from a plane, but this hardly makes the activity “safe.” The fact is, while your dog adores them, bones are a high-risk snack for dogs.

Given that the only upside to the practice is a few moments of tail-wagging and lip-smacking (which can easily be achieved with some good ‘ol fashioned haunch scratching and a carrot or other healthy and safe treat), the risk-reward algebra suggests that bones shouldn’t be given to dogs.

It’s difficult to find reliable statistics that track the number of choking-related fatalities that occur each year, but it isn’t hard to find accounts from veterinarians who have seen the problem all too often. In fact, some claim that “bones…are the most common type of foreign body found in the esophagus.”

Dog Bone-Eating Basics: Can Dogs Digest Bones?

Just to be clear, yes, dogs can digest some bones. This is not a great feat in the animal kingdom; bears and hyenas consume bones, as do tortoises and vultures. Even rabbits have also been observed to feed on them too. In fact, you can even digest some bones (if you really want to).

The behavior is so common that biologists even have a name for it: osteophagy or osteophagia.

While the specific reasons animals exhibit the bone-eating behavior may vary, most scientists suspect that munching on bones typically accompanies a shortage of essential nutrients from other available foods.

This doesn’t mean that dogs who like bones have nutritional deficiencies, but it is thought to explain the evolutionary development of how dogs have acquired this skill, in the broad sense.

One Of These Bones Is Not Like The Other

But note that I said that dogs can digest “some” bones. And that’s because not all bones are created equally. Some bones tend to crumble when chewed, while others fracture, often yielding razor-sharp edges that can damage your dog’s digestive system.

Many of the bones found in birds, for example, are very thin, full of air sacs and easy to break. This helps them to keep their weight low and improve the lift-to-body-weight algebra. By contrast, the bones of a cows and pigs are much more massive so they can support the bulk of such large animals, who rarely fly.

is it safe for dogs to eat bones

Even among the bones of a single species, there is great variation. Some bones are extraordinarily dense, while others are filled with hollows and weigh practically nothing. Some have a central void that contains nutrient-rich marrow, while others carry their marrow in flatter, thinner pockets. Still other bones have no marrow at all.

A couple of factors determine how well your dog will digest a given bone.

  • The size of the bone
  • The type of bone
  • The size and health of your dog
  • The condition of your dog’s teeth
  • Your dog’s relative tendency to chew her food

When Bone-Eating Goes Badly

Thousands of dog owners give their pup bones each year. Most probably digest the bones without problem. But this does not mean that bad things don’t happen, because they are far too common.

Starting from the point of entry, let’s examine some of the problems that can occur after offering your dog a bone:

  • Dogs have pretty strong jaws, but that doesn’t mean they can eat anything they want. Bones, rocks and other hard items often lead to chipped, broken or dislodged teeth, which can be very painful for your pup and expensive for you to have repaired.
  • Bones or bone fragments can sometimes become stuck to the roof of the mouth by the hard or soft palate. This can cause damage to the mouth, and the bone will often need to be removed by your vet.
  • Occasionally, dogs will swallow food items that are too large, which become stuck in the throat. Any such swallowed object can quickly result in an emergency situation, but bones may not only block the throat and limit or prevent proper breathing, they also may cause serious wounds to the esophagus.
  • Even food items that reach the stomach safely can cause further harm. While the strong acids and grinding contractions of your dog’s stomach will start to break down the bone, this process can proceed at a variety of speeds, depending on the size and type of bone.
  • Bones – especially sharp fragments thereof – are quite capable of piercing or scraping the intestines. This can have lethal results, particularly if the contents of the intestines contaminate the blood stream. They can also become lodged in the intestines (particularly the small intestines), leading to a painful and dangerous obstruction.
  • Any intact bones (or fragments thereof) can cause lacerations and trauma to your dog’s anus as she tries to pass them.

Uh-Oh, You Fed Your Dog a Bone, Now What?

First thing’s first: Don’t panic. Your dog may digest and pass the bone without trouble. The key is to watch for signs of trouble and act accordingly – particularly if the symptoms appear acute.

If your dog exhibits any of the following signs, contact your veterinarian immediately and follow the advice given. These may indicate that your dog is choking, which can be a medical emergency:

  • Extreme stress or panic
  • Pain
  • Rubbing their face or neck on the ground or other objects
  • Increased salivation
  • Repeated attempts to vomit
  • Gagging

Most of these signs would occur shortly after your dog eats a bone. However, it is also important to watch for signs of trouble further along the digestive tract. These include:

  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Intestinal upset
  • Inappetence
  • Lack of stool production
  • Bloody stools

While an intestinal obstruction may not be as acute as a choking problem (as choking can block your pup’s airway), it is still a medical emergency that requires urgent care.

In fact, the longer the blockage is allowed to persist, the more intestinal tissue will become necrotic, thanks to insufficient blood flow. These damaged portions of your dog’s intestines will then need to be removed surgically.

So, be sure to contact your veterinarian at once, and proceed as instructed.

It is always wise to familiarize yourself with the canine version of the Heimlich maneuver and other potentially life-saving techniques, which may prove invaluable in such circumstances.

***

So, while your dog may digest bones, it is far from guaranteed that she will. Accordingly, it is wiser to err on the side of caution and abstain from offering them. Offer your pup a safer alternative instead!

Some of the chewable treats and toys you can consider include:

  • Bully Sticks – Made from real beef (just don’t ask what part of the animal they come from), bully sticks are widely considered safe, and most dogs love them. Just be sure to purchase your bully sticks from reputable sources.
  • Indestructible Toys – Just because your dog likes to chew doesn’t mean you have to let him actually eat anything. Most dogs are just as happy chomping on a good, durable chew toy as they are a bone.
  • Treat-Dispensing ToysTreat-dispensing dog toys hold treats or flavored pastes that not only give your dog something to chew, they give him a delicious incentive to do so.

***

We’d love to hear your questions and experiences with dogs that have eaten bones in the comments below!

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Written by

Ben Team

Ben is the senior content editor for K9 of Mine and has spent most of his adult life working as a wildlife educator and animal-care professional. Ben’s had the chance to work with hundreds of different species, but his favorite animals have always been dogs. He currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his spoiled-rotten Rottweiler named J.B. Chances are, she’s currently giving him the eyes and begging to go to the park.

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16 Comments

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Miguel

how long would it take until the bone passes? I believe my dog ate a 5 to 6 inch cooked lamb rib. I can’t be sure if it was chewed or swallowed it all happened so fast. How long could this all take to know if it is stuck somewhere or has been digested?

Reply
Ben Team

Hey, Miguel.
It’s tough to say. A large dog may pass a small piece of bone in a matter of hours, while a large piece of bone may take days to work its way through the system of a smaller dog (if it ever passes at all).
It’s probably a good idea to give your vet a call and get his or her opinion.
Our fingers are crossed for your pup!

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LOURA Greenlee

I need to know how to keep my dogs safe and best ways to help them live long

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kAmy

What plastic dog bone can I give my little dog to keep him occupied once a day when she wants to chew?

Reply
Ben Team

Check out our article about indestructible chew toys! There are 11 different options we recommend.

Reply
Becky

I especially appreciated your article. I am wondering about a beef rib bone and if our dog can digest it. Our dog ate or rather swallowed actually a large rib bone and we are very concerned about him and wondering if the bone could be digested. It has been 4 days and no bone has come out yet.

We took him to the veterinarian who did a rectal and prescribed amoxicillin. he is eating well again although to begin with he had blood spots in his stool.
He is not vomiting and he seems to be going kind of regularly but less than normal and with a thick-like texture – please help… he is the love of our life.

Reply
Ben Team

Hey, Becky. So sorry about your pup’s issues.
So far, it sounds like you are doing everything right — you went to the vet, you started him on the recommended treatment, and you’re monitoring his poops. Hopefully, his body will break down the bone, or it’ll slide out without causing injury. Just be sure to watch him like a hawk, and head back over to the vet immediately if he shows any worsening symptoms.
Let us know how everything goes! Our fingers are crossed for you.

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Theresa Dussich

Ben!
Thanks for the comments on dog bone issues. My wife and I have 2 Norwegian Elkhoinds, a male at about 55# , and a female about 46#.
We have had them from pups (now 3/12 ) and fed them a raw food diet, mostly from a farm which sells all kinds of meats beef, goat, lamb, etc. and some from places like Pet Carnivore.
Lately, we notice the male has has issues with wanting to eat grass in the morning and then throwing up small bits of bone, about the size of a nail clipping or very small pebble.
Since they have both been on the same exact diet and rye female does fine, no regurgitation issues like the male, I was wondering if he just can’t digest bones like the female and if so, can you explain why?
We’re thinking of getting a commercial grade meat grinder ( very expensive) but also thinking perhaps not giving him any bone c9nti in food and her staying on track with what she’s eating, bones included.
Any suggestions..
We live in Roswell…
Thanks,
Bob ( Theresa’s husband)

Reply
Ben Team

Hey, Bob.
Roswell, huh? You’re right over there (I’m pointing out my window).
🙂

As you can probably tell by the article, I strongly discourage people from feeding bones to their pets. If they’re ground up into a fine powder, they probably pose less of a choking risk, but it’s just not necessary to give your dogs bones at all if you feed them a high-quality kibble.

In fact, I typically recommend that people avoid raw and homemade diets entirely. They’re just too difficult for the average dog owner to balance properly, and — contrary to popular opinion — raw meats present a number of health risks to dogs.

Not really sure why your boy is having a tougher time digesting bones that the girl is, but it could be just about anything. At any rate, I’d consider it a pretty big red flag and recommend holding off on the bones (for either pet) and getting him over to the vet pretty quickly.

Best of luck! Let us know how it goes!

Reply
Aprik

My dog had puppies this week. Two of which she consumed on two different days. Yesterday I had to take her to the vet after she delivered two stillborn fetuses, one of which she ate. After vet consultation and
X-rays she has one of the puppies skulls stuck in her stomach at the opening to the intestines. Vet suggested surgery, wait with meds to help her not vomit, or induce vomiting which could possibly create the issue of those bones becoming lodged in her airway, and or possible aspirations with this that would also lead to pneumonia. Any advice as to how my mastiff/ridgeback might do as far as digesting? We have chosen to do meds to help her not vomit and antibiotics. She is home and having bowel movements and urinating fine. She is still eating as long as we bring her food to her kennel we’re her puppies are and still drinking. She is panting a little harder than I would like but she seems comfortable other than being a first time mommy. Any advice would be appreciated.

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Victor Juel

My golden retriever puppy swallowed a cooked pork rib bone whole when I tried to take it away. It was about 3 1/2 inches long and identical to the bone pictured on this web page. It has been almost a week and I go out side daily and look for a bone in the poop hoping it will pass through. The puppy continues to eat a lot and poops quite often and shows no signs of distress. The puppy’s belly is not bloated at all. Should I be concerned and is it possible the bone has dissolved already? How long should I be concerned for? HELP

Reply
Meg Marrs

Hey Victor – it’s quite difficult to say. I suggest consulting your vet or possible using a service like JustAnswer where you can talk with a vet online if you have questions.

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Deana

Hi Ben maybe coincidental but my dog had some rib bone like all dogs eager to eat it dogs like to chew minimal and swallow the rest. It has been extremely hot here but I have never witnessed a dog drink so much water he has to wear a diaper in the house. His stomach way larger than normal. Could be a number of things but I’m thinking he is trying to drink to rid something. The first few days you could see in his eyes something very wrong. I took him to vet and a panel starts at 250.00. It has been about a month he is looking better but he continues to drink excessively. HELP any advise??
Deana

Reply
Ben

Hey, Deana — sorry your pooch isn’t feeling well.

The increased thirst maybe related to the bone, but it could also be a sign of diabetes. It could also simply reflect the high temperatures you referenced. $250 is certainly a pile of money, but it’s probably wise to have your vet investigate the matter thoroughly.

Honestly, the swollen belly strikes me as the most worrying thing.

I think this is simply one of those times you’ll have to bite the bullet and pay the necessary vet fees. If money is tight, you can always ask the vet for a break on the fees, or ask if he or she will let you pay over time.

Best of luck! Let us know how it turns out.

Reply
Melissa

My dog just swallowed a marrow bone inch and a half round she’s over a hundred pounds I don’t think she chewed it at all is that something that will come out later

Reply
Ben

Hey, Melissa. It’s hard to know for sure. I’d keep a good eye on her and contact you vet ASAP if she exhibits any of the troubling signs we mentioned above.
Good luck!

Reply

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