Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Give Your Dog A Bone

I like to feed my dogs bones as an occasional treat every couple of weeks. I'm not an advocate of the BARF diet (it's really just not feasible to feed enormous messy chunks of bone and gristle every day when you and your dogs are sharing a 900 sq. ft. condo with no yard), but I do think there are some nutritional and dental benefits to be gleaned from letting a dog chew on a good meaty bone every now and then. Plus, they really like it. REALLY like it. To the point where I supervise them constantly and sometimes separate them by crating one of the mutt monsters before anybody gets a bone, because otherwise I'll have a fight on my hands.

There are, however, a few commonsense precautions to be observed when giving your dog a bone. First, everyone agrees that brittle bones are a no-go. Cooked chicken and turkey bones are the best-known example -- they can splinter when broken, leading to perforated intestines and a severely, even fatally, hurt dog. It doesn't happen every time (or else every dog who got into the Thanksgiving garbage would be in trouble), but it happens often enough that it's just not worth the risk.

Dry roasted beef bones can be dangerous in a different way. These bones, which are often sold in supermarkets as pet treats, are extremely hard and can actually crack or shatter dogs' teeth while they're being chewed on.

Raw bones are generally accepted as safe (other than long beef marrow bones, which are still too hard for most dogs to eat easily even when raw -- I think it's fine to give them to dogs who like to slurp the marrow out in the same way they lick out the filling of a Kong, but if you have a dog who tries to brute-force crack them open with his teeth, it's probably best to skip these). But, and I'll readily admit this might just be my own nutty hang-up, raw bones and gristle are kind of germy and gross and honestly I don't want them being dragged all over my deck. If we had a yard I might feel differently, but we don't.

So I give my dogs lightly cooked bones. I buy beef knuckle bones and occasionally short bones from Whole Foods (and only from Whole Foods or trusted farmer's market vendors, because I've been totally paranoid about mad cow disease since the late '90s and by god I am not feeding my dogs bovine spongiform cannibal cooties), boil them in broth for about 10 to 20 minutes (shorter for marrow bones, longer for knuckle bones), and hand them off to the mutt monsters once they've cooled down. The gristlier the bone, the better; much of the benefit comes from the tough connective tissue and attached gristle, not just the actual bone itself.


Boiling them is pretty safe; if your dog can tolerate raw bones (and not all can -- some dogs are prone to impaction or constipation from eating bones), he can tolerate lightly boiled bones. The cooking method is very moist and doesn't dry the bones out, so there's no more risk of splintering than there would be with raw bones.

Leftover bones go in the freezer, because these things do not keep more than a few days in the fridge. And there usually are leftovers, both because I like to boil them in big batches and save the extras, and because I generally take the bones away after the dogs have been chewing on them for half an hour or so. Otherwise they'd try to eat the whole thing in one sitting, and then they'd probably get constipated. Half an hour's chewing at a time seems good -- long enough for them to get completely satisfied, not long enough to eat themselves sick.

Once the bone's been chewed down to about the size of a hockey puck (i.e., there's some remote risk that the dog might swallow it whole), I throw it away. And that's that for bones.

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