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Give A Dog (or a Cat) A Bone

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There is much debate in the media about the potential dangers of feeding bones to dogs and cats, and also of the potential risks of food poisoning such as salmonella infection that the feeding of raw meat may carry. However, simply by correct feeding, you can help your dog / cat create the healthiest gastric environment for them to eliminate these potential dangers.

The gastric acidity of the stomach of a dog or cat eating a diet predominantly made up of raw meat is very acidic, with a pH of 2 or lower. This highly acidic environment is favourable to the breakdown of raw meats, and raw bones, into soft digestible material. This low pH also is also highly effective at killing bacteria, particularly potentially pathogenic bacteria like salmonella spp, clostridia, campylobacter and E Coli.

For over 40 million years, the natural ‘wild’ diet of Cats and dogs has evolved a gastric environment that favours the breakdown of raw meats, raw bones and a pH that kills potentially harmful bacteria consistent with the requirements of carnivores, and in particular, the scavenging nature of dogs, so it is only logical that this is what they will thrive on.

Also matched to this highly carnivorous predominantly raw diet  is a very effective digestive process, which occurs in their relatively short gastrointestinal tract. Dogs and cats have a significantly shorter GI tract when compared to non meat eating (herbivorous) animals, whereas humans have an intermediate length GI tract. The relative length of the gut reflects the required nature of the diet, and how efficiently or slowly the food is broken down and absorbed. Fresh raw meat is easily digested and absorbed compared to vegetable matter, and as such, carnivores have a short gut, and rapid gut transit time of as little as 8 -12 hrs, whereas plant and vegetable material in a herbivore’s gut can take 3 – 5 days, significantly longer.

Unfortunately many modern processed pet foods have adapted to the financial constraint of the cost of meat protein by significantly increasing the carbohydrate component of dog and cat foods, using instead, corn, wheat, rice, potato and other forms of carbohydrate. These are often the major ingredient in many pet foods. Secondly, many processed pet foods also substitute meat proteins with plant based proteins that are much cheaper. Using ingredients like Soya bean and lupins which are cheap sources of protein that will increase the overall protein % on the label, but without the associated increase in cost. The problem with this type of substitution is that it directly impacts on the digestive environment of the dog or cat.

In dogs and cats that eat these diets with high carbohydrate, high plant protein and lower meat protein, we find that the acidity level of the stomach begins to alter (gastric acidity relates to meat protein), and the stomach becomes progressively more alkaline, for example pH 4 and above. In this less acidic environment, several key issues arise;

  • With the altered  pH, gastric digestion and emptying slows down.
  • With the altered pH, food bacteria and contaminants are not destroyed as effectively.
  • With the altered pH, raw bones and bone material is not softened and broken down effectively because digestive enzymes have lost function.

This would become apparent when a dog that is fed a highly processed diet is offered a raw bone, or a meal of raw meat. Because the stomach acidity is directly dictated by the meat protein content of the diet, these dogs already have a less acidic stomach, which is not able to soften and breakdown raw bone material, nor is the stomach pH able to cope with a load of bacteria. The result can be a sudden ‘rejection’ of the bone or meat, in the form of vomiting, or it can take the form of a bout of acute gastroenteritis, from an overgrowth of bacteria, or it may even result in a bone obstruction in the stomach. This appears to be the main problem that you read about in the media, people feed their dog dry kibble for a long period and then realising that the dog may need something more, they give them a large bone which they may not be able to digest properly.


In addition, with the delayed gastric emptying effect, any bacteria that do survive are also able to grow up into much larger numbers, and this effect is continued in the large bowel, with further fermentation of the plant fibre, and a delay in overall gut transit time. This can also result in constipation from excessive water reabsorption, or in loose stools from the over production of short chain fatty acids in the colon.

The problem is that it can take around 7-10 days of feeding a meat based diet for the gastric acidity levels to drop down to the natural pH 2 level, so it is not possible for the dog or cat’s body to quickly accommodate to such diet changes.

From this we can base a few fundamental feeding tips :

  • If you intend to feed fresh meat or a raw food diet, you should make this change gradually over 7-10 days and introduce bones after this time having allowed the dog or cat’s gastric acidity to normalise.
  • Including some fresh meat every day as part of your overall diet plan will make sure the gastric pH remains at around pH 2
  • Feeding a raw food diet will actually protect your dog or cat from bacterial contamination and food poisoning, and greatly reduce the chance of an obstruction from eating raw bones. It is a fact that dogs that eat processed foods are even more likely to shed salmonella bacteria in their faeces than are dogs that eat raw food.
  • Dogs and cats benefit from the calcium and phosphorus in bones.
  • You may need to teach your dog or cat to eat some types of bones, for instance if  they always eat their food in a big hurry, they may not crunch a small bone but instead try to swallow it whole. This happened with one of my dogs, she gulped down a pork rib bone. She was perfectly fine and digested it but by giving her small chicken wings that were cut in pieces, slowly she learned to crunch them before swallowing. Now she crunches up pork rib bones too and gnaws and crunches small lamb leg bones.
  • Note: Beef bones are too hard for dogs to eat and can break or chip their teeth, unless your dog has learned to just gnaw on these bones and eat the marrow (as in the picture above) remember ‘marrow’ contains a significant number of extra calories. Chicken, Pork and Lamb bones are generally better for your dog to eat.
  • For Cats, typically, chicken wings and necks are best or if you prefer you can crush them first so that they get all the minerals from the bones without any large pieces. Unfortunately, they won’t have the fun of gnawing on a bone though. If your cat has a sensitive stomach ensure that they are thoroughly acclimatised to a raw meal before giving bones with a high marrow content as occasionally the ‘marrow’ in bones may cause diarrhea due to its fat content.
  • Keep your dog or cat under observation and monitor their progress when they are eating bones, especially in a household where there are multiple animals.
  • Give only appropriate sized bones to your pet.

In summary, make sure that your dog or cat’s everyday eating habits have evolved sufficiently to enable them to benefit from the addition of suitable raw bones in their diet. Then like their ancestors, hopefully they may thrive with a lot less of the (what has become normal) upsetting medical complaints.


By  Zoe Vanderbilt   BSc



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