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Did you see the dumpster fire on the Real Dog Box Instagram feed? It was like driving slowly past a car accident where a car is upside down and backward – after wondering if anyone was hurt, you wonder how hard was the car hit that it ended up upside down.

To catch you up, someone's dog ended up in the emergency room for what turned out to be an upset tummy. The dog's human thought that the dog had an impaction and was shocked to find that the dog bone shards in the tummy and blamed an air-dried treat that arrived in her monthly Real Dog Box. The veterinarian's bill for this trip topped out at $1,600.

There was an amicable discussion via message that turned into the aforementioned dumpster fire on social media when the dog's human shared the experience in a Facebook group. For days now, people have been trolling the brand's Instagram and Facebook posts (it's shocking how many of the angry people are teenagers – they're brutal) demanding that the brand makes it right. How? Some are demanding money, some want an apology, some won't settle for anything less than both.

After following along and speaking to the owners of Real Dog Box, I only have one question – are air-dried bones safe for dogs?

What are Air-Dried Bones?

There are several ways bones and chews are processed.

  • Raw is unprocessed – the bones are raw and can be messy (the blood) so our dogs eat them outside. Some raw feeders feed bones in crates or on tarps.
  • Air-Dried – bones and chews that air-dried go through a slow drying process at temps that range between 110-130 degrees Fahrenheit (43-54 degrees Celcius), preserving the nutrients. The air-drying process reduces the chance of the bone splintering when being eaten because the bone hasn't been subjected to high heat. However, because some heat is used, caution is necessary.
  • Freeze-Dried – bones and chews that are freeze-dried are flash-frozen at very low temperatures, then the moisture is removed via a vacuum process. People may prefer freeze-dried because the bacteria in raw food is removed during this process. Because the bones and chews aren't processed using heat, they are safer for dogs to consume.
  • Dehydrated – bones and chews that are dehydrated are processed at temps of 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius) or more. Basically, the bones and chews are cooked at high heat until the water evaporates, which, for my dogs, makes the bones unsafe, but the chews (no bones) are fine.
  • Smoked or Roasted – and, finally, there are smoked and roasted bones which are cooked at high temps over an extended period of time and they're problematic for a couple of reasons. (1) Because these bones are subjected to heat, they may become brittle and may splinter. Heat also hardens bones, which increases the risk of a broken tooth. (2) When food is smoked, something is added to bring about a smokey flavor and because these bones are created in high quantities, I wonder what chemicals are used and what toxins are creating during the smoking/roasting process. Despite the many brands that claim their smoked bones are safe, I do NOT feel comfortable giving smoked bones to my dogs.

Benefits of Feeding Bones to Dogs

As a raw feeder, I'm well versed in feeding bones to my dogs. But, I will admit that, in the beginning, bones terrified me. What if my dog breaks a tooth, what if my dog has an impaction, what if a bone shard punctures my dog's digestive tract or esophagus, what if my dog chokes? I've read many horror stories, some ended with very expensive veterinarian bills and others ended far worse. With the risks, why would anyone take a chance with bones?

Once I got over my fear, I could see that there are many benefits to feeding raw bones to our dogs.

  • raw bones clean the teeth and gums, scraping tarter along the gumline and keeping the teeth white and the breath fresh; when dogs eat raw bones, they stimulate enzymes in their saliva that helps to break down tartar
  • raw bones satisfy our dogs chew drive and I'm convinced that the act of chewing bones releases endorphins in the brain because my dogs seem so calm and happy during and after a chew session
  • raw bones provide vital minerals and nutrients; specifically, calcium is excellent for our dogs' bone health and it's easier to absorb than supplemental products
  • raw bones serve to give me a break because when the dogs are enjoying a session, I sit back and watch (I always monitor their chew sessions) and take a break from the day

And if we can't feed raw bones, it's nice to have an alternative on hand, like air-dried or freeze-dried.

Risks We Accept When Feeding Bones to Our Dogs

All bones – raw, air-dried, freeze-dried, dehydrated, smoked – pose a risk to dogs and if anyone tells you otherwise, they're incorrect, in my opinion. We can't always anticipate how each dog will respond to a bone or chew.

Bones can crack/break teeth, puncture the esophagus or digestive tract, cause an impaction in the digestive tract, or cause our dogs to choke. The risk of these things happening is based on our individual dogs and on the bone/chew we're feeding to our dogs. My point isn't to shame or blame anyone who has had a bad experience; instead, take this as a warning that there is a real risk despite what brands may say about their products. This is something raw feeders understand, but people who don't feed raw may not be aware of these risks.

Bones Can Crack/Break Teeth

I avoid the weight-bearing bones of large animals (the leg bones of cows, for example) because I think they're too hard. A bone needs to be strong to support a 2,000-pound animal. But avoiding weight-bearing bones doesn't mean that our dogs won't crack a tooth. Antlers are also too hard for my dogs; they seem like a great idea for long chewing, but my dogs aren't gnawing on them gently, they're trying to devour them, chewing them harder to break them down which can end with a cracked tooth.

Of course, if a dog has poor dental health, then the risk of a broken or cracked tooth increases.

Puncture of Esophagus or Digestive Tract

Some bones and chews break off into sharp, long splinters as our dogs are eating them – it's kind of scary thinking of a three-inch sharp piece of bone making its way down my dog's throat and through the intestines – Yikes! I saw the sharp pieces with drumsticks, drummettes, and antlers. I no longer buy antlers and I grind drumsticks and drummettes before feeding them to my dogs.

Bones can Cause an Impaction

Anything that a dog has trouble digesting can result in an impaction. With bones, I worry that if my dogs' digestive track is moving slowly, a meal of raw meaty bones (or recreational bones) will plug things up. Can you tell that I'm not a veterinarian yet? I haven't had this experience with any of my dogs, but, just in case, I make sure my dogs have plenty of fiber in their diet and I don't feed whole bones daily.

Our Dogs can Choke on Bones

This is my biggest fear because I have dogs that will swallow a large piece of bone or chew to keep another dog from taking it away – which is why I always supervise. To prevent choking, I used to hold on to one end of a bone or chew to make sure my dogs chew it slowly and thoroughly; I did this until I could trust them to eat the bone on their own. With bully sticks, I use the Bully Buddy, which holds the sticks in place and prevents our dogs from swallowing that last inch, which can also pose a choking hazard.

Types of Bones I Feed to My Dogs

There are many options when it comes to bones, but not all bones are safe for all dogs. It took me a while to figure out what would and wouldn't work for my dogs and I have not deviated since I developed my list other than to add new things. The following is a list of raw bones that I give to my dogs:

  • duck frames (more cartilage than bone)
  • lamb necks
  • duck necks
  • duck feet
  • duck heads
  • pork ribs
  • rabbit feet
  • beef knuckle bones

My dogs also get various chews that are air-dried (Real Dog Box, Icelandic+, Ziwi), freeze-dried (Vital Essentials Raw, Northwest Naturals), and dehydrated (The Honest Kitchen).

Benefits and Risks of Feeding Air-Dried Bones to Dogs

Because this post was inspired by Real Dog Box, I have to talk about the benefits and risks of feeding air-dried bones to dogs.

Benefits of Air-Dried (and Freeze-Dried) Bones

My dogs enjoy raw bones in the spring, summer, and fall. This is the only time of the year when it's nice (and dry) outside and I prefer our dogs to eat their raw bones outside (except duck necks, duck feet, and rabbit feet) while I supervise. When the weather drives us indoors, I give our dogs air-dried, freeze-dried, and dehydrated chews. This keeps their teeth clean during the winter months among the other benefits.

Risks of Air-Dried (and Freeze-Dried) Bones

The risks of feeding air-dried and freeze-dried bones and chews are the same as the risks of feeding raw bones. And just like raw bones, it's important to know which air-dried bones and chews are a good fit for our individual dogs. I receive a monthly subscription box from Real Dog Box that includes air-dried chews (duck wings, turkey wings, trachea, tendons, boar's ribs, etc.) – I've been a member for years and our dogs have done great on everything we've tried.

If I'm nervous about a chew, I don't give it to my dog. And if a chew isn't a good fit for any of my dogs, then I ask that it be removed from future boxes. But this rarely happens because, with four dogs, there is always something for each dog.

Are Air-Dried Bones Safe for Dogs?

Dogs are naturally able to consume and digest bones and my dogs have been eating bones for years without issue, but this doesn't mean that bones and chews are always safe for our dogs. So, what do we do?

  • Understand that there is a real risk when adding bones, any type, to a dog's diet. Once I excepted this risk, I became more cautious about what I gave to each of our dogs.
  • Monitor dogs when they're consuming bones and chews. This is a strict rule in our house and the best way I know to protect my dogs while they're enjoying their bones and chews. Each dog has a spot and each dog has their preferred chews (the ones they do well with).
  • Teach dogs “drop it.” My dogs have a solid “drop it,” which is handy if I notice that they're not doing well with a bone or chew. And I always reward them with an alternative (bully stick, a different bone, etc.) so they don't run away or try to swallow the chew quickly.

If you've done everything I've shared and you're still nervous about feeding bones, don't worry and don't allow the masses to bully you out of your concerns. As I shared above, I grind bones for my dogs – their primary diet is ground raw. So they're getting the nutrients bones bring to the diet. For teeth cleaning, you can use a chew toy that helps to clean the teeth or brush your dogs' teeth.

Just as not every bone is a good fit for every dog; there are some dogs that don't do well on whole bones.

Read More About Raw Feeding

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