I used to regularly give bones to my dog Ollie, an 8-year-old Australian cattle dog mix. Bully sticks, elk antlers, marrowbones ― you name it. If it was sold at my local pet shop, chances are I bought it.
That all changed in 2021, however, when I added an adorable rodent-shaped dental chew to my cart — a toothbrush in disguise for my pup.
Ollie crunched, gnawed and chomped on that treat for a few days. He loved it, or so I thought. But soon after he finished it, he stopped eating his kibble. He turned his nose up at treats, and my energetic herding dog suddenly became lethargic and melancholy. I tried everything: I got him more expensive (and smellier) treats and kibble flavor enhancers. Nothing worked. Maybe this was just normal aging, I thought.
Eventually, I went to the vet, and after a quick evaluation, they found that Ollie had badly fractured a molar on that chew ― and the injury was likely so bothersome that it was preventing him from eating.
My experience wasn’t rare, my vet told me. In fact, doggy dental fractures are one of the more common reasons that dogs wind up at the vet ― and they can be pretty painful, depending on how severe the injury is.
“Think of a toothache in a person and you’ll start to relate to the discomfort pets can experience,” said Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, a veterinary medical adviser for Rover and chief veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital. Her advice: “Skip the bones!”
Why Hard Bones Can Be So Dangerous For Dogs
Dr. Maria Soltero-Rivera, an assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, said studies have found that dogs’ jaws have an incredible chewing capacity ― and if a bone or chew toy doesn’t give way under that force, the teeth can snap.
Greenstein called it simple physics. “When a bone is harder than a tooth is strong, a tooth is bound to break or get damaged in process of gnawing and chewing,” she said. Dental fractures are a common canine injury; Soltero-Rivera estimated that tooth fractures affect about a quarter of the pooches at her practice.
These fractures tend to impact the most “functionally important” teeth. (Think back molars or fangs.) According to Greenstein, oral injuries frequently go undetected by owners until a dog is taken to the vet for a routine checkup. “We will often find them incidentally, but they can cause pets a lot of grief, depending on the severity of the fracture and whether there’s pulp exposure or nerve irritation,” Greenstein said.
Tooth fractures can expose blood vessels or nerves, which may be uncomfortable or downright painful. Even smaller bones can splinter off and the remaining shards can lacerate the mouth or digestive tract, according to Greenstein. These injuries can cause a pup to paw at its face or rub its face on furniture, and they can lead to decreased appetite, reduced interest in play or work, and a preferences for softer foods and toys, Soltero-Rivera said.
The dog may also only chew on the unaffected side of its mouth. If the injury leads to an infection, it can trigger foul breath, swelling inside the mouth, or signs of overall illness, Greenstein said. Your dog may need X-rays, and in serious cases, the tooth may need to be extracted or lifesaving surgery could be necessary.
Dental fractures tend to affect larger dogs more, because they are “power chewers,” Greenstein said. (Plus, adding insult to injury, owners of larger dogs may be more likely to give their pets tough bones to keep them occupied.) Fractures are also more common in dogs with existing dental disease, which weakens teeth and makes it easier for them to crack off, Greenstein added.
The best way to avoid tooth fractures? Don’t give your dog (or cat!) extremely hard bones.
Tooth-brushing or dental chews (which, in my case, were definitely not helpful) can’t prevent tooth fractures. But regular brushing may help you pick up on changes in your pet’s mouth ― ideally, “early on and hopefully before they become a source of discomfort,” Soltero-Rivera said.
How To Find A Safe Dog Bone
There are no official guidelines or regulations for bones and chews on the market. This is “unfortunate because owners can be deceived into thinking a product may be good for dental health when in reality it can easily fracture a tooth,” Soltero-Rivera said.
It can be incredibly tough to find a product that, one, can be easily digested, and, two, isn’t too rough on your dog’s jaw. In fact, there’s likely no perfect bone out there, Greenstein said. She recommended keeping tabs on your dog’s chewing habits: If your pet has a strong jaw and tends to chew through everything, almost no chew is safe.
When in doubt, look for the seal of the Veterinary Oral Health Council on the packaging label. This means the chew has been proved to remove plaque or tartar and doesn’t just look effective thanks to unfounded marketing claims, Greenstein noted.
Finally, vets have two rules of thumb to quickly weed out bones that are simply too hard. Tip one: Use the nail indent test. If you can press your nail into a bone and leave an indent, then it’s soft enough for your dog. If you don’t see an indent, skip it. (The exception to this rule, according to Soltero-Rivera, is rawhides since they soften with saliva. That said, they, too, can be risky. “I do recommend taking these away after they have been eaten to a size that dogs could attempt to swallow and choke on,” Soltero-Rivera said.)
The second tip: If you wouldn’t hit your knee with it, don’t give it to your dog.
Always get your vet’s advice — many have specific brands that they recommend. “They will be able to help you,” Soltero-Rivera said. And, if you suspect something’s going on with your dog’s mouth, schedule an appointment. Tooth fractures aren’t always obvious, but with early diagnosis and quick treatment, your dog should be back to its playful, kibble-loving self in no time.