Several months ago, a very nice lady brought her very nice Golden Retriever to my office. The unfortunate dog did not feel well.
The well-meaning owner had wanted to give her dog a special treat. She cooked a beef knuckle bone and gave it to the dog. An hour later, the bone was gone. An hour after that, the dog was miserable.
In the office, the dog stood with her back arched, and she groaned periodically. She was reluctant to lie down, and she frequently postured with her chest almost touching the ground while her hind end remained elevated. This so-called prayer posture frequently is seen in dogs with abdominal discomfort.
The owner consented to X-rays. They showed that the dog’s stomach was full of bone fragments. I had no trouble deciding upon the best course of action: I recommended endoscopy.
There are two ways to remove foreign material such as bones from the gastrointestinal tract: surgery and endoscopy. Surgery is very effective, but it is maximally invasive. Endoscopy only works if the foreign bodies are in the stomach or the first part of the intestines, but it hardly counts as invasive at all.
Endoscopes, essentially, are tubes with cameras on the end of them. The tube can be inserted into the mouth and the camera can be used to visualize the area at the end of the tube. Instruments can be inserted into the endoscope to retrieve foreign bodies or to sample tissues.
The owner elected to move forward with endoscopy. We called in a specialist to perform the procedure, and while she was on her way we prepared the dog. Preanesthetic blood work did not show any irregularities. Intravenous fluids, gastrointestinal protectants, and pain killers were started. The specialist arrived and the dog was anesthetized.
The specialist surveyed the esophagus as she passed the endoscope toward the dog’s stomach. Mercifully, no bone fragments were found in the esophagus (more on that later). The stomach, on the other hand, was filled with small bone fragments that had been chipped off the knuckle and swallowed. They had to be removed one at a time, and there were several dozen of them. The procedure took an hour and a half.
After the last fragment was removed, the specialist surveyed the damage to the stomach. There was plenty of it. Dozens of superficial erosions — which is another way to say ulcers — had developed from the irritation that the bones caused over just a few hours. Fortunately, the bones were removed before the erosions could become deep.
The dog went home later that night with pain killers, ulcer-fighting medications, and instructions to feed bland, easily digestible food. She recovered rapidly over the next few days, and she suffered no long-term complications.
The owner, however, was initially at a loss to understand how such a thing could have happened. Aren’t dogs supposed to eat bones?
The answer is yes and no. There is no doubt that dogs evolved eating bones. Most experts believe that wolves domesticated themselves (and subsequently became an entirely different species) by living, initially, on the margins of human society. As they made their way next into our yards, then our homes, and finally onto our beds, dogs’ ancestors were fed human leftovers. Or, to put it more bluntly, dogs evolved to eat our garbage. Bones certainly were a part of the mix.
And to this day many dogs live on human garbage. I will never forget the two resident dogs at a surf camp in El Salvador who seemed to subsist largely on chicken bones. They seemed quite healthy. Dogs in many other places I’ve visited — from Bolivia to Botswana to Cambodia — have similar diets.
But I have to wonder: How many gastric ulcers do those dogs have? And I have noticed something else about dogs who live in developing countries: They are always young. One almost never sees an old dog when visiting a place like Laos. Something’s taking them out before they become elderly. Are bones playing a role?
I likely never will find out whether bones in the diet contribute to the short lifespans of third-world dogs. But I do know this: In the USA, when you give your dog a bone, you are taking a risk.
Maybe your dog will suffer no consequences. Or maybe he will fall victim to the many ills that I have seen in dogs who have been given bones. Such problems include fractured teeth, damage to the esophagus, intestinal obstructions, abdominal pain, and pancreatitis.
In the past, when the raw-feeding crowd seemed to be more vocal and active, I would receive a great deal of flak whenever I wrote about the dangers that bones pose to dogs. Raw bones, it was claimed, could not chip teeth and were highly digestible. Such bones surely were safe for dogs, people would claim.
Not so fast. Raw bones may be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which can sicken the canine and human members of the house. And raw bones can only be digested if they make it into the stomach.
Bones — and it doesn’t matter whether they’re cooked or raw — are the most common type of foreign body that is found in the esophagus. And it turns out that the esophagus is just about the worst place in the body for an object such as a bone to lodge.
The esophagus is extremely unforgiving, and it is easily damaged. Bones often cause damage to the esophagus that leads to scarring and permanent stricture. If present for long enough (and it doesn’t take long — even a few days may be enough), bones may cause so much damage that the esophagus can no longer be used to swallow food. Such dogs require long-term feeding tube placement.
I’m no prude. I don’t object to giving treats to dogs. I’m not ashamed to admit that my pal Buster gets no small quantity of table scraps as I cook and eat. But I don’t like taking unnecessary risks. Bones are not a part of my pal’s repertoire.
Read more from our Ask a Vet series:
- Ask a Vet: Should I Help My Dog Breathe During a Seizure?
- Ask a Vet: Do Lepto Vaccines Cause Bad Reactions in Dogs?
- Ask a Vet: Can Ladybugs Embed in a Dog’s Mouth?
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)