SFRAW Answers to Frequently Asked Questions! Today we’ve tackled the topic of the safety of feeding cooked bones – plus, some safety tips on feeding raw bones get “tossed into the pot”, so to speak!
Question: Hello! I made some chicken feet bone broth till the bones are crushable easily with the back of a spoon, are the super soft chicken feet bones safe to give to the dogs? Thanks!An inquiring SFRAW Member via Instagram
Answer: Thank you for asking! This is a very common question we get and that a lot of people have when preparing DIY fresh foods to their animals, or when buying a commercially prepared raw diet and thinking about cooking it at home.
Bit of history & perspective: Remember that, from the origin of our co-evolving symbiotic ancient relationship with dogs and cats, for at least thousands of years ago up until the 1940s, “pet food” was not widely used (the first kibbled foods were developed in the late 1950s), not even invented as a novel concept prior to the late 1890s in England. Commercial kibbled & canned pet food was the invention of the grain milling industry during war-time. Industries were seeking to make use of by-products and reduce waste within the food system – which is great, of course! – but pet food was not developed with the goal or intention to ideally or properly nourish our animal friends long-term. Indeed, EVERYONE fed “DIY Raw” before modern food systems and industrial agriculture — “real, whole food” was just how we fed our animal friends via shared meals, table scraps, etc.
Within the era of the current modern Raw Feeding movement (c. 1980s until today) Raw Feeders were always very clear and definitive on the answer to the question of feeding cooked bones being an unequivocal: NO COOKED BONES! a common mantra from the raw feeding community and educators: “Never feed cooked bones to your dogs or cats!”
Raw Bones = Safe
Cooked Bones = Dangerous
Well, I’d like to come out publicly to state that this is not necessarily true.
First, it is biologically and scientifically true that meat covered bone, consumed in their natural, raw form, are indeed, the ideal and best source of nutrition for our domestic carnivores (dogs and cats). Raw, covered in meat/connective tissue, is the safest way to feed bones to your carnivores. Raw bone and meat/offal is what their bodies are designed to thrive on from a structural/physiological standpoint, as well as from a metabolic and nutritional aspect. Raw animal based foods/bone are the safest and most nutritious sources of bioavailable vitamins, minerals, cofactors, fats and proteins. This is clear when we admire their elegant, natural and impressive carnivorous form and structure: from their dentition, essential movement and structure of their jaws/mouths, by lacking necessary enzymes and the necessary gastrointestinal structure/function to digest vegetable matter, with many other carnivore specific features of their digestive systems. All of this allows for them to most easily and efficiently digest and derive proper nutrition from an animal bone/protein based diet.
While this is true, there ARE, indeed, very real (unlikely, yet possible) risks associated with feeding raw bones to dogs and cats that everyone should be aware of. I have written on this topic previously on our blog here and here and here.
HOW TO FEED A SAFE & HEALTHY DIET THAT INCLUDES BONE
IT ALL STARTS WITH: YOU
First and most importantly, YOU, in your role as your dogs/cats’ “personal chef”, will be the biggest influence on just how safe or unsafe feeding whole parts and pieces (including raw meaty bones or recreational bones) will be for each and every animal under your care.
Number One: FOOD IS LOVE (or fear, or….)
You need to feel confident and comfortable feeding them their meals – no matter what it is. The energy and “vibe” you have related to preparing their meals, and especially when presenting or serving their meals to them at mealtime, is BIG factor in how your animal interacts with their food. If you are nervous and uncertain, or angry or fearful,when making or serving their meals – they’re going to respond accordingly.
Please remember that our animals are highly sensitive beings, and they trust us so very much. Our companion animals are a genuine reflection of us and our energy. They look to us for how to react and respond to many things in the world – and this includes their food. When you are unsure, they may become uncertain, too. If you think their food is scary or yucky, it will have a negative influence on their appetite, digestion and results of eating what s offered to them.
So, when you present their meal with confidence and certainty – with joy, love and excitement to be feeding them the BEST most nourishing foods possible, this is going to translate directly to better health and nourishment overall.
The source of the food (how raised, harvested, handled, etc), the chef preparing/serving it, and their dining environment, all really do have a tremendous influence on their digestion, reaction, interest in and engagement with their meals.
Number Two: SUPERVISE!
Witnessing your dog or cat enjoy their raw meaty bones and large pieces/parts is one of the unexpected bonuses of feeding real, whole raw foods! For most raw feeders, watching and listening to them eat parts and pieces of raw, meaty bones becomes endlessly fascinating and can even become a comfort or somewhat hypnotic. When given the opportunity to enjoy species appropriate meals, served to them in a form that is close to how nature intended, it’s incredibly rewarding to allow for your domestic carnivore’s inner wolf or tiger to emerge and become so satisfied. We are fortunate to be able to honor their true nature by providing them with nourishment and meals that they are meant to eat.
But no matter what you are feeding, it is absolutely critical that you always, always supervise mealtimes and the consumption of these foods.
Failing to listen, watch, pay attention, and be attentive while your animals consume their raw meals may prove to be a fatal mistake. They can eat raw for years without issue and then suddenly experience a mishap and choke on a piece of meat or bone. It only takes a few very short minutes for an animal to perish under these circumstances. While VERY rare, it is an absolutely tragic situation and I just can only imagine the pain and trauma involved.
SO – supervision is the first step to reducing or eliminating this possible risk. Learn how to do the Heimlich maneuver on your animal. Check out YouTube for video tutorials, or better yet, become certified or take a Pet CPR class.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Being distracted or excited by house-guests, visitors, increased household activity, new family members (babies, dogs, cats, etc), stressful weather events/loud sounds, fearful, exciting or stressful external/environmental factors can all stack up to possibly increase the risk to your dog/cat when it comes to eating their meals safely.
Stress while eating, even concealed stress or mild stress, can create a situation that you should be aware of so that you can safely modify, structure or compensate that day’s meal selections or mealtimes for your animal.
Stress and changes in the environment can not only increase their risk for choking, but also their ability to properly digest their food. Stress hormones have an influence on their ability to metabolize and digest their meals as well as causing changes in their gut flora (bacteria levels/microbiome).
Number Three: MATCHING BONE SELECTIONS TO THE INDIVIDUAL
When feeding raw bones and chunks of meat, is critically important to, at a minimum, know and understand your dog/cats’ eating style and to match them up with the lowest risk meaty bones, or recreational bones (if they are good candidates for this category) for their unique needs.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Dogs/cats with certain health, hereditary or structural features/breed characteristics may be a higher risk category than others when it comes to raw meaty bone consumption. For example, animals on NSAIDs and other medications are at a high risk for many side-effects including increased risk for bowel perforations and obstructions no matter what they are eating – from kibble, to canned to raw or prey model.
Brachycephalic breeds, animals with megaesophagus, elongated palates, disproportional throat size to jaw/head ratio (tiny throats with big jaws), laryngeal paralysis, etc. are all in a higher risk category when it comes to eating bones and large pieces of meat. Feeding raw meaty bones to these animals needs to be done with careful observation and consideration.
SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: BOARDING, PET-SITTERS, TRAVELING
Dogs or cats being cared for by a sitter, being boarded or on vacation/travelling, IMO, should not be fed RMBs or hunks/chunks of food. Unless this is part of their “usual norm” – for example, dogs that travel frequently or a sitter being part of their usual weekly or monthly care routine – being in an unfamiliar setting can be stressful enough that they may try to eat too fast/swallow pieces whole, or just might not be as well supervised by the person feeding them when compared to you feeding them in their usual home setting.
Despite these possible risks, feeding WHOLE very meaty, appropriately sized raw bones to your dogs/cats remains the IDEAL. I feel very strongly that this should be the goal for MOST people when it comes to feeding their animals – so long as they are aware of these risks and make a decision based on a reasoned risk assessment/analysis.
SIZE MATTERS: GO BIG
The bigger the bone, the SAFER they are to feed. Safety is in the size of the bone or hunk of meat being fed, in every case. So, if you are just getting started, find a RMB that is about the size of your animal’s head, ideally. Avoid cutting down bones to small pieces because this presents the highest risk for choking – even teeny dogs, kittens and puppies should get very large sized bones – this is always going to be your safest option.
Too small (about the size of their throat) is the most risky option. Saw cut (not separated at the joint) or stripped of meat “boney” bones, especially if fed alone without an additional serving of meat/organs or other food, can be risky, too.
Feeding RMBs that are very close to the same diameter of the opening to your animal’s throat is one of the riskiest moves – so, for example, turkey necks are considered one of the highest risk bones for the average 50-75-lb dog.
Yes, people CAN and DO feed their animals bones within these risk factors and may do so for years without any issues, but the risks I’ve listed above to exist and we need to be mindful of these and knowledgeable when making choices for our individual animals.
JOINT SEPARATED BEST (VS. SAW/CUT BONE)
When feeding raw meaty bones, you want to go with joint separated, meaty with skin and other tissues attached, for the safest option (unless your animal has a health disorder in which they cannot tolerate skin/fat). The meatier, the better (and safer, too!)
WHAT ABOUT COOKED BONES?
It is true that cooked bones, are, in general a TOTAL NO-GO for dogs and cats. The feeding of cooked bones is where we see the biggest problems occur because cooking the bones changes the structure (and nutrition) of the bone so they can become very sharp and brittle. These sharp/brittle bone pieces can have deadly consequences when consumed and cause a lethal situation within the gut.
Feeding cooked bones that are stripped of meat is the MOST risky situation, because those sharp, brittle shards don’t even provide other material (meat) to be digested along with and can cause serious problems in the GI tract.
However, that being said — there are, indeed, two ways cooked bones can be prepared to feed your pet in a safer manner. Please understand that feeding a cooked diet is not at all my first preference or usual recommendation, BUT if you want to make use of every bit of your bone broth or you have a situation under which a cooked diet is the only possible option for an individual animal or required for a short period of time (after invasive GI surgery or trauma, for example), there are a few different ways in which this can happen without the usual safety risks involved with cooked bones.
COOKED VS RAW
Keep in mind that cooking and applying heat effectively “denatures” foods. This is less nutritious and IMO, less safe, too.
Heat kills beneficial bacteria, destroys important enzymes, removes necessary moisture (changing the density of the protein and calorie content), alters the nutrients chemically/structurally – especially fats, antioxidants and vitamins – and reduces the nutritional levels in nearly every food we feed to our carnivores, when compared to the raw form. Plan/calculate and expect for the food’s nutrient loss, when cooked, to average at around a 9-12% reduction in nutrients. This loss will need to be compensated for nutritionally when you feed a cooked diet regularly or for a long period of time.
Cooked bones prepared in a specific manner (see below) or cooked meals may be added to the overall menu to enhance meals when as a treat, fun “dressing” sauce or bribe food for primarily raw fed dogs/cats. If you wish to use cooked bones in this manner, please follow the below guidelines to make this safe to do:
FIRST METHOD: COOKING FINELY GROUND/POWDERED BONE (WHEN EVENLY DISTRIBUTED & COMBINED WITH MEAT/OFFAL)
If you are using a raw meat product that contains very finely ground bone, this can be warmed, baked, steamed or lightly seared without any safety concerns. For years, I fed a large hospice dog a low temperature baked meatloaf prepared with a base of finely ground meat/bone/organ blends combined with about 25% other ingredients such as eggs, raw milk, herbs and veggies.
These types of “grind” products can be heated without concern for safety – just be absolutely certain that the bone material is VERY finely ground and combined/distributed uniformly throughout the other ingredients.
For example, most SFRAW Grinds are a medium grind that is made of the entire animal (a whole duck, whole rabbit, whole turkey, etc.) and so, because the bones are included, we do not recommend cooking these products. The Prather Ranch and Northstar Bison products are “ok to cook” as they have such finely ground bone in them that they are safe to prepare this way, IME.
CAUTION! DANGER: Ingesting a mass/blob or scoop of 100% cooked ground bone can be extraordinarily dangerous, especially if formed into a paste/mass. This can become a plug within your animal’s gut – causing an obstruction. So, distributing any ground bone evenly throughout the other ingredients in your meals (meat/organs) is very important.
SUPER SAFE: Steamed bone meal (for example, in a powdered supplement form) is also a safe bone ingredient to cook. Yes, it has already been steamed and has indeed, been cooked already. Adding “bone meal powder” supplements to meals to provide the necessary calcium required by your recipe or according to your animal nutritionists recommendation is completely safe to do.
SECOND METHOD: PRESSURE-COOKED OR SLOW-COOKED BONES (NOT ALL BONES WILL QUALIFY)
When the soft bones have been cooked to the point where they are essentially just total jelly this may actually be OK! Yes, it’s true, so long as:
1) the bone EASILY breaks down into a mush or paste between your fingers
2) you have pressed the leftover bone “mush” through a fine sieve to strain out any sharp or dangerous bone fragments to be sure that there are no large pieces of cooked bone with sharp shards or points (discard if ANY doubt)
3) you can puree/liquidize them in a blender or food processor – generally easier to do when the bones are dry, but then you can add a splash of liquid/broth back in for a nicer texture
Candidates for this method would be only very “soft” bones – most poultry, rabbit, small game and the cartilage/soft bone cuts from larger animals. Because of their density, you should probably avoid trying to use the heavier, weight bearing bones from large animals such as pork, lamb, goat, beef, bison – such as leg bones and marrow bones.
Next, you will need to either evenly mix the pureed cooked soft bones with or drizzle on top of meals of muscle meat and organs to serve this safely.
Remember: if you feed a glob of the cooked bone this may very well cause an obstruction in the gut – that’s why you need to mix it with other food/parts of the animal and make sure it won’t form a solid mass in the gut which can happen if fed alone.
CAUTION! DANGER: Bits and pieces of brittle (or shards of) cooked bones can be very dangerous to ingest, so you do need to ensure that the bone you cook and prepare as explained herein is truly soft and prepared correctly, like a smooth mash/puree/pate before feeding.
NOTE: Prepared in this manner, they don’t provide much in the way of nutrition, save for the calcium, collagen and a few minerals remaining. There’s a bit of calcium, but I wouldn’t rely on this as a primary source of calcium in the diet necessarily, unless you are able to do the calculations to determine the elemental calcium provided by your batches, and then use the correct amount to feed a balanced or ideal ca:ph ratio in your meals.
However, it IS a flavorful “dressing” or bribe food/topper and can be a nice way to not let anything go to waste when making bone broth, for example.
Indeed, I have prepared meals/recipes for certain animals, often in very ailing health, that require a cooked diet. Under these circumstances, we may use a pressure or slow cooker to cook whole rabbits, turkeys, ducks and chickens. The bones are sorted through and either discarded completely and we use a calcium supplement instead to balance the ca:ph ratio, or we further cook the softer bones after cooking the meat off of them to make this type of mash and utilize this as part of the overall diet.
When making nutritious bone broth, the nutrition is transferred from the bone into the liquid broth by way of slow cooking and the addition of an acidic ingredient such as apple cider vinegar or tomato paste. The nutrition available in the leftover remaining bones becomes insignificant – but if you want to use them in some way, cook them until they are complete mush, strain, blend in your blender and then combine with other foods if you wish AND only if your animals really like it!
PS – Follow-up response from the original question:
“Thanks!! I make the broth first, then strain and re-cooked the chicken feet for about 18 hrs. so I can smash it with my fingers. I am using the broth cooked with turmeric as flavor topper and added collagen for the food we buy from you guys. Thanks so much!”
That was pretty cool to hear how she figured out how to use those bones in a second way after making broth – and I bet her dog thought it was totally deeeelicious!
Enjoy safely – if in doubt, don’t do it — but if you are determined or just wondered about this, well, so now you know!
Have you ever heard of or seen someone feed cooked bone meals to their animals without any problems and only experienced benefits? If so – let us know about it! Many traditional cultures have done this and there may be other ways we don’t even know about…great great grandmother recipes or methods, perhaps?
I hope this helps some people to make better decisions for the unique circumstances or in less common scenarios.
Remember: food is love!