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Give a dog a bone! But wait—should you? Are dog chews safe?
There’s no denying that bones and chews are highly popular, and for good reason. They can be a high-value training reward, provide a source of mental enrichment, and also be a long-lasting distraction to help with general anxiety or stressful events like vet visits. They’re also said to have a lot of great benefits like promoting dental health and being a good source of protein.
But they’ve fallen under scrutiny in recent years for being dangerous, both to your dog’s teeth and their stomach. And the way they’re most often used—to buy an exhausted pet parent a few minutes—might not be compatible with the level of supervision required. So how do you know what to do and whether or not you should give your dog bones and chews?
To find out, we speak with Courtney Jackson, DVM, a veterinarian and founder of The Pets Digest, to give us the scoop on all things dog chews—from antlers to yak chews and everything between.
Different Types of Dog Chews
The first part of evaluating the safety of dog chews is understanding what’s on the market. Dog chews and bones range widely in texture, hardness, and size—and each comes with different safety pros and cons. We’ve listed these in rough order of hardness, though that can vary from brand to brand for any given chew type.
Dental chews are for pet parents interested in supplementing their dog’s regular toothbrushing routine. Fully digestible, they’re some of the softest and safest chews on the market, which is why they’re also often the shortest-lived. Dental sticks come in different sizes, flavors, and styles, with some made with added vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
Some brands like Greenies focus on texture for teeth-cleaning power, while others—notably Dentastix—incorporate tartar-fighting ingredients like sodium tripolyphosphate and zinc sulphate.
Pig ears are made from cartilage and tend to be a nice in-between bone option, being softer than most rawhides and yak chews but tougher than dental sticks. They’re typically in a medium price range and are relatively digestible, though the high fat content can pose a problem for some pups.
Beef tendons, made from a cow’s connective tissue, are a relatively soft dog chew. Usually highly digestible, tendons provide a stimulating chewing experience with a low risk of splintering. Like many other bone choices, beef tendons can help clean your pet’s teeth, but they cost more than your average dog bone. They’re typically a little smaller and thinner than bully sticks.
Bully sticks are single-ingredient treats made from beef muscle that can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days (depending on the bully stick size and your dog’s chewing style). They’re soft enough that splintering isn’t an issue, though speed chewers are sometimes tempted to swallow the last few inches whole—which leaves pups at risk of choking or intestinal blockage.
They’re highly digestible, high in protein, good for dental health, and an excellent source of amino acids. But they can also be quite stinky and high in calories if your dog is a super chewer. And while not the most expensive type of dog chew, they can be pricey depending on the brand.
Rawhide, as the name suggests, is made from the inner soft hide or skin of an animal. Relatively inexpensive, longer lasting, and wildly popular among dogs, it used to be the chew of choice in the bone world. These days, however, it’s come under scrutiny with claims that the quality of some rawhide chews is poor, unethical, and inadvertently contains a source of chemicals.
Being aware of where you source your rawhide can help ease concerns. Many pet parents also choose rawhide alternatives, which are sometimes softer and almost always more digestible.
Yak and Himalayan chews are typically made using yak milk, lime, and salt to create a tasty, cheesy treat. While some brands offer dairy and lactose-free options, others mix in cow’s milk. These chews are known for being long-lasting, highly digestible, mostly odor-free, and suitable for a wide range of sizes. Their biggest drawback is their hardness: yak chews can chip an especially zealous chewer’s teeth. Some pet parents prefer to pop them in the microwave for a few seconds or soak them in water to make them softer.
Antler chews are some of the hardest chews on the market. They’re popular among super chewers and are available in a wide range of sizes. While antlers are more expensive than other bones on this list, they’re also longer lasting. The big risk associated with them? Splintering. They fall into the same camp as cow hooves and buffalo horns, which tend to be more popular among medium and large dogs.
Potential Risks With Dog Chews
Are dog chews and bones safe? Like most things in life, it’s complicated. The common consensus among the vets we spoke with, however, was that no matter what type you choose, chews and bones pose some level of risk.
According to Dr. Jackson, the dangers chews pose are:
- pieces splintering or cracking off, causing a blockage in the stomach if eaten
- gum and tooth damage from hard chews and sharp edges
- choking on fragments
Smaller dogs and super chewers tend to be at a higher risk for blockages that can cause severe issues to their gastrointestinal systems.
“Chews like bones, elk antlers, hooves, and horns can splinter and cause a tremendous amount of harm to a dog,” says Dr. Jackson. “It’s always possible that the chew can splinter and get lodged somewhere in the dog’s mouth or intestines, where it can puncture the wall of the intestines.”
So what are other options if you’ve got a power chewer on your hands or need to distract your pup? “A good alternative is sweet potato chews, dehydrated treats, or fillable toys like Kongs or a Toppl as long as they’re the appropriate size and chew strength for the dog,” says Dr. Jackson.
If you do choose to give your dog a chew or bone, Dr. Jackson says it’s important to choose one that’s appropriately sized for your dog and to take it away once it gets small enough for your dog to swallow whole. Bully stick holders can help. She also warns that if your dog has gastrointestinal issues or pancreatitis, steer clear of pig ears due to their high-fat content.
And most importantly, she recommends constant supervision while your dog is enjoying a chew or bone and to check their teeth regularly for any cracks or bleeding gums.
Final Verdict: Are Bully Sticks, Dog Bones, and Antlers Safe?
There’s always going to be some risk when chews are involved, which means pet parents will have to make their own judgment call—but the good news is that risk can be mitigated by tailoring the bone to your dog’s size, breed, and chewing style. For example:
- Harder chews like bully sticks and antlers might be better suited for larger dogs or super chewers with powerful jaws—but keep an eye out for splintering.
- Medium-level chewers may enjoy pig ears and yak chews, which still pose a challenge without the same hardness of stronger bones.
- For smaller pups or senior dogs, softer options like dental chews and rawhide-free treats can be a safer route for more delicate teeth and jaws.
- If your dog has food allergies or sensitivities, single-ingredient chews, like beef tendons, can provide a tasty option that’s easy on their tum.
- To play it as safe as possible, try sweet potato chews and similar dehydrated treats—or make your own dehydrated dog-safe jerky.
No matter what you choose, always supervise your dog while they’re enjoying a chew. That’s especially critical with new chews your dog hasn’t tried before and old chews that have been gnawed to swallowable stubs. And as always, before introducing something new to your dog’s diet, check with your vet to see if it’s okay for your pup.
How We Chose Our Dog Chews
The dog chews featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms, and interviews with veterinary experts, including Rover’s Dog People Panel. We evaluated chews based on hardness, digestibility, nutritional content, price, odor, and mess. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated dogs, who are never stingy with their feedback.