Dogs love chewing on bones and antlers. This fact is reinforced in cartoons, the media, advertising, and even in our speech. Ever heard the expression, “like a dog with a bone”?
On the surface, antlers seem like the perfect object for dogs to chew on. Antlers do not appear to splinter as easily as bones or other toys; they last a long time, saving you money on chew toys for powerful chewers; and they appeal to our sense of what is "natural" for our dogs.
However, antlers pose some hazards that may have you rethinking that elk antler chew treat you’ve been eyeing at the pet store.
Broken Teeth and Dental Health
Perhaps the biggest irony when it comes to hard chews like antlers is that we, as owners, believe we are helping to keep our dogs’ teeth clean. After all, chewing helps reduce plaque and tartar buildup, and it also redirects destructive tendencies and anxiety into an acceptable outlet. For owners of powerful chewers that destroy conventional chew toys in a manner of hours, antlers seem like a gift from nature herself.
Veterinarians disagree. The $20 you might spend on a quality antler chew toy might seem like a good investment, but as Dr. Marty Becker points out, the cost of dental surgery is many, many times that.
Antlers and other excessively hard chews are a common cause of broken teeth in dogs. Broken teeth are extremely painful and can lead to abscesses and infections. While your dog’s suffering is usually enough of a deterrent, a broken tooth typically costs hundreds of dollars in repair or removal, offering an economic incentive, as well as a moral one, to steer clear of hard chew toys.
Dental problems are only one of several possible complications associated with antlers. The hard surface can cause your dog's gums to bleed, and although that is not always serious, it can be uncomfortable, as well as staining your carpet.
The most serious issue, however, is internal. Antlers that break or splinter can get lodged in your dog’s mouth, throat, or intestines, causing dangerous blockages that could require emergency surgery.
Dogs left unsupervised to chew antlers are especially at risk, since you may not know that they have swallowed part of their antler until they have started showing symptoms, or worse, choked.
But My Dog Loves Antlers!
Not all dogs will have problems with antlers. Some owners give antlers to their dogs for years without any problems, but that is not a guarantee that antlers are safe, no matter how much your dog loves them.
While most veterinarians advise staying away from antlers for dogs, if you do choose to give your dog an antler, it is a good idea to supervise him while he chews on it.
Safe Antler Alternatives
It can feel, sometimes, like nothing is safe for dogs anymore. Bones, antlers, rawhide, and even Nylabones are all controversial when used as chew toys for dogs, and they all carry potential health risks.
Dr. Becker recommends buying chews that have little flexibility. He also suggests choosing larger objects for your dog to chew on that don't fit all the way into his mouth. This helps protect aggressive chewers and may reduce the risk of choking and obstruction.
Your veterinarian is a great resource for recommendations of safe chew toys, and you can also check out this list of veterinarian-approved chews from the Veterinary Oral Health Council. No matter what chew toy or object you decide to go with, always make sure you get the right size for your dog, and look out for any recalls, especially if you select a jerky chew product or another food product.