Them Bones

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It was late in the day. Busy with patients, I couldn’t come to the phone, but my secretary relayed the message. “Lucky has a bone stuck in her mouth,” she reported. Now, I always advise against giving bones to dogs. I know. Fido loves bones. I know. You always gave bones to your childhood dog, and he never had a problem. I get it. We also rode bikes without helmets, and laughed when the government started requiring seat belts. Most of us made it through unscathed, but there were those who didn’t. If something is potentially dangerous, and we can avoid it, that’s just common sense.

Exactly what are the health risks of giving bones to dogs? Let’s start with those big knuckle bones. These often have bits of raw meat attached that can carry protozoa like toxoplasma, parasites like roundworms and tapeworms, bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. I still remember the parasitology lab in vet school. Our professor had us buy ground beef and examine it under the microscope. We found all kinds of stuff you would rather not have in your hamburger. This is why I don’t eat steak tartare.

The most shocking part was how often we identified trichinella cysts in the beef. Why shocking? Because trichinella is a parasite that does not infect cows. The presence of these worms in store-bought beef meant it had been mixed with some other kind of meat. Eating raw or undercooked meat containing trichinella can lead to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal discomfort. Severe cases can progress to headaches, chills, cough, swelling of face and eyes, aching joints, muscle pains, incoordination, heart and breathing problems, and even death. Trichinellosis used to be more prevalent in the United States, which is why we more mature diners were taught never to eat pork that was pink, and why your mother insists on overcooking the pork chops. Thanks to laws prohibiting feeding raw-meat garbage to hogs, infections here are now relatively rare, and usually associated with eating wild game, not pork. In humans, trichinellosis has been reported from eating raw or undercooked bear, pork, wild feline (such as cougar), fox, dog, wolf, horse, seal, or walrus. I doubt there was ground cougar in that burger back in my vet-school days, but most likely there was a little porky pig in there.

But I digress. Bones. Given raw, the meat scraps may contain nasty bugs that could make Chomper sick. But the bone has no meat on it, you say? OK. The next danger is that Chomper may break a tooth. He loves those bones so much, you’re willing to risk dental damage? OK. Next we have those dogs who persistently gnaw away at the big bone, ingesting many small chips and also large quantities of what essentially is now “bone meal.” Eat enough, and this can lead to intestinal impaction and obstruction. You can reduce this risk by limiting access to the bone to short periods of chewing, but eventually, Chomper wears that bone down small enough to swallow the remainder. This brings us to the problem of bones swallowed whole.

It is one of my best stories. Two 4-month-old golden retriever puppies. Two rib bones. I haven’t a clue what the owner was thinking when he handed a bone to each dog, but within seconds both had swallowed the ribs whole. We’re talking three- to four-inch-long bones, clearly too large to have any hope of passing naturally. We went immediately to surgery, one pup after the other, and removed the rib bones from their stomachs. This was an extreme example, but dogs often ingest hunks of bone too big to pass, causing obstructions requiring surgery.

Cooked bones pose another threat. They can splinter, creating sharp points that may perforate the gut, leading to life-threatening infection. If Chomper chomps cooked bones, I advise radiographs to assess the danger. If he’s big and has chewed the bones into relatively small pieces, we may get away with treating medically and hoping everything passes uneventfully. Inducing vomiting is often contraindicated, as the heaving action can increase the risk of perforating the stomach or esophagus on the way up. With a smooth, round bone, barfing may make sense, but always consult your veterinarian.

Bones lodged in the mouth are pretty benign as long as they are removed promptly. Fairly common, typically the bone gets wedged across the roof of the mouth. Chomper may gag and paw frantically at his face trying to get it unstuck. One summer Sunday, as I lounged in my backyard reading, a client came racing around the fence, cradling a huge dog in his arms. “She’s choking!” he yelled urgently. I leapt from my chair, heart racing, and ran to the dog. “Relax,” I said after a brief inspection, half peeved by the dramatic intrusion, half relieved it wasn’t serious. “She’s not choking.” I got a screwdriver, slid it under the bone, using it to lever the bone out, being careful not to damage the roof of her mouth. Pliers often work, too, for a simple grab-and-yank technique. I sent them home, going back to my book once the adrenaline rush passed.

For Lucky, I had my secretary advise the owners to try dislodging the bone at home, but they were unsuccessful, and headed to my office. When Lucky arrived, I could see why. I should have come to the phone for more information. The bone was a large oval ring encircling her entire lower jaw, the top portion wedged behind her lower fangs, the bottom portion around her chin. I tried to gently maneuver the bone over the canine teeth, but her lips and tongue were getting pinched, and she was panicking. Even after anesthetizing her, I couldn’t work the bone off her lower jaw. Using cutting pliers, I finally cracked the bone into pieces, and removed it. When Lucky was awake enough to wobble home, I walked them out. “Maybe next time, a nice rawhide chew,” I suggested.