Numerous veterinary sites on the internet claim that chewing on deer antlers can cause dental fractures in dogs.
“Hard plastic or nylon chews, sterilized bones, cow hooves and antlers are too hard to be safe for most dogs,” says veterinarian Marty Becker. A British dental care group claims on its website that, in the last 5 years, vets in private practice have been seeing increased cases of fractured molar and premolar teeth in dogs chewing on antlers and other hard toys.”
Unfortunately, while internet links provide a log of anecdotal evidence, there are no hard data in the form of clinical trials.
What are Antlers Made of?
Antlers are prong-like bones that emerge from the foreheads of deer and species such as elk and caribou. They are harder than most other types of bone. They appear only in males (except in caribous) in preparation for the rutting season. Antlers are the weapons of war for male deer, serving in the battle for female attention among the harem—that is, female herd members. After the rutting season each year, the antlers are shed and regrown.
Benefits of Antlers
As chew-toys, antlers have a long shelf life. They can keep dogs happy for hours. Also they’re a good source of minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. While these are important nutrients, they are also supplied in commercial dog foods.
According to veterinary insurance statistics, up to 20 percent of dogs suffer at least one fractured tooth at some time. While there seem to be no useful data on the various causes of dental fractures, many vets believe that canine risk is increased by chewing on antlers.
Lacking hard data, all one can do is look at anecdotal evidence from vets who report what they encounter in their surgical practices. The evidence involves their observations of the health consequences of events in their patient’s lives rather than findings gathered during properly controlled clinical trials. In the case of antler chewing, controlled trials are impractical for obvious ethical reasons.
One scientific advantage of anecdotal evidence is that it often points to a specific problem or answers questions that bear further investigation. Additional controlled trials are needed because anecdotal evidence has the potential to be misleading when one is trying to distinguish between mere association of events and a cause-and-effect relationship.
In the case of tooth fractures, there could be another cause than chewing antlers. For example, dogs could have previous hairline fractures that predispose them to full fractures. Still, owners should pay close attention to suggestive evidence. Therefore, the common-sense answer to the question “Are antlers safe for dogs to chew” is probably “No.”
There is a strong chance that a dog can chew on antlers on a number of occasions without experiencing fractures. Some dogs may be more at risk than others—for example, aggressive chewers. The fact is, no one knows for sure.
Where sufficient evidence is lacking, it’s up to the pet owner to make the judgment call. One easy alternative is to seek toys or chews that provide the same pleasure and tooth cleaning potential without being so hard on the dog’s teeth.
Safe Dog Toys
Hard rubber toys such as Nyla bone® and Kong®-type products come in many sizes and are fun for chewing and carrying around. For dogs that like tug-of-war and chewing on interesting textures, woven toys or those made of rope with knotted ends are more durable than conventional cloth toys and can provide hours of pleasure and relaxation.
Tennis balls are great dog toys for fetching, but don’t stand up to chewing very well. Any tennis balls that have been chewed through should be thrown out as they can choke pets.
Kong®-type toys, especially when filled with broken-up treats, can entertain dogs for hours. (If your veterinarian says your dog can eat peanut butter, some can be added to the crushed-up treats.)
Similarly, “busy-box” or “feeder” toys are large plastic or rubber containers that can be filled
with treats dispensed through holes one at a time. By moving the cube around with their nose, mouth and paws, dogs can shake the treats out. Many dogs who tend to eat too fast can benefit from being fed through a feeder toy.
With so many attractive alternatives, it seems a shame to rely on expensive antlers and put your dog at risk for painful—and expensive—dental fractures.