If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s to not feed dogs cooked bones, specially cooked chicken bones. As fresh food feeders have become more prevalent, there have been some grey areas that we may disagree on. One very important one is whether or not it is safe to feed air dried bones.
Air drying is a process that has been around since prehistoric times. Humans have used it as a food preservation method for things like meat, seeds, fish, rice, and even eggs. Air drying uses a method that mimics what the sun would do if the item was sitting out for days at a time - nothing is dried at a temperature over 130 degrees because anything higher than that will change the cellular structure of the protein. Having said that, the air-drying process gently evaporates moisture from the item, which also eliminates harmful pathogens while keeping vital nutrients intact.
Some think that any amount of heat to a bone will cause them to become dangerous to a dog, as well as affect the digestibility of the bone. We tend to compare our domesticated dogs to wolves when talking about their diet and nutritional needs. Wolves are primarily carnivores but will scavenge when necessary. But wolves also will do something called “surplus kill.” This is when wolves kill in higher quantities than they will eat in one day, either for their pups, or because they feel like their food supply is shrinking. When they surplus hunt, they will kill an abundance of food and come back throughout the week and snack on the prey. This would be considered scavenging, as the food wouldn’t be fresh after the first couple of days. Wolves will come back to surplus prey for several weeks until the entire carcass is gone! In March 2016, there was a massive surplus hunt by a pack of wolves that killed 19 elk in Northwestern Wyoming. The officials in that area actually took the surplus meat away and disposed of it instead of leaving it for the wolves who would come back in weeks to follow to eat it. This particular hunt became famous, because when wolves hunt elk, they fail approximately 82% of the time, and lose a member of the pack while doing so. It was a natural phenomenon to see a pack of wolves take down 19 elk in one night! Another connection between dogs and wolves when it comes to meals, they bury their surplus food.
While many dogs aren’t trying to bury their kibble, they may be trying to hide that high value treat or chew you’ve given them. Your dog probably tries to cover it in blankets if you don’t feed outside. Wolves do this in order to keep birds away from their food. Birds don’t have a great sense of smell and can’t smell anything buried. So, by burying their “cache” even 6-8 inches, they are not only preserving it with a drying method, they are also keeping it safe from thieves. To keep it extra safe, they will bury excess food and bones under their beds. They almost look like little disturbed pieces of land, close to trees or other windbreaks. It’s typical to find these cache beds more frequently during the summer. This is because the rate of decomposition will be higher, and burying the food will preserve it. During the winter, they will usually leave it in the snow, allowing it to get covered more and more in snowfall every day. This keeps the food fresh for much longer, similar to how you might freeze your dog’s raw food to keep it fresh at home.
It is also important to understand the order in which wolves consume their prey. After the kill, they will open the abdomen and start with the organs. Something that surprises most people is the fact that wolves will typically leave the “prized” cuts for other scavengers, after consuming the organs. However, during the summer, or surplus hunting, they will actually take those pieces, bone and all, and cache them.
The pups usually benefit the most from this. During summer, they are typically too young to leave the den, so food has to be brought back to them. Whatever they don’t eat is cached and either eaten by them or their elders throughout the next few days.
Interestingly enough, all of this is true for every subspecies of the grey wolf. This includes the Arctic wolf, Great Plains wolf, Northwestern wolf, Mexican wolf, and the Eastern Timber wolf. While they all experience different environments throughout the year, they all use the same baseline model for hunting, eating, and preserving food.
So, what does all of this mean in respect to feeding our dogs? As I said before, we typically will compare our dog’s diet to that of a wolf, in any case possible. This is no different. Wolves are not eating dehydrated food, but are certainly eating some naturally air dried food (including bones). While the bulk of a wolf’s diet will be fresh food, there are times where they eat air dried meat and bones. While I will always agree that cooked bones are harmful to dogs, I tend to see a different side when it comes to air dried treats/chews. This method has been around since the days of dinosaurs. It not only has some value to us as a method of preservation, but also the various animals that unknowingly use the same method to naturally preserve their food. Do I think the bulk of your pup’s bone content should be air dried? Probably not. However, I do see a major advantage to feeding air dried bones and chews. They keep longer, and because air drying does change the texture slightly, they are great for keeping those precious pearls nice and clean.