Before you buy that cool looking elk or deer antler as a snack for your four-legged friend, think about why these animals have antlers. A cow, Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep or an African rhino has a ‘horn’, which is like a glorified fingernail that they retain their whole life. Antlers are one of the unique features that identify and distinguish the deer and elk family from animals with horns. Each year around January, they “shed” their antlers, frequently knocking them off against trees or digging them into the ground. Sometimes the antlers just fall off. The process is sort of like when you were losing your baby teeth, some required fidgeting, some just fell out. Then around April each year, they start to grow a new and bigger set of antlers for the fall rut. Those antlers are made for digging beds in the dirt and rocks, tearing at trees and principally for fighting. The antlers need to be extra hard for the violent activities for which nature designed them. If you want to be the dominant elk come mating season, you need the biggest, baddest, toughest set of antlers on the mountain! They are not meant to be soft or flexible, and they are definitely not made for chewing. Did you know that structurally antlers are harder than your dog’s teeth? It is a romantic idea to give your dog antlers to chew, but many dogs have broken their teeth trying to chew through an antler. It just is not a good idea.
Imagine a pack of wolves bringing down an elk in the forest. Do they start dinner by chewing on the antlers? Of course not! The meat is always the number one target. The meat represents pure protein and is easily eaten and digested. After the meat is gone they might move on to the extra work of breaking the soft bones to get at the marrow. Only in dire circumstances would a wolf try to eat antlers. It is a tremendous amount of work to break down antlers, there is little there but calcium, and a wolf can’t risk breaking its teeth on them. Antlers are just too hard, and broken teeth for a wolf can be a death knell. In nature, antlers are not what wolves eat and nor should your dog.
So what happens to all those old antlers, do they simply litter the forest floor? Today, lots of people hunt for the antlers that elk shed each year as both a recreational activity and for profit. Antler sheds are used for making coat racks, chandeliers and other furniture. In nature the shed antlers become a high calcium feast for forest floor scavengers like porcupines and other rodents that can’t kill the large prey. Those forest floor scavengers have the special teeth for gnawing on old antlers. Even these scavengers don’t actually ‘chew’ on the antlers to break them, but slowly gnaw or scrap them for the calcium. Those antlers missed by the scavengers will eventually decompose into the ground providing nutrients to the surrounding soil. Just like you shouldn’t open a beer bottle with your teeth because the cap is too strong, your pup shouldn’t chew on antlers.
For a minute, let’s set aside the logical of how nature works and instead look at the science. The Moh’s Hardness Scale is the standard used for measuring the hardness of all sorts of things. For example, your fingernails rate a 2 on the Moh’s Scale. Pure gold also rates a 2, and if you have ever been fortunate enough to have any pure 24 karat gold, you have noticed how easy it is to mark. That is why rings are made of 10, 12, and 14 karat gold, to add strengthening metals.
Your dog’s teeth, just like your teeth, are made up of multiple layers, and are hollow for the root. Each layer of the tooth has a different hardness and serves a different purpose. The Dentin in teeth rates between 3 and 4 on the Moh’s Scale. This is about as hard as limestone. The outer veneer of tooth enamel, however, rates even higher, at a 5 on the Moh’s Scale. That is as strong as iron, but unfortunately your teeth only have a thin coat of enamel. The bulk of a dog’s tooth contains Apatite which also rates a 5. An antler rates a 5 on the Moh’s Scale as well, but it is a solid mass with no layers and no hollow for a root. By way of comparison, a copper penny only rates a 4 on the Moh’s Scale. Even though your teeth contain materials that rate a 5, you would never consider chewing on a penny would you?
Now I did mention that wolves do break the bones of prey to get at the marrow. And both raw bone and antler are made of the same materials, but they are structured differently and function differently. Growing antlers are covered on the outside in a velvet that is a dense network of blood vessels to feed a frenzied growth rate of only about 150 days. At that point the blood flow stops, the velvet starts to fall off and the solid antlers harden into the elk’s primary defensive and offensive weapon. On the other hand, raw bone is always moist, hollow, filled with marrow, and meant to be flexible to absorb a fall or other impact. Never serve your dog cooked bones. The cooking not only hardens the bone to the point they can break teeth, but the calcium in the bone changes structure when it is cooked. It becomes linear and very brittle. That is why cooked bones splinter and can cause a dog to choke or die of internal damages caused by the ingested splinters.
So what natural treat can you give your pup to eat? Raw bones from your butcher are great for your dog. They are soft and still contain marrow, which is not only a healthy snack but an absolute treat for any canine. Most grocery stores are now selling them in the meat displays, or your butcher can cut some up for you upon request. Have them cut in at least four to six inch sections, so your pup isn’t tempted to try and swallow it whole and choke. You can also have the bones cut length-wise to speed your pup getting to the marrow. But be warned, this is not a carpet-fit treat. Try it though; your pup will love you for it!