Disclaimer: This blog post contains an affiliate link to a product I use and love. Learn more about that here. Also, feeding your dogs human food, especially with bones in any form requires thoughtfulness and care from the person feeding it. You're ultimately responsible for your dog's health - please read the instructions thoroughly before taking on this endeavor. It's worth it!
I've been cooking "bone stew" for our dogs for the last couple of years, and it has completely changed the way I think about food. I was never one to throw out much food. But once I started making stew, I was amazed at what slipped through the cracks.
Stale bread (if not for croutons or french toast). Old hummus. Potato skins. Vegetables ends and stems. And, the star of the show.....BONES.
I can't be the only one who felt weird throwing bones away as my dogs looked at them longingly as they slow-mo fell into the trash....right?
I've fed 6 dogs on this diet long term and they are happy and healthy as ever. It feeds their want and need for human food without giving them too much of one thing, and they scarf it up like they've never eaten before.
But it was scary to make that move. There's a lot of fear mongering online about feeding your dogs "human food". And cooking down bones? Don't even think about it!
My process in letting go of this fear started when I began feeding the rabbits kitchen scraps as a primary part of their diet. Allow me to detour for a moment.
Like the dogs, there is plenty of misinformation about what rabbits can and cannot eat online, and most of it is not true. People lash out on Facebook Groups over someone feeding their rabbit a broccoli stem, because "bunnies can't fart".
Yes, there are people in this world that can say "bunnies can't fart" with anger, not laughter.
Meanwhile, my herd of 20 (including 10 day old kits that had just opened their eyes) were eating huge amounts of those "unsafe foods" daily - broccoli, cabbage, corn cobs, corn husks, orange peels - all the things that will certainly kill them according to the internet.
A few day's worth of rabbit food from the grocery store - previously destined for the landfill.
Rather than keeling over, my rabbits thrived. They were in better condition, more lively, healthy and energetic than when they were on the "safe" pellets only. I didn't have a single rabbit with gastrointestinal issues in over 2 years of doing this. Throughout this feeding program, I saw many people lose pellet-fed rabbits to gastrointestinal issues on both pet and agriculture groups.
Over time, I became more confident about the safety and benefits of this type of feeding program. But it was scary at first. Thankfully, a good friend forged this path first, and I learned a lot from her. I used to text her constantly - can rabbits eat potato skins? Can rabbits eat pellitory? Can rabbits have orange peels? I remember the moment she responded and said "you know, I just stopped worrying about it after a while - no one has died yet".
Mini Rex kit discovering lettuce via Conkberry Photography Portfolio
Now, we're talking about dogs, but this logic still applies. Dogs, like rabbits, began their domesticated lives as scrap eaters, and continued to thrive on scraps and unconventional foods up until the last 50 years or so, when the pet food industry went mainstream.
I don't know how long dogs lived back then, and there are too many factors to tie age or health to food. I am not a vet, or a canine nutritionist, but I do know one thing. Something consistent comes up as we learn more about nutrition in humans - eating primarily processed foods is not good for us.
I still feed kibble, but I believe the addition of fresh, whole ingredients to a dog's diet is certainly not going to hurt them, if done thoughtfully. More than anything, it gives them some variety in their diet and helps reduce the kitchen waste we produce.
Before you Stew
Two crucial notes before you start making stew or pressure cooking bones for your dogs.
1. The bones aren't safe until they crumble with pressure from tongs or a fork after being cooked. You need to test multiple bones, from the thickest to the smallest. That is the indicator that they are safe to feed. The cooking times below are guidelines, and can vary depending on the bones themselves and the cooking conditions.
Larger or thicker bones may need to taken out and tested by hand with slightly more pressure. If you can get them to crumble with pressure from your hand, most dogs should have no problem with their teeth. The key to safe stew is testing multiple bones for softness - if they don't crumble, put them back in!
2. Integrate this into your dog's diet slowly, just as you would with a new kibble. Add just a dollop for a week, then slowly work up to an amount you're comfortable with. I still keep kibble as at least 1/2 of the dog's diet, for ease of feeding and balance of nutrients.
How to Make Bone Stew / Bone Broth
Start saving bones!
I keep a plastic container in the freezer for storing bones from meals. Once it fills up, I'll make a batch of stew from it. For the "ick factor" of these bones having touched people's mouths, I don't use the resulting bone broth for human consumption.
If you buy whole animals (usually chicken here) you can save the entire carcass, cooked or raw, in a zip lock in the freezer. This is the stuff that makes a great bone broth for people, as well as some tasty bone stew for dogs. I strain out the broth for humans to eat and give the crumbled leftover bones to the dogs - win-win!
Chicken and rabbit bones break down faster so I use them most often. Rib bones and any kind of steak or pork chop bones tend to take longer and can be stubborn. Sometimes I will cook them and put them back in the freezer container for a second cook, which usually does the trick. Don't feed any bones that don't crumble easily with tongs or in your hands.
There are two ways to cook the bones.
Yes, you can cook bones down to "safe for dogs" in a crock pot! The catch? It will stink up your house. Promise, it smells good the first day and you get sick of it really quick, especially if you leave the house and come back. I cooked the bones down for a good year and a half like this, cause I love my dogs and hate wasting food.
Time: 24 - 72 hours on high (sometimes a bit less or more) It's ready when the bones crumble with pressure from tongs.Instructions: Fill the crockpot at least half full with bones, and cover with water. Continue to add water as it cooks off.
Instant Pot Method
The Instant Pot has made this weekly task so quick and easy that I now have a stockpile of finished stew in the freezer.
Time: 2 - 4 hours on pressure cooker "stew" mode (sometimes a bit less or more). It's ready when the bones crumble with pressure from tongs.Instructions: Fill the instapot at least half full with bones, and about 1/3 - 1/2 full with water.
Not ready for Bone Stew? You can still make Leftover Stew!
"This weeks special includes house made chicken bone broth with bone crumbles, home smoked local brisket fat, 2 poached free range eggs, rice noodles and leftover spaghetti for that "human food" flavor, garnished with minced organic carrot tops and crushed eggshells. 😂 Aka all our leftovers from the week."
This is how I started out - with no bones - and it's a good place to get comfortable. This generally tends to the carb-y side, I'd use it as a topper more than a primary part of the diet as you would with the bone stew.
Here's how it goes: Once a week, I go through the refrigerator and pantry and find the dog-safe leftovers that won't be eaten or that may have expired. Toss it all in the slow cooker, pressure cooker or on the stovetop. Just enough to get everything to cook down and blend together.
What Leftovers Can My Dog Eat?
Literally just about anything except for "duh" exclusions like fruit pits, moldy or rotten food and other inedibles, overly spicy things, onion or garlic heavy dishes, or copious amounts of poisonous foods (chocolate, macadamia nuts, raisins, grapes or coffee grounds).
Keep a small container in your freezer for these scraps, then you don't have to worry about cooking them right away or having them go bad. When I say lightly expired/old I mean "past the point that you are likely to eat it as a human" but not "something you can smell with the refrigerator door closed".
Vegetable stems and ends, potato peelings Stale bread, old pizza, bagels Over-ripe avocados Lightly expired grains and flours Eggs and egg shells Old soup, hummus and beans (beware of dog farts) Lightly expired/old cheese or meat Cooking fats (bacon grease, coconut oil, etc) in small amounts All that freezer-burned crap in the back of your freezer you'll never eat but never throw away because you feel bad wasting it. 😅
The most important thing to remember is balance. Don't add the whole bag of expired flour or a jug of bacon grease to one batch. Try to create a healthy balance of protein, fats, vegetables and grains.
For extra dog applause, cook your leftovers in the slow cooker or pressure cooker with the bones. Easy for you, delicious for dogs. Cats love it too! Beware though, one of my cats went on strike after learning of the existence of bone stew and refused to eat anything but.