The Lowdown on Bully Sticks

Do you give your dog bully sticks as treats? If so, you may be surprised by some information recently released by researchers from Tufts University and the University of Guelph. They have discovered that people who feed bully sticks are unknowingly providing extra calories and potentially harmful bacteria to their dogs.

Here is what the bully stick researchers discovered:

  • Only 62 percent of veterinarians and 44 percent of dog owners know that these “treats” are, in fact, uncooked, dried penises harvested from slaughtered bulls and steers. If you were not in the know, no worries. Clearly you have plenty of company!
  • The bully sticks studied (made by 26 different manufacturers in the United States and Canada) contained from nine to 22 calories per inch. On average, a six-inch stick contained 88 calories. Keep in mind that 88 calories equals approximately 30 percent of the recommended daily caloric intake for a 10 pound dog and nine percent of the daily recommended calories for a 50 pound dog. Also keep in mind that many bully sticks are considerably longer than six inches. (A great opportunity for a joke here, but I digress!)
  • Of the 26 bully sticks tested, eight contained bacterial contamination: one contained Clostridium difficile, one contained methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and seven contained Escherichia coli. Yuck! All of these bacteria have the potential to cause disease in the humans handling the bully sticks as well as the dogs eating them.

What does this research mean for you and your dog? If you regularly give bully sticks to your best buddy, it’s a darned good idea to proportionately reduce the portions provided at mealtime. Thoroughly wash your hands after handling bully sticks. Additionally, be on the lookout for symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or loss of appetite which could be caused by bully stick bacterial contamination. Perhaps better yet, consider discontinuing feeding bully sticks altogether. If I were a bully stick feeder (never have been because I am in the know about the body part from which they arise), this is certainly what I would do.

Now, what have you to say about them bully sticks?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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27 Comments on “The Lowdown on Bully Sticks

  1. There re plenty healthful, equally chewy alternatives to bully sticks – sweet potato chews, yak and cow milk chews- that are also less caloric and much safer to handle.

  2. What would be helpful is to know the brands that were tested, especially the ones that came back with something. I am not overly concerned about the germs or the body part, but I work for a company that sells smoked bullies, and I am pretty sure they didn’t test positive.

  3. I’m a raw feeder and my dogs digestive systems can handle bacteria.

    They LOVE Bully Sticks and I will continue to feed them. I try to find “healthy” ones, made with the least amount of chemicals and never from China.

  4. I am astonished to read that so many of the responders KNOW what bully sticks are and how dangerous they are and yet insist on feeding them to their dogs anyway. What did we do BEFORE bully sticks and the multitude of other fancy, expensive and dangerous treats flooded the market?

    I thoroughly cook bulky knucklebones which do not break or splinter and my dogs love them. They satisfied the need to chew, does not put weight on them and they were safe because I cooked them thoroughly myself. They are also a lot less expensive. I still give them such cooked bones (NOT steak and NOT rib bones or anything that can break or splinter, of course).

    By cooking the bones, I also avoid feeding them raw meat, which may have been safe many years ago but certainly not now. The same for poultry thoroughly cooked and fish.

    My clients complain too often that their pets have runny stools and/or vomit after consuming these “treats”. I highly recommend that they stop and give them cooked knucklebones and even the large legbones which are hollow and can be filled with something – but also thoroughly cooked.

    As for the origins of the bully sticks, I personally find it offensive and they don’t get pigs’ ears. My dogs and cats eat only kosher food. So there!

  5. Boil them? Considering how awful they smell dried, I thin you’d have to do it outside. AND hope the wind doesn’t blow the smell over to an unsuspecting neighbor!

  6. I’m in the same boat with Pat. I have given bully sticks for years (the best I can find) with no ill results, and my husband, who was on immunosuppressants, handled them as well. I don’t give them every day, but especially like them for crates while traveling. I haven’t found anything else that lasts a while with my basenjis. They have antlers most of the time, but those aren’t as engaging for crate use. I also feed raw, so I’m a lot more concerned about chemicals than I am about naturally occurring bacteria. Until I see something better, the bully sticks stay.

  7. Dr. Kay,

    Thank you so much for all your informative posts. I’m wondering if there’s any research about the safety of giving dogs rawhide chips. I’m careful to buy only those made in the US, and my dogs get just one small-to-medium size in the evening.

    Thanks!

  8. I knew what they were and used to give them to one of my dogs and my other two wouldn’t touch them. They are quite expensive so were only used as an occasional treat. I feed raw so my big guy gets a raw turkey neck once a week and the little guys get raw chicken necks. Their teeth are pearly white and we have no digestion issues.

  9. I also use the bully sticks from Brazil, hormone free. All treats made specifically for dogs are subject to bacteria. Even human food has recalls. You should buy from a reliable supplier. I put mine in the freezer as soon as I receive them for several days. (note: freezing does not kill all bacteria but it does kill most) I will continue to feed my six dogs bully sticks and count the calories into the daily allotment. Bully sticks are superior for cleaning teeth. They absolutely love them. Focusing on the body part they come from is silly.

  10. Thank you so much for all of your terrific responses. Many of you have posted some creative ideas for healthy, satisfying dog treats. For those of you who will continue to feed bully sticks as treats, I’m wondering if boiling them for 10-20 minutes might make sense with hopes of eliminating any negative bacteria residing within them.

  11. Gosh, it is so hard to find something appropriate for my dog to chew. She was only so-so on bully sticks anyway, and I certainly won’t be giving them now that I am aware of the contamination issues. Others have mentioned dried carrots, squash, sweet potato. Unfortunately she isn’t much interested in those. I have a sterilized real bone I stuff and freeze for her as well as Kongs. I do brush her teeth daily but would love to find a chew option for her that will help keep her teeth clean and provide a safe recreational chewing option.

  12. I buy grass fed, hormone free bullys from Brazil. They are smoked, so I don’t really consider them uncooked. Have used them for years with my 4 small dogs. The calories aren’t as much a problem with my guys, as it takes them weeks to finish one off. It is the only chewy I give my guys and they don’t have soft poops. I’m thinking the source really matters when it comes to bullys. I don’t plan on stopping giving them to my dogs, but will keep this info in mind.

  13. I think fussing over the body part that bully sticks comes from is more of an issue for humans. As someone mentioned, dogs licks their butts and eat worse stuff. ALL food and treats have calories in them. Treats are not meant to be a meal. Anytime you give a treat, you need to figure in the caloric or at least amount in and reduce their food. JUST LIKE IN PEOPLE. That’s why humans are so overweight. We eat snacks and don’t figure it into out our meals. That seems like common sense to me.

    We’ve had all kinds of dog food recalls for bacteria also so why just focus negative energy on treats. Common sense says we should wahs our hands after handling dog food and dog treats. As someone who has successfully fed raw for years, I’m not worried about these things for my dogs. Obviously, I watch for any signs of any illness anyway. And as for me, I use gloves.

    I will continue to feed bully sticks (occassionally), trachea, beef gullet and the like. I buy from companies where these products are from the USA. To me that’s a bigger concern, where the products came from.

    As with all things in life, MODERATION people, moderation!

  14. I never fed bully sticks. But I have yet to solve the problem of what to let the dog chew. I have looked for rawhide from USA cows or bison manufactured in the USA, cows raised organically and the rawhide free of chemicals. Haven’t found them yet. Am I looking for something that doesn’t exist? My dog loves to chew. Frozen bagels don’t last long, nor does his dinner frozen in a kong. Looking for guidance, please.
    Thank you.

  15. **Sigh*** As a professional dog trainer, and dog owner, I am continually looking for a safe chewing option. Cow’s hooves, pig’s ears, Nylabones, Greenies, and sterilized bones all have been removed from my recommended list for one reason or another. And although I do have a client or two who says that their dog get an upset tummy from bully sticks, as I suspected, no item is 100% safe, but with the information about calorie content and hand washing, I will continue to recommend bully sticks for the time being.

  16. Well, thanks again for this worthy blog. I am one of those in the know and have been educating my clients about this since I found out what they were and what they do to our furry friends Often times I’ve come to a new clients home and the gas coming from the dog is my first clue. Then I ask about soft stools and what’ya know… they do have soft stools. Weight gain sure is a problem. I just had a client who had 4 dogs and all under 4 yrs old and obese. When asked what kind of treats she give… you bet….and she gave them several times a day. This is such a common thing for me to see with my clients who have called for behavior training and wind up with a healthier dog as well.

    Thanks again, Nancy

    ~jill
    aka: Shewhisperer

  17. Some of us ARE fully aware of what these are, that they have caloric value, and may contain bacteria. Not a germ-o-phobe and not a body-part-o-phobe… I have used and will use these as consumable amusements, as well as recommend them to customers. I do advise customers to take a portion of food away on the days their dogs get bully sticks (or dried tracheas, which are the only other commercially available consumable amusement i recommend).

    Dogs eat cat poop and lick their own butts… they eat garbage and slimy piles of drowned worms and bury already disgusting stuff for later. They do this, with very few exceptions, uneventfully. It is what dogs do, and who they are. I am far more comfortable handing them something like a bully stick than a product manufactured from all manner of stuff (glutens and glycerin and artificial flavors, etc.) that would never qualify as food in the real world.

    Bully sticks, dried tracheas, fresh raw bones… dogs say, “More, please!”

  18. I’ve always known bully sticks were dried penises; never bothered me particularly. I mean, dogs naturally eat some pretty odd things, and a look around shows that “edible” is as much a matter of culture as nutrition (chocolate-covered fried grasshoppers, anyone?). I’m not going to gnaw one myself :) but my dogs enjoy them.

    The bacteria would be more troublesome, if we didn’t also know it appears regularly in tests of cooked treats and even packaged kibbles. When I worked in a pet supply store long ago, we had to display warnings for customers to wash their hands after handling even cooked chews, due to the possibility of bacterial contamination. It’s everywhere! We can’t avoid bacteria, so we have to be aware of it and of symptoms of infection. I buy grass-fed, hormone-free, drug-free bully sticks, so I’m still more comfortable with them than with rawhide or artificial chews (chemically-treated and less digestible).

    That said, I feed raw and I know my dogs’ habits very well, so I’m probably a bit less germ-ophobic than some. My older dog is about 5 years past his breed’s average life expectancy, though, and my younger is regularly mistaken for half her age, so I think it’s working out okay for us. :)

    But you’re right, we should know our dogs and be aware of caloric intake as well as any health changes, in case of sickness. Ultimately we’re the ones making buying choices, so we have to keep an eye on our dogs!

  19. Well, I wasn’t aware of the calorie content and that’s a concern for my older girl but what would you recommend as a substitute? The dogs love them and I don’t feel good about various bones because of the possible damage to teeth.

  20. One big negative was left off the list: the bully sticks are darned expensive!

    I like the idea of dried yams but they are kind of pricey, also. So I started making my own: slice up sweet potatoes in appropriate sizes, and dry them in my oven on the lowest setting (170 degrees) and dry for 2 hours or so. If you cut them thick, you might want to take them out and cool them, then give them another drying cycle.

    Another thing I do is cook chicken breast, cut it into appropriate sizes, and dry down in the oven.

    Or i just give mine whole raw carrots.

  21. I used to feed them all the time! They were great for teething pups….of course, in hind sight, the bacteria makes them very scary! I did indeed know what they were made of but didn’t realize how germy they were. What stopped me from buying them is they gave my corgi a slab fracture in two of his molars and also a slab fracture in a friend’s lab. That ended that! Now I feed Achilles tendons from Merrick. They don’t last as long but still give a pretty good chewing session. Now I wonder how germy they are? These days it feels like nothing is safe!

  22. Freezing carrots will slow dogs down a bit, I haven’t tried it (yet) but freezing any of the summer squashes would probably work as well.

  23. My dogs are well exercised, so weight gain is not a current concern for me, but if I were to continue feeding bully sticks, would throwing them in the oven at a certain temp for a set amount of time kill the bacteria?

  24. What do yo recommend instead? We feed carrots, squash, broccollli, but of course they are gone in 10 seconds or so. Now using Ark Naturals’ dental chews, can’t think of name. Since rawhide is pretty scary, have you other ideas?

  25. Yes, my dogs have enjoyed chewing on these in the past. So what might you suggest as a healthy alternative for dogs that need to chew?

  26. We used to get those, our guys loved them. Didn’t get them for quite some time.

    Knew what they were made of, that didn’t really bother me. The bacteria found is bothersome, though.

  27. Years ago my first dog got very ill on a pig’s ear so I avoid anything remotely similar. It’s good to know I’m not just being superstitious!