Surprising Misconceptions About Bully Sticks

8/8/16

If you’ve ever fed your dog a bully stick, you know the joy they bring! Dogs certainly love them. But you may unknowingly be adding excessive calories and potential harmful bacteria to your dog’s diet.

Researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University (TCSVM) conducted a study in 2013 to determine the caloric density and bacterial contamination of bully sticks and surveyed pet owners to evaluate their knowledge about these popular treats. The study’s findings revealed that there are definitely some widespread misconceptions. While this study is not new, we know bully sticks remain a common treat given by pet owners and want you to be informed about what you are feeding your dog.

What is a bully stick?

The study surveyed 852 adults and showed that only 44% of the general respondents knew that bully sticks are made from bull penises! Bully sticks are a raw animal-product treat. Surprisingly, the study showed 71% of people feeding bully sticks to their pets stated they avoid by-products in pet foods. Professor of Nutrition at TCSVM, Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, states, “…bully sticks are, for all intents and purposes, an animal by-product.” While by-products are not inherently bad for your pet, the survey results illustrate that there are clear misconceptions about pet foods and treats currently on the market.

A side note about meat by-products:  The phrase meat by-product is widely misunderstood due to aggressive marketing campaigns by many meat-only pet foods in order to create a perception of quality.  The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines by-products that are allowable for use in pet foods and treats as the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals.

Examples include, but are not limited to, livers, stomachs, intestines freed of their contents, kidneys, spleens and lungs.  Bully sticks, raw hide, pigs’ ears, and other common pet treats are also meat by-products. Muscle meat alone is deficient in many nutrients, whereas meat by-products can be a valuable source of energy, vitamins, and nutrients.  There are many high-quality pet foods that include meat by-products, not as cheap fillers, but to increase the nutritional value of the feed with the goal of optimal health of your pet.  (Remember, eating habits are cultural!  Just because you aren’t interested in eating animal innards or other animal parts doesn’t mean they aren’t relished in other parts of the country or world.)  Again, meat by-products are NOT inherently bad for your pet.

Bully sticks pack a big caloric punch!

The TCVSM study tested a random subset of 26 bully sticks made by different manufacturers from retail locations in the U.S. and Canada for caloric content. Calories of the products tested ranged from 9-22 calories per inch. Ultimately, your average 6-inch bully stick would account for 30% of a 10-pound dog’s daily calorie requirements (or 9% for a 50 pound dog)!

According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA’s) article about the TCVSM study, “Dr. Lisa Freeman, who was the first author of the study, said owners could be inadvertently increasing their dogs’ obesity risk by regularly feeding them bully sticks.”

The veterinarians at Family Pet Animal Hospital are facing a growing (no pun intended) pet obesity problem. Our conversations with pet owners are very telling – in diet considerations, people often forget to factor in treats, which can be a major source of calories in a pet’s diet.

Bacterial contamination risk

All 26 bully sticks were tested for bacterial contaminants. Researchers reported the following:

  • One stick was contaminated with Clostridium difficile.
  • One stick contained methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
  • Seven sticks were contaminated with E. coli – one of which was resistant to tetracycline.

The AAHA article states, “Despite the limited sample size and the knowledge that not all of the bacterial strains are known to infect humans, researchers recommend that people wash their hands after handling treats like bully sticks that are uncooked.”  Be sure to follow safe handling instructions, such as these guidelines from the FDA.  Households with young children, elderly adults, pregnant women, or those that are immunocompromised should consider the risks carefully.

Other considerations

Our doctors here at Family Pet Animal Hospital have occasionally seen incidences of cracked teeth from bones and other hard treats, like bully sticks. We’ve definitely seen our share of diarrhea or other gastrointestinal upset from bully sticks as well.  The study referenced in this post utilized a small sample size and stated that further research was needed to determine if the caloric content and contamination rate found in the study is representative of all bully sticks. We recognize there are various preferences about what to feed your pet and simply want our pet owners to make informed decisions.

Sources:

(1) Creative Commons Harvey with his bully stick” by Jelly Dude is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Knight, Kalimah Redd. “Misconceptions About A Popular Pet Treat.” Tufts University. TuftsNow, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 Aug. 2016.

“Study Reveals Surprising Misconceptions about Bully Sticks.” NewStat. American Animal Hospital Association, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Aug. 2016.

Tips for Safe Handling of Pet Food and Treats.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. N.p., 12 July 2016. Web. 05 Aug. 2016.