You’ve probably seen bully sticks for sale online or at your favorite pet supply store and have heard that dogs love them for the chewing activity—and taste—they provide. However, there are some public misconceptions about what, exactly, bully sticks are.
What Are Bully Sticks?
Think you know what bully sticks are made of? Chances are, you don’t.
“There tends to be confusion about this. Many people think bully sticks are made of muscle, but they are not,” says Dr. Kerri Wiedmeyer, an emergency veterinarian with WVRC Emergency & Specialty Pet Care in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Bully sticks are digestible dog treats made of dried steer or bull penis (you read that correctly), which is considered an animal by product.
“Many people are against giving by-products (or any product that is not meat or muscle), but bully sticks are in that category,” says Wiedmeyer.
Bully sticks, also known as pizzle sticks, come in dried, raw, or cooked form, as well as in a variety of dimensions, sizes, shapes (including braided), and flavors. They are hard in consistency, which allows for dogs to chew on them, says Wiedmeyer.
And they can stink, says Dr. Cailin Heinze, a veterinarian at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. A former roommate’s dog chewed on them and, “when they got wet, they smelled like a dead animal—we couldn’t get the smell out of the house,” she says.
They can also smell like urine, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian based in New Jersey. But “the longer they are dried or the more moisture removed by cooking, the less odor they will have.”
Are Bully Sticks Safe?
Unlike pet foods, the pet treat industry is not regulated, says Dr. Donna Raditic of Nutrition and Integrative Medicine Consultants in Athens, Georgia. As a result, there are some concerns for potential for bacterial contamination if bully sticks aren’t cooked correctly.
“It’s along the lines of feeding your dog a raw diet in terms of bacterial contamination. But most owners don’t think about it because bully sticks are dry and hard,” says Heinze.
There also isn’t a lot of research on the topic of bully stick safety. One study analyzed the nutritional and microbial components of bully sticks. Of the 26 bully sticks purchased, one contained C. difficile, one had methicillin-resistant S. aureus, and seven had E. coli.
“This study demonstrated that, while low, these treats can be contaminated with serious strains of bacteria,” says Wiedmeyer.
Raditic, who is board-certified in veterinary nutrition, doesn’t recommend bully sticks for her patients because of bacterial contamination concerns. Nor does she recommend other types of animal-sourced dog chews such as cattle hooves, pigs’ ears, over- the-counter rawhides, bones or trachea.
“I prefer that owners use toys that can be filled with healthy treats, or I give owners very specific treat or chew recommendations as part of a complete nutrition plan for that pet,” she says.
Another safety concern with bully sticks is that dogs can also potentially fracture their teeth on them.
“This is controversial, as some dentists and oral surgeons recommend these treats to remove tartar and while others have noted them to cause tooth fractures,” says Wiedmeyer.
Where Can I Buy Bully Sticks?
Regardless of their safety, dog absolutely love bully sticks, says Heinze. “They’re super popular–probably one of the most popular dog treats on the market.”
If you do decide to purchase a bully stick for your dog, Heinze suggests opting for ones that are individually packaged, as contamination rates may be less because they’re not open to air or mingling with other bully sticks.
Make sure to purchase your bully sticks from a reliable source, and ask questions of the supplier, like if they’ve ever had any recalls for their products, suggests Morgan. She also recommends avoiding bully sticks that have been washed using chlorine or chemicals.
How to Give Your Dog a Bully Stick
As with any treat, bully sticks should be given occasionally and with supervision, says Wiedmeyer.
Though most dogs will chew on bully sticks, some can try to swallow large pieces at once, which can cause choking, Morgan says
In addition, it’s hard to gauge the nutritional content of a bully stick (and many do not have product labels), but owners should be aware that they can be high-calorie treat, Heinze says. So, if you’re watching your dog’s calorie intake, this is a consideration to keep in mind.
Your dog is likely not going to pass up the opportunity to chow down on a bully stick, but it’s up to you and your vet to determine if bully sticks will fit into your dog’s health and wellness plan. If you decide bully sticks aren’t a good option for your dog, there are other healthful treats you can offer that will satisfy her desire to chew.