I mean that two ways.

1) Do you know what a bully stick actually is?

2) Do you know what’s in it?

A recent study headed up by Dr. Lisa Freeman, published in this month’s Canadian Veterinary Journal (Freeman et al., CVJ 2013;54:50-54), looked into this by asking people what they thought bully sticks were made of, and testing the treats for calorie count and bacterial contamination.

The answer to question 1 is: bully sticks are raw, dried bull penis (which explains the need for a cuter name).

  • Only 44% of people surveyed knew that.

Also, bull penis is considered a by-product, yet 71% of people that fed bully sticks to their dogs said they avoid by-products in food.

  • This just shows a lack of understanding about what by-products are and their nutritional value. Many people classified things that are prohibited from by-products as being by-products, such as hooves, horns, road kill and euthanized pets. By-products aren’t always bad and can, in fact, have good nutritional value. Also, they can be environmentally friendly and ethical since they are often made from nutritionally valuable parts of the animal that might otherwise be thrown out, thereby providing food for pets without taking anything out of the human food supply chain.

"What’s in it?" was approached from 2 standpoints:

Firstly, caloric content was assessed.

  • Treats often get ignored when thinking about a pet’s caloric intake, but calorie-dense treats can certainly contribute to obesity. Fifty percent of people surveyed underestimated the calorie counts of bully sticks. The average caloric density was 3 calories/gram, and given the variation in size of bully sticks, total calorie counts for a single stick ranged from 45-133 calories (9-22 calories/inch). So, yes, size matters.

Secondly (my bit part in this study), we looked at contamination by a select group of bacteria.

  • Salmonella wasn’t found, which was encouraging since high Salmonella contamination rates have previously been found in some treats (mainly pig ears), and contact with pet treats has been implicated in some outbreaks of salmonellosis in people. We found Clostridium difficile in 1 treat (4% overall). That doesn’t worry me too much since it’s increasingly clear that we encounter this bacterium regularly. With common sense and handwashing, it’s probably of little risk, but in some people (e.g. elderly, people on antibiotics, people with compromised immune systems) it might be more of a concern. We also found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in one sample. This was a "livestock-associated" MRSA strain that can cause infections in people, but the risk is unclear. Theoretically, it’s a potential source of exposure. If someone got MRSA on their hands from the treat then touched their nose (where MRSA likes to live) or a skin lesion (where it can cause an infection), then it could potentially cause a problem. Overall, the risk is probably quite low, but it’s another reason to wash your hands after handling treats.

None of this means dog owners need to avoid bully sticks. It does mean that you should pay attention to what you feed your pet, think about treats when considering your pet’s caloric intake (especially if your dog is overweight), keep treats away from high risk people (e.g. don’t use a bully stick as a teething toy) and wash your hands after handling dog treats (of any kind).

Photo: A variety of bully sticks (also known as pizzle treats) often fed to dogs as chew treats (photo credit: Gergely Vaas 2006 (click for source))