We field answers to that question on a daily basis at the practice. It comes up in conversations about medications, treatments, food, treats, toys, and activities. Concerned owners earn my admiration for keeping their pet’s health and safety in mind, so I’m happy to answer.
I have to admit to some bias before we really dig into the topic this week. A vet is an individual who is called upon to rescue pets from situations that have gone wrong. When all we see are the problems, we start to believe that there are only problems out there. It’s far too easy to end up making blanket statements such as, “Aluminum cans aren’t safe for dogs.” That’s equivalent to stating the same thing for people, and I think we can agree that that’s an absurd way to consider canned goods. I’m going to try to rein in my prejudices to give a fair assessment of the real world.
Toys and Chewing
The vast majority of the dangers pets face from their environment and other items are related to putting those things in their mouth. Dogs chew, which is no surprise. Cats have been known to ingest all sorts of things, too. Here’s what we know about some of the more common toys:
No matter what, no matter when, no matter how, you should be monitoring your pet’s use of things they’re supposed to chew on or consume. They don’t know any better. You do.
Real bone is an absolute “NO.” For example, the great big beef thigh bones in the pet stores are a dental nightmare. Teeth will break, sooner or later, and that leads to pain and loss of function for pets, not to mention the expense for the owner. Antlers and hoof pieces are in the same category. Basically, if you would object to having your kneecap whacked with the chew item, it’s likely to be too hard for a dog. Any bone toy that came from a living animal has a small risk of contamination by salmonella or other bacteria.
Rawhides are a topic of reasonable debate. What I’ll say here is to use the kneecap test and monitor your pet carefully. If your dog is going to swallow a big knot of rawhide, or a great big wad of it all slimy and chewy, it may cause an obstruction in the GI tract or get stuck in the esophagus. Both require surgery in most cases to fix. The rawhide strips/chips seem to be a better option for most pets, as they’re not quite so hard and are less likely to damage teeth. For really aggressive chewers, you may need to select a different toy altogether. At the very least, please understand that pets do not need to actually swallow rawhide to gain the benefits of chewing on it for dental and mental health.
Rope toys are also an absolute “NO” in my opinion. If a pet ingests a string, the damage can be catastrophic. A string foreign body is more dangerous in most cases than a wad or hunk of something getting stuck. The absolute worst GI surgeries I’ve seen and performed have been due to strings. Those rope toys are a ticking time bomb. Yes, the length of the strings matters, but there’s no hard and fast rule for what length suddenly becomes dangerous. Why take the chance?
On the feline side, string and feather toys are very common. While a feather or two is not an issue, a piece of ribbon or yarn string most certainly can be. One of our clinic cats ate a piece of foil ribbon off a toy that we had hidden away (she’s naughty!). She bared that up, thankfully, but it was long enough to have caused her to need surgery. Cats that recognize strings as playthings are also more likely to go after shoelaces, threads, drawstrings – especially from hoodies – and other linear things. Their barbed tongues make it hard for them to spit out strings.
Plush toys with or without squeakers are fairly safe… as long as the pet isn’t ripping it open and consuming the stuffing. Pets are also fond of tearing off eyes, or getting the squeaker out, or eating appendages. All of these things are problematic once they’re in the stomach. I’ve had dogs puke up big wads of cloth. I’ve also cut cloth out of intestines before. I’ve heard owners tell me they use knotted up socks for toys, which I think is unwise. Keep your pets away from your laundry and make sure they’re not eviscerating their stuffed toys.
Nylabones and other ‘softer’ bones are generally ok as far as teeth are concerned. I still see an occasional cracked tooth, but far fewer than when real bones are used. The big danger here is a pet chewing off a big hunk and swallowing it whole. That’s unsafe. When bones are softer, big dogs are likely to need a much bigger bone.
Kongs are my favorite dog toy. They’re durable, with a few different toughness levels. They have several sizes. They’re washable. They can have appropriate food or treats stuffed into them for an added reward or incentive for dogs. Most of them show up on x-rays, too, so if a dog does eat a piece we know exactly where it is. I’ve been at Pet Authority for 8 years, and I’ve had less than 5 clients tell me that their dog could destroy a Kong. If you want a toy that I have the fewest cautions about, this is it.
There’s a legitimate need for chew toys for dogs. I don’t want to advocate that you let your pet chew the legs off your coffee table or destroy the entertainment center, so by all means, select an appropriate toy. Then monitor your dog’s chewing activity. You may have some trial and error to find one that suits your pet. Bear in mind that there are lots of ways to keep your dog engaged that don’t have to include chewing. Just be smart about what goes in your pet’s mouth and everyone ends up happy.