How to Avoid Buying Pet Products with Toxic Chemicals

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Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Phthalates, lead, formaldehyde – plenty of toxic chemicals lurk in pet products. Here’s what to watch out for when choosing safe, eco-friendly, non-toxic pet products.

Ah, the irony. So many animals – mostly beagle puppies, rats, mice, and rabbits – are used in animal testing, purportedly to protect human health, and yet we don’t use any of the data to protect our pets!

Read on for more in-depth info about the chemicals common in pet toys and the health effects of these on pets.

If you just need a quick reference guide, though, here’s how to choose safe, non-toxic pet products.

Stuffed or fabric toys intended for humans Pet specific toys
Pet products made in countries with lower safety standards (such as China)Products made in the USA or EU
Toys made with stain resistant compoundsToys, leashes, bedding etc., made with natural materials like organic cotton, hemp, wood, and latex
toys treated with fire retardantsToys that meet EU safety standards for human infants
Conventionally grown cotton (unless it is post-consumer recycled cotton)Products from companies that are transparent about materials
Toys with small parts or decorations that could be a choking hazardToys with MadeSafe, GOTS, OekoTex, and similar certifications
Balls or toys with a single air hole, especially if it’s squishyThe right size and strength toys for your pet
PVC or ‘vinyl’ toys, likely to contain phthalates and BPAToys with third-party certification as phthalate-free and BPA-free

Here are a few extra pointers to help keep you and your pets safe:

  • Ask manufacturers about their processes and standards before buying
  • If buying toys meant for humans, choose those sold for children 0-36 months.
    • Safety standards are higher for infant toys than for older children’s toys
  • Give a toy a good sniff before buying – if it has that new car smell or similar, avoid it.

Check all toys visually and by squishing them prior to use, in case any sewing needles, pins, or other foreign objects are present.

Why does it matter?

Dogs and cats suffer many of the same diseases and health issues as humans. And the negative effects of many toxic chemicals are also similar across mammals.

A quick look at research on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is very revealing.

POPs include:

  • Dioxins
  • Dioxin-like and non dioxin-like polychlorobisphenyls (PCBs)
  • Organochlorine pesticides
  • Brominated flame retardants
  • Perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS).

All of these have been found in dogs diagnosed for mammary adenocarcinoma.

In fact, both humans and dogs have a higher risk of this type of cancer when exposed to high levels of PCBs.

And POPs are transmitted to puppies through the umbilical cord and maternal milk just like how human infants are exposed to these chemicals.

Chemicals such as dioxins:

  • Increase risk for certain cancers
  • Contribute to reproductive problems
  • Can cause developmental problems
  • Damage the immune system.

This all means that puppies and kittens exposed to POPs including dioxins become more vulnerable to illness and disease even before they’re born. 

In fact, many pets face higher risks of health issues than humans from unsafe products.

Why health risks are higher for pets

There are several reasons why pets have a higher risk of exposure to toxic chemicals than the humans with whom they share a home.

  1. POPs accumulate the higher up you go in the food chain:
  2. The way dogs and cats interact with toys increases chemical exposure:
    • Pets carry toys in their mouths
    • Pets chew on toys for hours at a time
    • The mechanical pressure of chewing, plus warm slobber and friction increase chemical leaching
  3. Dogs and cats may swallow small pieces of toys:
    • Veterinarians often note the hardness of previously rubbery plastics retrieved from animals during surgery, suggesting that chemical plasticizers (usually phthalates) that made a toy more flexible and soft have leached into the animal
  4. Dogs and cats tend to sleep on the floor or on beds or blankets made with hazardous fabrics and fills:
  5. Floor dust is also a source of heavy metals, phthalates, and other toxic chemicals and pets breathe more of this in than we do.

In addition to higher hazards for dogs and cats, rats and other small pets face significant exposure to toxic chemicals. This can come through:

  • Food
  • Bedding
  • Toys
  • Cage wires and flooring
  • Household dust
  • Chewing on things (like wires) that they’re not meant to.

And because of their small size, such exposure can quickly lead to harmful concentrations of toxic chemicals in blood and other tissues.

Kali the collie and Leaf Score Head of Research, Leigh Matthews, sitting down for an armchair chat about phthalates.

    What does the industry say?

    In a fun case of circular thinking, some industry representatives at the American Pet Product Association (APPA) noted in one interview that because there’s no clear scientific evidence showing problems linked to chemicals in dog chew toys, there’s no basis for investigating safety limits on such chemicals in pet toys.

    That’s not actually how safety research works, folks.

    Just because no one has investigated safety risks, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    And anyway, scientists have investigated!

    Some scientists even think that dogs should be seen as sentinels for human exposure to toxic chemicals, especially as cancer risk increases as dogs’ exposure to certain chemicals increases.

    As far back as Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, researchers have been suggesting we see cats as sentinels for exposure to toxic chemicals in house dust.

    Are toxic chemicals really an issue in pet products?

    If you’re skeptical as to the extent of the problem of toxic chemicals in pet products, consider the case of Nancy Rogers, a nurse.

    Nancy sent two dozen of her dogs’ chew toys for testing at a laboratory. This was at her own expense, following the deaths of two of her relatively young dogs. She was suspicious that their deaths were linked to repeated exposure to chemicals in training toys.

    Tests revealed that one of the dogs’ favorite tennis balls contained 335.7 parts per million (ppm) of lead, far higher than the allowable level of just 90 ppm in Europe now.

    A couple of years after Rogers sought her own testing of toys, so did the Michigan-based Ecology Center, a non-profit organization that analyzes toxic chemicals in consumer goods including children’s toys. The organization had hundreds of pet toys tested, including:

    • Tennis balls
    • Pet beds
    • Collars and leashes.

    45% of tested pet products had detectable levels of at least one hazardous chemical.

    48% of the tennis balls contained lead

    The chemicals included:

    • Heavy metals such as arsenic and lead
    • Bromine
    • Chlorine.

    One dog ball had 2,696 ppm of lead and 262 ppm of arsenic just in the lettering on the ball.

    Tennis balls intended for use by humans did not contain lead, thankfully. However, these tennis balls often contain fiberglass that makes them unsafe for dogs, largely because it can file down a dog’s teeth.

    Who regulates pet product safety?

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has no jurisdiction over pet products. This is because dogs, cats, and other non-human animals are not granted personhood and consumer status or the rights that go with those things.

    Even if the CPSC focused on safeguarding the health of humans using pet products, we don’t interact with these items in the same ways as our pets.

    Some retailers set their own standards for pet product safety. PetSmart, for instance, claims to test and review products periodically to ensure safety, but its standards and testing methods aren’t public, nor are they standardized across the retail industry.

    Some manufacturers have voluntarily adopted standards for European lead levels in children’s toys and/or other types of consumer product safety standards. Again, though, companies are inconsistent with this and don’t make the results of any testing, or their processes, public. None of this inspires much confidence that the work is actually being done.

    Troublesome toys to avoid

    Tennis balls 

    Tennis balls can be a real problem for dogs, due to:

    • High levels of lead
    • Fiberglass
    • Small size that can lead to choking.

    If your dog can easily fit a whole tennis ball in their mouth, go for a bigger ball.

    See: Best eco-friendly, non-toxic dog balls.

    Synthetic rubber and ‘natural’ latex

    Many dog toys are made with synthetic rubber (basically a type of plastic).

    Some claim to be made of ‘natural’ rubber.

    Unfortunately, the term ‘natural’ isn’t legally defined. That means there’s no way to tell what’s in most of these pet products.

    The Talalay and Dunlop rubber in organic mattresses wouldn’t work for pet toys. It would be too soft to withstand enthusiastic chewing and bouncing around outside in all weathers.

    That doesn’t mean to say different rubber mixtures don’t exist, and many of our favorite dog toys are made with natural rubber by companies that are transparent about materials.

    Stuffed toys

    Don’t give your dog or cat stuffed toys that are intended for use by children. Why? Because these toys:

    • Aren’t made to be as robust as dog and cat toys
    • May contain small plastic pieces for eyes, hands, etc.
    • Could have ribbons that might cause choking or digestive obstruction if swallowed.

    Because dog and cat toys endure a lot of licking and chewing, things that are only minimally hazardous when handled by adults or children could be devastating to dogs and cats. For instance, human toys:

    • May have been dyed with carcinogenic azo dyes that leach out when chewed
    • May have been treated with toxic flame retardants, antibacterial treatments, moth repellents, or other substances
    • Could contain residual pesticides from agricultural use. 

    Hazards of single air holes

    It’s not an obvious safety concern, but it can prove deadly.

    Any toy with a single air hole, especially if the toy is squishy, can create a vacuum that sucks in a dog’s tongue. This can lead to:

    • Breathing problems
    • Severe tongue damage
    • Possible need for surgery
    • Death from asphyxiation due to a swollen tongue and mouth obstruction.

    If you have a toy with a single air hole, drill additional holes around the toy to reduce the risk of a vacuum occurring.

    Vinyl pet products

    Vinyl dog toys and pet products aren’t safe for your furry friends, despite what manufacturers claim.

    These ‘vinyl’ toys are treated with a variety of chemicals to make them softer and more flexible, as well as to confer bright colors, flavors, and scents.

    Some of the chemicals used to manufacture pet toys made with vinyl include:

    • Bisphenol-A – used as a stabilizing antioxidant in certain phthalate preparations, BPA stops phthalates from degrading, but BPA is a strong endocrine disruptor, mimicking estrogen and increasing the risk of reproductive cancers and other health problems. From an article in Time magazine, “the presence of BPA in dogs was associated with changes to their gut microbiome and metabolism”.
    • Alkyl-phenols (nonyl and octyl) – these are also estrogen mimickers and are used to prepare phthalates for use in plastics or for the production of flexible PVC.
    • Lead – a softening agent and sometimes present in paints. Lead causes nerve damage and cognitive and behavioral problems. There is no safe level of lead for humans or dogs and I’d recommend staying away from painted or plastic dog toys, especially those made in China and not certified lead-free. Dogs with lead poisoning typically exhibit signs and symptoms such as vomiting, weight loss, anemia, seizures, lack of appetite, salivation, jaw champing, constipation, anxiety, anxious barking, blindness, lack of coordination, muscle spasms, and issues related to permanent nerve damage. Ongoing exposure can affect multiple organ systems and prove fatal. 
    • Organotins – used as stabilizers in vinyl products, mono- and di-butyltins are widespread and are damaging to the immune system.
    • Arsenic – a heavy metal sometimes found in vinyl dog toys and other pet products. Arsenic poisoning in dogs can lead to vomiting, loss of consciousness, and death in some cases.
    • Melamine – a chemical (and a plastic) used to produce laminates, glues, molding compounds, coatings and flame retardants, as well as dinnerware. Melamine was linked to kidney failure in pets and led to a massive pet food recall by the FDA.

    Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production has long been linked to an increased incidence of cancer, especially liver cancer, in production workers, end users, and in pets (R).

    Focus on phthalates

    Phthalates are a type of chemical commonly used to soften vinyl to make flexible dog toys and other pet products.

    This class of chemicals deserves special mention because human safety standards really don’t cut it when it comes to pet products containing phthalates.

    Research shows that the chewing action of dogs causes significant amounts of phthalates and BPA to leach from toys.

    Toys stored outdoors prior to testing leached less BPA but more phthalates, suggesting a no-win situation.

    In one study, dog toys including ‘bumpers’ (commonly used to train agility and service dogs) leached:

    • Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
    • BPA
    • Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)
    • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
    • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
    • Dimethyl phthalate (DMP).

    Levels of these chemicals were much higher in bumpers than in other dog toys. Sadly, many service dogs carry these bumpers in their mouths for long periods when learning to retrieve.

    These leachates have anti-androgenic activity and estrogenic activity, i.e., they disrupt dogs’ hormone levels. And the amount of DEHP and BPA in dog toys was at the high end of what might show up in some children’s toys.

    DEHP and BPA have been banned for use in some children’s products in the US, including in baby bottles, but not in pet products.

    In a Danish study, two types of phthalates, DEHP and DINP, made up 10-54% of the content of the toys. 

    The Danish researchers also found that DEHP and DINP cause similar damage to dogs’ and rats’ livers and reproductive health.

    They concluded that:

    • Dogs who consume even a small amount of PVC from toys can be exposed to levels of DEHP that affect reproductive health
    • The mechanical action of chewing, coupled with dog saliva, may increase exposure to toxic chemicals in dog toys
    • Exposure to these chemicals during gestation could affect the reproductive health of puppies
    • Liver damage may occur with even small amounts of exposure to DINP from these dog toys
    • Combined exposure to phthalates from toys, leashes, food bowls, bedding, carriers, crates, clothing, and household items like flooring may be significant and detrimental to dogs’ health.

    Research has also shown that rats and rabbits exposed to DEHP and di(n-butyl) phthalate (DBP) during sexual differentiation causes male reproductive tract malformations.

    DEHP exposure during development in mice can also affect the regulation of the AhR/Cyp1a1 brain signaling pathway and disrupt defense processes in brain cells, with the potential to increase susceptibility to environmental toxins in later life. 

    Maternal DEHP exposure in rats can increase susceptibility to brain cell damage in male offspring in particular.

    DEHP exposure in mice decreased fertility through:

    • Oxidative stress
    • Cell death
    • DNA damage
    • Mitochondrial damage
    • Reduced cellular energy
    • Disturbed chromosomal alignment
    • Adverse effects on sperm receptors on the cell membranes of eggs.

    What to do about PVC

    Avoid pet products that:

    • Have a #3 PVC or #3 V label
    • Are labelled as made with PVC or vinyl
    • Don’t have clear labelling.

    Final thoughts

    As long as our animal companions aren’t protected by robust legislation and regulation, it’s up to us to minimize their exposure to toxic chemicals.

    We can make better choices for the animals we love by favoring non-toxic, eco-friendly:

    Also look for safe, non-toxic cages and play wheels for smaller pets, as well as natural and safe items for fish, reptiles, and other less common pets.

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      • Hi Mona,

        The same principles would apply to puppies and adult dogs! That said, I’d be even more cautious with puppies because they are rascals for destroying and swallowing things they shouldn’t, so any exposure to toys made with toxic chemicals could be that much more extreme.

        Check out our top picks for non-toxic dog toys for inspiration and have fun with your pup!


    1. So grateful for this information! I love my fur baby & certainly want to avoid anything that could harm her. I would like to save this article on my cell & use it when purchasing items for my sweet baby. Is that possible? I was not able to do so. Please advice & keep sharing this type of knowledge.

    2. Hi, great article, thanks. I have one question. Recently I have bought a pet blanket, which was advertised as ‘self-heating’ – not with electricity but reflecting the heat of the cat back to it. I only read the materials used for it once it had arrived and found i: back PVC, front berber fleece and inner inside some aluminium coating.. Wouldn’t have bought it had I known it has PVC. It states it can be therapeutic for cats with arthritis. The cat seems o love it. How save or damaging is it? Could there be PVC fumes?
      Kind regards

      • Hi Katja,

        Sounds like an intriguing product!

        If you haven’t already, I’d definitely air out this blanket for a few days to a week or so on a balcony or in a garage or such, to let any residual fumes off-gas. I’d also consider using a wool blanket on top of the blanket as berber fleece is itself synthetic (it’s polyester, so not awful but not great either, or as natural as the manufacturer makes it sound).

        I’m assuming this blanket isn’t washable, given the aluminum layer? If it is washable, be sure to use a guppy bag or a microplastics collector as this is likely to shed such things. If not washable, I’d definitely use a barrier layer to help keep it clean and give your cat some added protection from any off-gassing.

        Hope that helps!


    3. I had never given anything like this a second thought until recently… I found a cute Paw Patrol blanket on sale at DG and got it for my 1.6lb, 9 week old chihuahua. She started foaming at the mouth & over 3 days, started having small seizures, which by the 3rd day they had turned violent and she was extremely wobbly. I rushed her to the vet the following Monday morning & they ran a test on her liver. I was told I was probably going to have to make a decision, because she was too small and couldn’t handle these seizures much longer. I left her at the vet for testing & was racking my brain thinking about anything and everything that I may have done differently over the weekend. She was perfectly normal and then boom, the seizures started. Then it hit me… The blanket! I had recently seen a video a week earlier about toxic fabrics making humans sick. Well, that Paw Patrol blanket was a kids blanket, not sold for pets. I had left her at the vet with her new blanket… I called up there and said please take that blanket away from her, I think it’s toxic & causing environmental seizures. They said, “okay?” Like I was a crazy person, but the tech removed it anyway. The seizures actually slowed down after the blanket was removed and by 24 hours later, she was seizure free and back to normal! About the same time, her $400 test results came back for her liver… Her liver tested normal! If I hadn’t seen that info prior to this event, I would’ve probably listened to my vet and let them put my sweet baby down. I think the vets need to be educated about these kind of things, because mine acted like I was a little bit ‘out there’ for thinking a blanket could’ve caused this horrific event… I was shocked that he wouldn’t already know this kind of info.

    4. i had not thought about washing new blankets for my cats, but i will now.
      on the self heating mats, the ones i have are washable and have held up fine.
      i’ve eliminated all but 2 of my carpet covered climbers (they will go soon) and replaced them with ones that have removable/washable covers. they are so much easier to keep clean. i don’t use “cat beds” any more, have replaced them with 50×60 washable blankets. it’s best for your washer if you “de-fur” them before washing.

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