How can you tell if a chew toy is safe for your dog?
If your dog is a big fan of gnawing away on chew toys, you’ll want to know how to tell if a chew toy is safe for your dog and which are the best eco-friendly, non-toxic chew toys.
My dog, Kali, couldn’t care less about any of the chew toys I’ve bought for her in years gone by, so I stopped buying them long ago. The only thing Kali chews on these days are sticks and driftwood and the occasional old rope toy to help keep her teeth clean, none of which are ideal, but she doesn’t swallow them, so I let it slide.
Even though my dog isn’t a big chewer, plenty of dogs are, which leads me to wonder about the safety of all the chew toys they’re slobbering over sometimes for hours every day. So, like a dog with a bone, I set to researching.
When assessing the safety of a chew toy, there are plenty of factors to consider. Let’s walk through some of the advice offered by veterinarians and other dog experts.
What to think about when choosing a dog chew toy
Hardness and softness
In general, veterinarians recommend using the thumbnail test, i.e. if a toy doesn’t ‘give’ a little when you press your thumbnail into it, it’s probably too hard to be tooth-safe for your dog. Conversely, if it is too soft, or badly put together, your dog might just tear chunks off it and create a whole new set of risks.
Some chew toys do walk that fine line between softness and hardness, but this also depends greatly on your dog’s bite. What works for one dog may be completely inappropriate for another, which is where it pays to read online reviews and see if any of the reviewers’ dogs sound similar to your pup.
Coatings, dyes, and other chemicals in dog chew toys
Many chew toys, even those that seem natural (such as pigs’ ears or rawhide) are coated or treated with chemicals that impart a certain color, flavor, or other property. Rawhide may be sterilized with formaldehyde or bleach for instance. These chemicals can cause stains and digestive upset, may encourage bacterial growth, and may be toxic and/or carcinogenic. Indeed, rawhide is one of the dog chew toys to avoid.
Fabric chew toys may have been treated with azo dyes that are known to be carcinogenic, while painted toys may have high levels of lead and other heavy metals. If you can, choose chew toys made with untreated natural fibers such as organic cotton, hemp, or jute. Or, choose a toy made with recycled post-consumer textiles such as denim (not plastics) where most hazardous chemicals will have been washed away long before your dog gets hold of it.
Size and shape of chew toys for dogs
This chew toy consideration is a bit more obvious: A chew toy should be suitably sized and shaped for your dog, or for the largest dog who may interact with the toy. Smaller dog toys can easily become a hazard for any larger dogs in the family, while a chew toy that is too large for a small dog may strain their jaw.
If you have big and small dogs in your family, one way to keep everyone safe is to only give them chew toys when they’re safely ensconced in separate crates for some alone playtime. Otherwise, you’ll want to closely supervise which dog has which toy.
One last thing to consider when choosing a chew toy is its ability to be washed. Some chew toys are dishwasher friendly or can be put in the washing machine and/or dryer for easier cleaning. For stuffed toys, it’s best to put these in a pillowcase or laundry wash bag in the washing machine. And be sure to only use non-toxic natural detergent.
Some fabric chew toys or other chew toys are treated with antimicrobial coatings so that manufacturers can claim the toys won’t smell or harbor bacteria. The problem here is that these coatings may themselves be toxic to dogs (and humans) and may contribute to the spread of superbugs. Avoid these types of toys and instead try to rotate chew toys so they can be cleaned regularly. And, as I’ve written about before at Leaf Score, don’t use bleach to clean these toys and restrict household use of bleach to where it is absolutely necessary.
Some fibers, such as hemp, have natural antimicrobial properties that can offer some reassurance that your dog isn’t chewing on a bacteria infested rope toy. Personally, I found the smell of a slightly soggy, half chewed hemp rope absolutely revolting, but if your dog mainly chews outside or you don’t mind the smell, a hemp rope is a great eco-friendly, non-toxic chew toy for your dog.
In fact, a hemp rope chew toy is one of my top picks for an eco-friendly, non-toxic chew toy!
Before we get to the recommended products, though, you might be wondering if there are any green certifications you can look out for when trying to find an eco-friendly, non-toxic dog chew toy or dog toys in general.
Green Certifications for Dog Toys
Unfortunately, there are no actual green certifications for dog toys. But wait, wait, there are some things you can look out for that offer a degree of assurance that a product is relatively safe and non-toxic. That’s because some companies have taken the voluntary step of making sure their products comply with standards laid out for the manufacture of children’s products, including products that likely end up being mouthed by infants.
Specifically, you may want to look out for products that are compliant with ASTM F963-11. This regulation addresses levels of heavy metals such as lead in children’s products as well as other potential safety concerns. Some products also note that they’re compliant with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which made certain standards mandatory for children’s products and toys. This included tests for flammability and chemical content.
While this is a step forward, bear in mind that what may be considered safe for a 40 lb. child might be potentially toxic to a 6 lb. chihuahua or tea cup poodle. Also, dogs interact with toys in a different way to children, which may expose them to increased ingestion of chemicals such as phthalates and other plasticizers.
To my mind, it would be ideal if non-human family members were deemed to have personhood and given the same right to safety as human consumers, but that’s not where we’re at, so we’ll have to make do and keep the pressure on companies to hold themselves accountable.
Happily, some companies making pet products at least think it important that their products are sustainable. So much so that a few of these companies got together to form the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC).
Pet Sustainability Council
The current Executive Director of the PSC, Caitlyn Bolton Dudas, has a background in the nonprofit sector and a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability. She leads the PSC, whose founding members include West Paws and Planet Dog, to help others in the industry adopt a more sustainable approach to product development.
But before you go rushing out to support these companies, you might want to take note that products by both West Paws and Planet Dog are on my list of dog chew toys to avoid. Why? Because they’re not at all transparent about their manufacturing processes and the chemical composition of their products, which seems to be largely recycled plastic and synthetic rubber that could easily contain a plethora of chemicals you and your dog are better off avoiding.
It makes absolutely no sense to me that these companies claim to be leading the pack but are woefully lacking in any third-party testing or certification over the safety of their own products. Sure, they seem to have figured out the recycling thing pretty well, but that really doesn’t matter much if it still means dogs are gnawing on toys made with recycled toxic materials.
In short, then, there are no commonly used green certifications or safety certifications in the dog toy industry. While researching this topic I have been seriously considering setting up a simple business selling GOTS certified organic fabric dog toys or toys certified by Oeko-Tex or Greenguard Gold, at the very least, as no one seems to be doing this.
I understand that sourcing organic materials and making products in North America is more expensive than having everything made in China or Vietnam, and that third-party certifications are expensive, but I’m absolutely certain that there’s a market for these. Given that we spend millions of dollars every year on our dogs, it irks me that barely any of that money is used to buy sustainable, safe toys.