After hours and hours of research and emailing back and forth with company representatives, I’m still not satisfied over the safety of a whole host of dog toys made by big name brands. While these aren’t necessarily ones to avoid, I’d definitely think twice about getting my dog toys from the following companies.
Better yet, get in touch with the companies yourself and let it be known that a lot of us care about the safety of the products we buy for our pups. I’m still waiting to hear back from everyone on this list, having gotten no response from Planet Dog or Kong (I’m waiting for answers from West Paw to follow-up questions).
When she was young, I unwittingly gave my dog, Kali, an antler to gnaw on. She loved it, but I realized, too late, that it was filing down her teeth. Sorry, pup! To keep her occupied after I removed the antler, I purchased one of the most vegan-friendly looking Nylabones, figuring this would be safer.
No dice. If anything, the Nylabone seemed even harder than the antler and was decidedly less appealing to Kali, so I donated this to the shelter too. Seems my pup is quite discerning and may have already done her research, because Nylabones are another dog chew toy to avoid.
Keep an eye out for sterilized rawhide
Nylabones are a popular alternative to actual animal bones, but the majority of the company’s ‘natural bones’ are made with sterilized rawhide (more on this below), meaning that they may well have been treated with formaldehyde and/or bleach. They also contain wheat starch, potato starch, soy flour, artificial flavors, and other ingredients sourced from China (where safety standards are lower than in the US).
In some ways, then, the synthetic Nylabones seem to be a better option. But these are made of, well, nylon, along with other synthetic polymers, i.e. plastics, and rubber, and artificial flavors. That means they likely contain phthalates and possible BPA, as well as other chemicals to soften or condition the plastic.
So, giving up on the Nylabone led me to buy Kali a ‘natural rubber’ chew toy. She was systematic about picking bits off of this toy, so I removed that too for fear of her swallowing a piece and choking. Which nicely demonstrates that in addition to not being too hard, a chew toy shouldn’t be too soft. There are also some other problems with rubber chew toys for dogs.
Kong are a big name in pet products, in large part thanks to their eponymous Kong toy. They’ve been making these since the 1970s, when founder Joe Markham first devised the Kong after seeing his German Shepherd dog enjoy playing with a discarded rubber car part with an odd shape.
The trouble is that while the company claims that the Kong is made with natural rubber, they offer absolutely no supporting evidence for this, nor do they mention any chemicals used to color the Kongs or to alter the firmness of the rubber. Also, the Easy Treat spray Kong sells to try to motivate chewers is packed with artificial ingredients, dextrose, maltodextrin and other things you probably want to avoid giving your dog.
I’ve contacted the company (June 19th, 2019) with questions over material safety data sheets and any certifications (GOLS or even Oeko-Tex Standard 100 would be nice!) and am waiting to hear back. I also asked about their approach to Corporate Social Responsibility, because they offer very little information about the company on their website, nor have any company representatives been forthcoming in interviews over the years. Given their longstanding secrecy, I’m not optimistic about getting a clear and transparent response.
Perks of Kong toys for dogs
If you are interested in Kongs, they can be a very satisfying toy for your dog, but I would only get one of the black Kongs (the Extreme) as the color suggests the company hasn’t treated the rubber with any dyes at least. Unfortunately, this limits Kongs to only powerful chewers, otherwise the Extreme Kong will likely strain a gentler chewer’s jaw.
Modern Kongs are shaped a bit like a rounded termite mound or snowman and can be an effective way to keep pups occupied, help them self soothe, and slow down fast eaters. You can stuff these with various types of treats or a dog’s usual food and let them have at it. Or, for an added challenge or a way to cool down a hot pup on a summer’s day, prepare a stuffed Kong in advance and freeze it.
In our house, Kongs were a complete bust once Kali was about six months old. While she seemed to enjoy digging into the Kong for peanut butter as a puppy, as an older dog, she would studiously watch me fill the Kong with delicious mashed peanut butter, banana, and treats and then look askance when I gave it to her to get the food back out. Stubborn (and, arguably, quite reasonable) to a fault, she’d happily wait at least a day for me to give up and scrape the food out into her bowl for easier access. Unsurprisingly, I ended up donating both the large and small Kongs I bought for Kali to the SPCA.
If your dog is super food motivated, however, the Kong is likely to be a hit. The Kong also has an erratic bounce, making it a fun fetch toy. And the Kong can also help as a soother for stressed out pups.
Different types of Kong toys
The company makes Kongs of six different sizes and four different rubber strengths, so you can choose something suitable for a puppy, senior, or super strong chewer of any size. If your dog can fit the whole Kong in their mouth, you need to go up at least one size.
The black Kong Extreme is made with the most durable strength natural rubber, while the Kong Senior is a little softer and offers a gentle and comfortable chewing outlet for less robust teeth and gums. The Kong Classic is a great option for most adult dogs, and the Puppy Kong is the gentlest of the bunch and is ideal for a growing puppy’s baby teeth.
In addition to the classic Kong, the company also make a variety of play and chew toys, including the Air Kong (tennis ball type toys), and Kali’s favorite toy of all time, the Kong flyer (see my review here). All but three of the company’s pet toy products are made in the USA, in their factory in Golden, Colorado. The exceptions (Air Kong, Kong Plush, and Kong Wubba) are made in China and the company claims these undergo rigorous testing both in China and again in the US. Once again, however, there is no evidence of testing provided and no transparency over the use of materials or manufacturing processes, so I won’t be buying from Kong again until they fetch me some answers. (This is a real shame as Kali’s favorite Frisbee is the Kong Flyer! Sorry, Kal!)
So, any other companies and products to avoid? Yup. Sadly, there are practically no companies out there making eco-friendly and non-toxic dog chew toys that appear to be genuinely safe and good for the environment. Instead, companies shout loudly about their recycling programs and membership of the PSC but fail to tell consumers what’s actually in their products.
Who am I talking about specifically? West Paw and Planet Dog for a start.
Zogoflex by West Paw
West Paw went into business making fabric pet products in 1996 and developed Zogoflex in 2004 to compete with chew toys made from rubber (like Kong). They are a Montana-based company that focuses on producing environmentally friendly pet products, but… what is Zogoflex?
This material is a flexible synthetic alternative to rubber made with some amount of sanitized recycled post-industrial plastic. Its exact make-up is proprietary, but West Paw claim that Zogoflex is non-toxic and free of any known sources of lead, cadmium, mercury, latex, natural rubber, phthalates, hormones, Bisphenol-A, or asbestos. Still, given that it is sanitized and dyed, I suspected there might be at least some toxic chemicals in this material, such as formaldehyde, bleach, or carcinogenic azo dyes, that the company isn’t keen to mention.
What West Paws had to say about their products
As such, I contacted West Paws and heard back within a day. They let me know that, even though they make a big deal about Zogoflex being environmentally friendly, these toys are, “made from mostly virgin and some post-manufacturing recycled plastic”. Hm. So, it sounds like Zogoflex toys aren’t all that different from a brand new plastic toy.
What was reassuring, to a point, is the information about their cleaning process. The recycled plastic they get from their customers is cleaned without bleach and instead with Dr. Bronners natural soap. I’m a big fan of Dr. Bronners here at LeafScore.com as they’re a B Corporation and all-round decent company making eco-friendly products, including shaving soaps. Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t given any assurance that other chemicals were kept out of the sanitization process, so I’m still none the wiser about formaldehyde and so forth.
West Paw did note that their Zogoflex toys are made in compliance with USA-FDA manufacturing standards for human food packaging, and the EU-CE standard EN-71, which deals with standards for toys designed for human children. The problem here is that we don’t normally eat food packaging, and it’s not a good idea to subject most plastic food packaging to any heat, moisture, and crushing activity, such as occurs with a dog chew toy.
As for the EU regulation, I asked for further clarification on this, given that the parts of this directive (EN-71, parts 9-11) that deal explicitly with chemical exposure only appear to apply to certain kinds of toys intended for use by infants 36 months and younger. And even within these additional requirements, plastic polymeric toys don’t have to meet specific standards for the presence of primary aromatic amines, flame retardants, colorants (including disperse dyes), solvents (inhalation), and preservatives.
West Paw noted that they don’t have Oeko-Tex certification for their toys because of resistance from Oeko-Tex themselves as the standard is mostly used for textiles. Indeed, West Paws pet bedding is made with Oeko-Tex certified materials.
What West Paw is doing right
So, before you write off West Paw entirely, it’s worth noting what they are doing right. Zogoflex is dishwasher-safe, buoyant, and can itself be recycled. Indeed, West Paw have a return-it program called Join the Loop® where you can send tired toys back to the company to be recycled into new toys. Every little bit helps, and a partially recycled plastic toy may be better than buying your dog an entirely new plastic toy every few weeks or months.
West Paw became a Certified B Corporation and Montana’s first Benefit Corporation in 2015. They have so far released two annual B Impact Annual Reports (for 2017 and 2018) that detail the company’s efforts to give back to the community and safeguard the health of pets, people, and the planet.
The 2018 report notes that the company recycled over 1,111 lbs of post-consumer plastic from their Zogoflex toys and that the waste from the Zogoflex manufacturing process was only 0.12% (compared to the industry goal of 2-20%). Their Join The Loop® recycling program has recycled over 7,725 lbs of post-consumer Zogoflex material back into the company’s Zogoflex toys since 2014. And the company has kept over 15,359,554 plastic bottles out of landfills by turning them into the stuffing used in their beds and plush toys (although, presumably, some of these end up in landfill after use).
West Paw are also looking at establishing a formal Supplier Screening Process to assess the social and environmental practices and impacts of their suppliers (which might also offer consumers more transparency), and the company partnered with the Trust for Public Land and funded an off-leash dog park as part of a plan to create a 40-acre nature sanctuary.
West Paw use Zogoflex to make two types of dog toys: play toys and chew toys. The play toys (the Zisc, Bumi, and Tizzi) are not intended for use as chew toys and are more flexible and thinner than the chew toys such as the Tux and Jive and the ever-popular Hurley Dog Bone.
The Hurley is designed for indoor and outdoor use, so your dog can carry it proudly to the park and home again. Many reviewers note that even the most powerful and tenacious chewers don’t make a significant dent in the Hurley, though there’s always a chance your dog might shred any dog toy, which is why supervision is recommended for any dog using a new chew toy for the first time. If they do destroy it, West Paw offer a one-time only replacement or refund program.
The Zogoflex Hurley Dog Bone comes in three sizes and four colors, including the Black Hurley®, which is their most eco-friendly chew dog toy. The black version of this chew toy is made using multi-colored materials the company isn’t able to recycle into one of their standard bright colors (orange, green, and blue). By making the Black Hurley, West Paw uses up to 120 lbs per week of previously not re-usable Zogoflex materials.
The mini Hurley measures 4.5″ long., the small measures 6″ long, and the large measures 8.25” long; these cost just under $9, $12, and $16 respectively, which is a pretty solid investment given that replacement or refund guarantee and the likelihood this toy will last your pup a long time. As with Kong, I would recommend only the black Hurley, on the assumption that this is likely not treated with potentially toxic dyes. As such, I’d only really suggest using West Paw chew toys for the strongest chewers in your family.
On a side note, these toys are supposed to float, being made with buoyant material. While I’ve never thrown a Hurley into the ocean, I have thrown in the Ziscs (both intentionally at first and then by accident). Unfortunately, these don’t seem to float especially well, particularly if there are any tears in the disc (which occurred pretty quickly). I’ve had to wade in to retrieve Kali’s Zisc, before I gave up on this particular model all together. If your pup is into flying toys, I offer a round-up of my favorite eco-friendly, non-toxic options here.
Now, having already panned three big hitters in the pet product industry, Nylabone, Kong, and West Paw, I should probably also mention a fourth: Planet Dog.
Planet Dog Orbee-Tuff® RecycleBALL®
Planet Dog makes their Orbee-Tuff® RecycleBall entirely from material left over after the injection molding process used to make other toys in their range, which are themselves said to be eco-friendly. This process virtually eliminates manufacturing waste for the company and helps reduce their carbon footprint. Good job, Planet Dog.
Unfortunately, we don’t actually know what’s in these toys, only that the toys contain recycled number 7 plastic. This type of ‘miscellaneous’ plastic is typically not able to be recycled elsewhere, so it is good that it’s being used for something. That said, though, if I wouldn’t want such materials in my mouth, why would I subject my dog to such an indignity?
Planet Dog are marginally more transparent than West Paw about their manufacturing process, noting that the Orbee-Tuff used to make some of their toys is a type of thermo plastic elastomer (TPE). Usually, TPE, vinyl, and other plastics are made with chemical softeners such as phthalates and Bisphenol A. Planet Dog make a song and dance about using “white olefinic oil” to soften their TPE, adding in a small amount of essential peppermint oil. A quick internet search for this oil reveals that the only people talking about it are Planet Dog, so what is it?
White olefinic oil doesn’t seem to exist in the nomenclature of actual chemists, which makes me immediately suspicious. Indeed, olefins are basically just unsaturated hydrocarbons, which are a product of the petroleum industry. Ethylene, for example, is an olefin and is considered a light olefin. These chemicals are energy intensive to create, and their production in itself creates carcinogens (R).
However, alpha olefins themselves do not seem to pose a significant hazard to consumer (canine or human) health or the environment as they degrade quickly and are manufacturing intermediates rather than chemicals present in the final products (R). I’ve asked Planet Dog specifically about this mysterious ‘white olefinic oil’ and am waiting for a response.
It would be great if Planet Dog offered some kind of certification for their dog chew toys, such as Oeko-Tex or Greenguard Gold. As a founding member of the Pet Sustainability Council, like West Paw, Planet Dog claim to innovate and push for better standards in the pet product industry and have been making this claim since incorporating in 1997. So far, I don’t see much progress in terms of product safety, even if Planet Dog are doing quite a few things for environmental and social sustainability.
What Planet Dog does well
Some good points about Planet Dog include the fact that all of their dog toys are made in the USA, helping to minimize emissions and ensure decent working conditions for those making the toys. The company’s leashes, collars, and harnesses are made in China, however, which is a bit disappointing. These are at least made with hemp and recycled fleece, however, making them more sustainable than most pet products.
Planet Dog also make a point of using eco-friendly paper stocks and inks on catalogs, signage and collateral, and they participate in local composting initiatives and other environmentally friendly programs.
If you are still interested in Planet Dog, despite their lack of safety data, you might want to consider their RecycleBall. This ball measures 3 inches in diameter and is durable (a 5 out of 5 on the company’s toughness scale), buoyant, bouncy, and vaguely minty, presumably to help freshen your pup’s breath. Colors vary depending on the materials the company has left over after making their other toys.
Planet Dog’s RecycleBall is made in the USA and is recyclable and, the company claims, non-toxic. It is priced at $14.99 and will stand up to all but the absolute toughest chewers on the planet. They also offer a RecycleBone that is a bit softer, at a 3 out of 5 on the company’s durability scale. Made with the same material, the bone chew toy measures 6.5 inches in length and costs $11.99. Being a Canineadian, Kali once had an Orbee-Tuff Hockey Puck that fared pretty well for a couple of years until it got chomped by another dog (the hockey puck is also a 3 out of 5 on the durability scale and costs $8.99).
Final thoughts on dog chew toys
My big take away from researching this product category is that it’s not OK to assume that just because a company uses recycled materials, those materials are safe. Using recycled plastics may be better for the planet than producing entirely new plastics, but that isn’t guaranteed and nor are these finished products necessarily free from all known toxic chemicals. In fact, they very likely do contain at least some toxic chemicals, which may be why companies don’t like to disclose their composition.
I think it’s probably far better to recycle plastics into new products that we and our loved ones, including our dogs, don’t come into contact with regularly, not everyday toys. By this, I mean things like plastic components in cars, planes, and so forth that we don’t have much cause to touch but that function best when made with plastic.
In general, if a company isn’t willing to volunteer information about the materials and methods used to make their products, I take that as a big flashing warning sign to stay away. And, frankly, if they’re simultaneously claiming to be pushing for better industry standards, it isn’t a stretch to call out these companies for some serious hypocrisy.
While you chew on this info about the big brand names in dog chew toys, give your pup something safer to get their gnashers around, with my top picks for eco-friendly, non-toxic chew toys for dogs.