Questions to Ask Before Buying a New Dog Toy

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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.


My dog, Kali, has been my stalwart companion for over eight years, since I picked her up from the local SPCA branch as a scrappy puppy with a broken paw. To keep her entertained in those first few months while she healed, we worked on tricks such as differentiating colored Frisbees, ‘herding’ and stacking rubber-lipped plant pots and figuring out food puzzle toys (which took all of two seconds for this smart border collie).

While these kinds of activities were great for exhausting a puppy who had to be kept largely immobile, they also exposed her to a lot of plastic and synthetic rubber. Did those few weeks of early exposure to phthalates, BPA, lead, and other chemicals in dog toys affect her development? Who knows, but a lifetime of exposure could take a real toll.

With this in mind, I set out to find some eco-friendly, non-toxic dog toys to keep Kali amused without compromising her safety and health, or mine, given how much I also handle these toys. What I realized after staring at the shelves of expensive, brightly colored, totally unregulated toys in the store is that some of the best eco-friendly, non-toxic dog toys are those you can make yourself at home. I offer some tips on how to make your own dog toys here.

What if you’re not the DIYer type, though, and your current stash of dog toys is well worn? This is where things get a little trickier as there’s no regulation around the safety of dog toys. This makes it very difficult to determine which companies are making dog toys that are safe, eco-friendly, and non-toxic. Many claim to make such toys, but user experiences often suggest otherwise, and there’s nothing particularly eco-friendly about buying plastic toy after plastic toy with each getting destroyed and discarded after just a few days or weeks.

Let’s look at the issue of safety first. Most dog’s guardians will have heard scare stories about melamine in dog food and lead in children’s toys, but is there really any reason to be concerned over the kind of toys your dog plays with every day? In short, yes, especially if you’re training your dog using ‘bumpers’. Looking for specific products? Check out our top choices for eco-friendly chew toys, non-toxic dog balls, and flying toys.

Who regulates dog toy safety?

Surprise, surprise, nobody regulates the safety of dog toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) passes the buck, as does the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the American Pet Products Association (APPA).

Now, to be fair, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will occasionally step in, but only when there’s a reasonable chance that a dog toy may also be used by a child. The FDA also maintains a list of livestock- and pet-related products that have been recalled, but this is a small list as nobody is mandated with checking the safety of these things so recalls typically only come up in extreme cases.

Not only is there no clear regulation around the safety of products intended for use by your dog, researchers have found that dog toys often contain high levels of toxic chemicals that can easily be ingested by a dog chewing, licking, or otherwise interacting with the toy. And, if you handle your dog’s toys, especially when they’re covered in slobber, you’re also coming into contact with these toxic chemicals.

Durability of dog toys

Most dog toys are made with plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Some of those manufacturers claim are eco-friendly are made with recycled synthetic rubber or heavily processed recycled ‘natural’ rubber, or recycled plastics that remain a source of harmful chemicals such as phthalates, BPA, lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, formaldehyde, and so on.

Some of the best eco-friendly dog toys are either made from biodegradable materials that break down without damaging the environment or are made with recycled postconsumer materials and will last for years without needing to be replaced.

Natural dog toy materials

My top tip for choosing eco-friendly, non-toxic dog toys is to go for toys made with natural materials. Skip the plastic (even if it’s recycled or recyclable) and choose dog toys made with certain kinds of wood, wool, natural rubber (not recycled rubber), organic cotton, hemp, or jute.

At a push, you might want to consider dog toys made with leather (vegetable stained) in this list. However, having looked into various companies making leather toys and other products for dogs and cats, I don’t see any evidence that these companies care about the welfare of the animals whose hides they use to amuse dogs, which rather gets my goat. The by-product argument doesn’t hold much weight for these luxury goods and there are no certifications or other reassurances that the cows are well treated before they are slaughtered for their hides, hooves, and hocks. Add to that the environmental impact of animal agriculture and leather dog toys don’t seem particularly great for human health either.

What can you do? Top tips for finding eco-friendly, non-toxic dog toys

Unfortunately, there’s no fast and easy way to identify a truly eco-friendly, non-toxic dog toy. Instead, the likelihood is that you’ll need to contact individual manufacturers to ask questions about their products. The more we all do this, the more pressure these companies and the industry as a whole will feel to adopt better practices and use safer materials and construction techniques. We spend a huge amount of money on our dogs, meaning that this is a great opportunity to really vote with your dollar.

The better a company is, the more likely they are to respond with guarantees that their products are free from phthalates, BPA, and other chemicals, are routinely tested to ensure low lead levels, and to provide actual test results to back up these claims. The problem is that most companies take more than a day to respond to queries, if they respond at all, leaving you standing in the store staring at Frisbees with Fido.

So, while you wait hear back from the manufacturer, it can also help to check the label or online product description carefully. If a toy is made in North America or Europe, from materials also sourced from these areas, chances are the toy will meet a higher standard of safety compared to toys imported from China, Mexico, or elsewhere.

The label may also note that the toy is certified safe for children under three years old. This is a good sign as it means the toy has been tested for certain toxic chemicals and should be free from small parts that can become detached and cause a choking hazard or bowel obstruction if swallowed.

A quick word on cleaning dog toys

While it’s a great idea to regularly clean dog toys, it’s important to only use natural, biodegradable, gentle soap to do so. Using harsh or fragrant cleaning agents could lead to irritation of your dog’s mouth or skin and many laundry detergents contain potentially toxic chemicals that should not be ingested.

Dog toys that are made with rubber, latex, and nylon are typically OK to clean in the dishwasher. Stuffed toys can be put inside a pillow case or laundry bag and go in the washing machine with dog blankets and towels and such. Toys such as rawhide can’t be cleaned, however, which is another reason to avoid them as these can quickly become contaminated with bacteria and other germs.

Final thoughts on safe, sustainable dog toys

All in all, taking a suitably sized rope toy, ball, flying toy, or other dog toy to the beach or park is often the best way to exercise your dog while safeguarding their health and yours. The same is true for household toys that keep your pup entertained when you’re away or when you just can’t play tug of war one more time. Engrossing dog toys also help keep your pup away from potentially hazardous ‘found’ toys, such as your shoes, clothes, furniture, and gadgets and gizmos lying around the home.

Naturally, the best trick of all is to find safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly dog toys like the ones Kali and I have sniffed out. So, you’ll want to look at my article on Popular Dog Toy Companies to Think Twice About.

If your dog is more of a chewer, check out the following:

My top takeaways when choosing dog toys are:

  • Supervise play
  • Remove damaged or unsuitable toys immediately
  • Choose toys that fit your dog’s size, temperament, bite, and play preferences
  • Make your own toys at home
  • Have a variety of toys on hand and rotate toys to maintain interest
  • Avoid toys with single air holes which can create a suction trap
  • Avoid heavily dyed and painted toys, soft plastics, overly hard or soft toys, and those that smell chemically

And, finally, remember that you are the best toy of all for your dog! While they (hopefully) don’t chew on you all that much, you’re far more entertaining than any Kong or squeaky toy. Get to know your dog and keep each other company. Toys are not a replacement for love and affection; something my pup reminds me of every day.

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