Choosing Safe Dog Toys

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently a television station in Grand Rapids, Michigan featured a segment on bacteria on dog toys. The station worked with a laboratory to analyze the gunk on toys belonging to one of the news reporters' dogs, a Toy Poodle named Henry. They tested exclusively soft toys, and the bacteria counts were so high they had to dilute the samples just to analyze them.

It will come as no surprise to all you dog parents out there that there were hundreds of thousands of bacteria on each toy, as well as on Henry's dog bed. The lab found no E. coli, but did detect thousands of bacterial colonies after calculating the total microbial count from the diluted samples. The same lab also does forensic dust analysis, and has concluded that 60 percent of the dust in households with pets comes from furry family members.

Needless to say, it's important to wash your dog's toys regularly, especially if she tends to hang on to special soft toys rather than destroying them like many pups do. It's also important to wash plastic dog toys routinely, and dog beds as well.

Chances are the massive amounts of bacteria on her belongings won't bother your pet in the least, but there's a possibility a human family member could become ill after handling a dog toy if they don't wash their hands thoroughly before touching their face, putting food in their mouth, etc.

Washing your dog's toys regularly (once a month is a reasonable guideline) also gives you the opportunity to check their condition and toss the ones that are breaking down or falling apart.

Not Every Dog Toy Is Right for Every Dog
Most dogs in the U.S. have lots of toys, and many pet parents use trial-and-error to determine what type their dog prefers — and which are safest — from a mind-blowing selection of tugs, balls, Frisbees or other types of discs, chew toys, puzzle toys, squeaky toys, stuffed toys and more. And since many pet stores welcome dogs, some pet parents even bring four-legged family members along and allow them to sniff out their favorites.

It's important to select your dog's toys carefully, however, because not every dog toy is a good choice. For example some dogs, especially large breeds, tend to rip soft toys apart within seconds to taste-test the stuffing. There are also dogs that swallow small soft toys whole. So obviously, these types of toys aren't a good choice for certain pets.

Your pup's temperament, size and age all play a role in determining which toys are safe, and there are considerations, too, based on the toy itself (materials used, size, shape and more). I recommend using the guidelines below, compiled by VetStreet,1 to ensure the toys you choose for your dog keep him not only happily playing, but also safe.

Tips for Selecting Safe Dog Toys
Choose toys that are the right size for your dog. Giving a small toy to a large dog poses a risk of inhalation and choking. Small balls are especially dangerous, as they can easily become lodged in your dog's trachea.
Generally speaking, you should choose large toys for large dogs and smaller toys only for smaller dogs.
Avoid toys that have small parts that can be chewed or pulled off.
Avoid toys with sharp edges or that can be chewed into sharp points.
Be careful letting your dog play with sticks. Avoid sticks that have sharp ends and choose one that is either too long or too short for your dog to jab into the ground when carried vertically (like a straw), as this could cause serious injury to his mouth and/or throat.
When playing fetch, avoid toys that are heavy or hard enough to damage your dog's teeth or injure him.
If your dog likes to de-stuff toys, be sure he's not eating the stuffing. Some dogs really enjoy stuffing-free toys.

Toys Requiring Close Supervision
  • Supervise your dog when she's playing with long rope-like or tug toys, as they can become wrapped around her neck.
  • If your dog likes to play "rip out the squeaky," offer such toys only when you can safely monitor her play.
  • Be careful with toys that require batteries. If your dog manages to get them out of the toy and swallows them, it can result in battery toxicosis.
  • Be careful with tennis balls. They can be a choking hazard for large dogs, and the abrasive fuzz may wear down teeth if your dog is an aggressive or persistent chewer (normal play will not pose a risk to your dog's teeth).
  • Be careful with toys, such as Frisbees, that may cause your dog to jump up and twist simultaneously. Such movements may lead to leg and back injuries.

  • 'Toys' That Should Be Avoided
    Dogs shouldn't play with strings, ribbons, pantyhose, socks or rubber bands. These objects may be swallowed and can cause life-threatening complications once in the digestive tract.
    Don't offer your pet children's toys (such as stuffed animals); they're not designed to withstand the type of play dogs engage in.
    Avoid any toys stuffed with beads or beans.
    Don't let your dog play with rocks.
    Don't give your dog containers (including bags) large enough for him to put his head in. If his head becomes stuck, he'll be unable to get free and may suffocate.
    If your dog has neck or back problems, such as herniated disks, tug toys should be avoided.
    Rubber toys with a hole in only one end may form a vacuum that catches your dog's tongue. Either avoid these toys or poke a hole in the other end so a vacuum cannot form.
    I don't recommend giving your dog rawhide chews for a number of reasons, one of which is because they pose a high risk of choking and intestinal obstruction.

    Toys That May Be Toxic
    Pet toys are not regulated, so they can be made with virtually any material. Plastic toys, in particular, can be dangerous, as many contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA). Old or weathered toys (such as those left outside) leach higher concentrations of harmful chemicals.

    While BPA-free toys are available, the BPA may be replaced with similarly (or more) toxic chemicals, including bisphenol-S (BPS), so this, unfortunately, isn't a reliable indicator of toy safety. Other toxins sometimes found in dog toys include heavy metals (lead, etc.) and formaldehyde.

    When looking for new toys, choose those made in the U.S. out of 100 percent natural rubber, organic cotton, or other eco-friendly and contaminant-free materials. I recommend the sniff test, as toys should have no smell. If a toy you're considering buying smells strongly of chemicals, put it back.

    Testing shows that some tennis balls made for pets contain more contaminants than those made for sports.2 I've found the best toys for pets are usually handmade, by individuals or very small companies and found at local farmer's markets or sold regionally in small, independent pet stores. Unfortunately, I haven't found a plethora of companies that produce 100 percent organic toys. However, there are some great all-natural toys you can find online if you go searching.

    Types of Toys Dogs Seem to Prefer
    Researchers have discovered that regardless of the type of toy, once a dog is completely familiar with the sight, sound, smell and feel of it, boredom sets in. In addition, you may want to avoid those "indestructible" toys your dog can't make a dent in, because research also suggests that dogs enjoy toys they can pull apart and destroy or those that are edible, probably because they view toys the way wolves view their prey.3 They want something they can tear apart and eat.

    Of course, offering your dog easily destroyed toys isn't ideal either, as he may accidently (or intentionally) ingest some of the non-edible pieces. A good alternative is recreational bones (large, raw chunks of beef and bison femur bones), which are extremely enjoyable for most dogs, even though they're not technically "toys."

    Treat-release puzzle toys, toys meant to be chewed, and those that make noise or are edible (like a nontoxic dental bone) can also be good options, while toys that are hard, unyielding and silent will probably not be a big hit with your dog.

    Finally, don't underestimate your ability to stimulate your dog's interests. A session of playtime with you — playing fetch, tug-of-war or hide-and-seek — will be far more stimulating to your pup than any toy could be. If you need some ideas for playtime, check out these games and activities you can do with your dog.