Say Good Riddance to Nasty Pathogens That Riddle Pet Toys

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Dogs love to chew, fetch and carry around their favorite toys, which means those that are the most loved will also be those that quickly become covered in dirt, slobber and grime. Your dog may bury his toys in the yard, sleep with them at night and drag them around the floor, making them magnets for bacteria, yeast and mold.

When the National Safety Federation (NSF) conducted a study to find the germiest items in a typical home, you may be surprised (or not) to learn that dog toys made the top 10 list. For the study, 22 families swabbed 30 household items to measure for various types of bacteria and other organisms. Pet toys were found to contain coliform bacteria (including Staph bacteria), yeast and mold.

How to Clean Your Dog's Toys

Cleaning your dog's toys is something you should do regularly, but a survey by Petco found one-third of pet owners were unaware that dog toys collect dirt, bacteria, yeast and mold.2 NSF not only recommended that everyone in the household wash their hands after playing with pets and handling their toys (especially before eating), but also recommended washing dog toys monthly — or more often if needed, such as for treat-releasing toys.

Doing so can help prevent disease-causing organisms from being transferred to you or potentially making your dog sick. Bacteria and viruses that may cause respiratory illness, parasites or fecal contaminants may all be transferred by handling dirty dog toys.3 Some toys may have instructions right on the tag giving the best washing instructions. Follow those if available. If not, here are general instructions to get your dog's toys clean:

Hard Toys

Wash hard toys with hot soapy water and rinse them fresh water. An old toothbrush makes a great tool for scrubbing the surface and getting into crevices. You can soak toys in a solution of 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water for toys that are extra dirty, then rinse them thoroughly and let them air dry.4 Be sure the toy is thoroughly dry before adding it back to your dog's toy bin.

Rubber Toys

If the toy has a label stating it's dishwasher safe, place it on the top shelf of the dishwasher for effective disinfection. Run them through without detergent, as the hot water and water pressure alone will get rid of germs. However, avoid using this method to clean plastic toys that don't say they're dishwasher safe, as the heat could cause the plastic to break down.

Soft Toys

Add these to your washing machine along with your dog's washable bedding and blankets. Use the sanitize cycle or, if the toy seems more delicate, wash it on cold. Use natural, fragrance-free detergent, or sprinkle toys with baking soda and add vinegar to the rinse cycle.

You can add them to a laundry bag if you're concerned about the cycle being too rough, but in general high-quality dog toys, which are designed for tough chewing, should have no problem surviving a wash and cycle. Most can also be added to the dryer with no problem, which will help to kill more germs as well. Alternatively, you can let them air dry in the sun, another germ-zapper.

Rope Toys

Rope toys have endless places for organisms to grow, so cleaning them requires something a bit more aggressive — the microwave. Wet the toy (be sure it contains no plastic or metal pieces) thoroughly, then put it in the microwave for one minute. In a study on kitchen sponges, microwaving for one to two minutes reduced bacterial count by more than 99 percent,5 so this method should help to drastically reduce the germs on your dog's rope toy, too.

Caring for Your Dog's Toys Will Keep Them in Good Shape

In addition to regular washing and disinfecting, taking proper care of your pet's toys will help them to last longer and stay safe for your dog. Rule No. 1? Bring toys indoors if your pet leaves them outside. Toys left outdoors can get moldy in the rain, frozen in the cold and even leach chemicals if left out in the hot sun.

They're more apt to become broken, dirty and brittle, too. So if your dog tends to leave them out in the yard, make a habit of collecting them at the end of each day. In between washings, you can keep dog toys fresh by spraying them with a mixture of vinegar and water, then wiping them down with a cloth.

Keep an eye on your dog's toy for loose pieces, gangling strings or unstuffed stuffing. These items pose choking hazards and should be discarded.

Finally, 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. If it has a strong chemical smell, avoid it. Some of the best toys are handmade, by individuals or very small companies, and found at local farmers markets or sold regionally in small, independent pet stores.

When choosing toys, be sure to also consider how easily they can be cleaned. Truthfully, some of the toys probably won't survive long enough to need cleaning, but for those that do, choose toys that can be tossed in the wash or dishwasher or thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. If in doubt, toss toys that are heavily damaged by chewing or which remain excessively dirty, even after being cleaned.