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How to Choose Safe Dog Toys for Your Pup

Without regulations, the dog toy industry is a hellscape for consumers and dogs alike. But perhaps it’s less about the toys and more about what you do with them.

Kids are undoubtedly adept in the art of putting themselves in grave danger. For that reason, in an effort to help them stay alive and well, toymakers in the U.S. are required to follow a slew of safety rules and regulations. And their products are rigorously tested by a third party for lead, flammability and other obvious safety concerns.

Dogs, as any pooch lover thoroughly understands, are at least equally irresponsible with their lives. Yet, there are virtually no federal regulations to guarantee the safety of their toys, a perilous affair when you consider the entire objective is to chew them into pieces. Sadly, many of our furry friends have fallen victim to dangerous dog toys, and an equal number of devastated owners have called for improved safety regulations.

When the average consumer shops for dog toys, Adam Beatty of Playology dog toys says, “You’re really depending upon how much the retailer gives a damn.” He notes that large pet vendors like PetSmart and Petco generally do a good job of curating safe dog toys to avoid getting caught up in any negative publicity, but places like Amazon are akin to the Wild Wild West — Amazon in particular is notorious for selling unsafe baby toys, so you can only imagine what a disaster their dog toy market looks like. In fact, tests conducted by Consumer Affairs found a variety of mainstream dog toys to be tainted with toxic heavy metals, like cadmium, lead and chromium (you can find an online library of test results for many brand-name pet products here).

Unfortunately, though, the likelihood of seeing more regulations around dog toys any time soon is pretty low. “I think we can all agree that there’s plenty for our government to be doing that may take more precedence than regulation of dog toys,” Beatty says. And since there will always be manufacturers that take advantage of shortcuts provided by a lack of rules, the responsibility once again lands on us, the consumers, to pick out the safest dog toys and make sure that our dogs are able to play safely.

There are some dog toys that are outright dangerous and should be avoided altogether. For example, despite their reputation as a staple of dogdom, bones of all kinds can splinter and cause serious injury to your dog — the FDA even issued a warning about bones a while back. Stuffed dog toys, especially those with button eyes or other small parts, can also be especially dangerous for ravenous chewers and may be filled with potentially dangerous material like nut shells and polystyrene beads. Even basic dog balls can pose a choking hazard for larger breeds.

But besides blatantly hazardous dog toys, perhaps the bigger problem is choosing the right ones for your unique dog and their unique needs. “It really, really, really is breed-specific, dog-specific and age-specific,” Beatty says. Thus, the Playology website maintains a toy finder to help you pair their toys with your dog.

A few general rules that Beatty suggests following when choosing the best dog toys: Senior dogs usually do better with softer toys, while the best toys for puppies are something that they can chew into, but not necessarily shred apart, while teething. Also, look into your dog’s breed and the capacity of their jaws. You may be surprised by their chewing abilities. “The toughest dogs on toys are Jack Russells,” Beatty says.

Some more general recommendations are to avoid anything with a strong chemical smell, heavy dyes, small bits and bobs that could be easily chewed off and so on. All of which is to say, you need to do the job of researching appropriate toys based on the size, activity level and preferences of your dog. Then, use common sense when buying them.

Admittedly, even with regulations, it could be argued that making the perfect dog toy — one that they can safely chew on forever — is near impossible. Anything a dog spends time chewing on is a potential hazard, and as Beatty explains, dog toys need to have a certain amount of give, or else your dog may break its teeth. Therefore, no dog toy is necessarily indestructible, or immune to breaking into generous pieces, so supervision is perhaps even more important than the toy itself.

As Stephen Sacra, owner of VIP Products dog toys, says, “We all grew up with our dogs chained up outside or in a dog run, and kids drank water from garden hoses made of lead-filled rubber and didn’t wear bicycle helmets. People over time started changing how they let their human children play with things, and they changed their opinion on toys and safety. However, for some reason, even today, this same ideology hasn’t been adopted for people’s pets.”

“Every day, people are very cautious to prevent their human child from playing with toys that have small parts that could result in possibly swallowing a toy part,” Sacra continues. “But for some reason, there’s a disconnect and lack of desire to do the same action for our best animal friends. All too often people use dog toys as babysitters, instead of interactive toys to play fetch and games together.”

In other words, while the push for increased dog toy regulation may be at a standstill — and may not even solve the entire problem — we can help ensure the safety of our pets by not leaving them alone to chew on toys for hours on end. “It’s the people that need to be trained to be more observant and caring parents and pet owners,” Sacra says. “More pets are injured by unsupervised babysitting with the use of toys than toys that you find made of harmful chemicals.” (There’s still research to be done on the impact of toxic toys on dogs.)

While I personally still think the world of pet toys has room for improvement — we must protect our precious good bois at all costs — I also agree that more of us could pay better attention to what we buy for our dogs and how they play with those things. “Read the packaging a little bit,” Beatty suggests. “Think about what it is that you’re buying. If people vote with their wallets, companies making toys that aren’t reputable end up getting what they deserve.”