By: Dr. Libby Guise
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
I’m coming to you with a serious issue, and as a veterinarian, I’m fuming mad about it.
Did you know that there are zero, that’s right… no specific regulations for pet toys?
That’s right, the pet toy industry can make playthings for your furbabies however they like. With no oversight on shape, size, material, or manufacturing conditions, pet toys vary widely in quality and safety.
I’ve had clients and friends who have had to subject their dogs and cats to expensive, invasive surgeries because their four-footed friend swallowed a toy or a part of one. Real lives are at stake here!
So, if the federal government doesn’t have your back on this, what can you do? As a responsible pet owner, you need to take up point to ensure that your furry friend has safe toys.
Seriously?! – No Regulations Governing Pet Toys and Products
We’re not joking folks.
While parents of human children can rest secure that their kid’s toys have to pass strict federal standards, pet parents have no such assurances. Sure, the FDA regulates pet foods, but when it comes to other products, including toys, there’s no agency or set of laws in place to protect your furbaby.
How Can You Know Your Pet’s Toys Are Safe?
All is not lost. Fortunately, many larger pet retailers now enforce standards similar to those for children’s toys to help ensure pet amusements are safe and durable. Still, there are steps you can take to evaluate each product to make sure it’s OK for your special pal. Start by checking the manufacturer’s website to find out:
- Where it’s made. Many toys are manufactured in China. If that’s the case for your pet toys, get more information such as
- Testing methods – third party or in-house, standards of acceptability
- Does it meet the federal toy safety standard ASTM-F963-11 for children?
- Does it meet California’s Prop 65 standards regarding certain harmful chemicals?
If you’re shopping in a store or have access to the toy before your purchase one, inspect it personally. Check for:
- Strong chemical odors
- Heavy dyes
- Parts that could break off or be chewed off and become a hazard
- Broken parts or sharp, jagged edges
- Flammability and presence of buttons, ribbons, or other attached items
- Filling – are the materials potentially dangerous like polystyrene beads
Pet Toy Hazards
Before we talk about specific toys, we need to discuss potential pet toy hazards. While it’s important to examine the structure, this is about more than outward appearances. What’s on the inside may be far more interesting to your furbaby. Take it from someone who’s owned pups that wouldn’t rest until they could get the squeaker out of the stuffed squirrel!
Remember that our furry companions rely on their mouths to explore and communicate with their world. That means they’ll be mouthing or gnawing on their toys. It’s important to know what chemicals are in your pal’s gadgets to make sure there are no hazardous chemicals such as heavy metals or phthalates.
When Do Chemicals Become Toxic?
Many pet toys have potentially toxic chemicals in them. When do they become a problem? In most cases, you need to ingest or absorb a specified amount of a substance for it to be toxic. A substance is poisonous when you have a high enough concentration, the opportunity for absorption or ingestion, and an animal that’s sensitive to the chemical because of its size or health condition.
So, if your dog or cat spends time licking or chewing on a toy, you may need to worry about the types and amounts of chemicals in the product. Of particular concern are toys that have coatings or surfaces that leach or peel off easily.
How Can You Tell if a Toy Contains Toxic Chemicals?
There are some resources you can use to know whether a toy has toxic chemicals.
- The Archived Pet Supply Data Page from the Ecology Project’s Healthy Stuff project has a list of products with test results for some hard metals.
- 3M has instant lead test swabs that you can use on most surfaces.
- The American Pet Products Association offers its members a list of laboratories that can test for particular substances.
- The FDA keeps a searchable, updated page of livestock and pet products that have been withdrawn or recalled.
Some of the common chemicals that you may find in popular pet products include:
Often used as a flame retardant, you may find bromine in bedding. Toxic levels can result in vomiting, upset stomach, loss of appetite, constipation, muscle spasms, and tremors.
While cadmium is safe in trace amounts, high levels are dangerous. Some imported toys have huge amounts of cadmium. This toxin can cause significant lung, kidney, and joint damage.
Rawhide for chew bones and sticks may be preserved with formaldehyde. Over a long time, ingesting this chemical can cause cancer. It may also lead to respiratory or digestive distress.
Although in trace amounts, chromium is an essential nutrient, larger quantities can cause cancer or adversely affect the immune system, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal system, or respiratory system.
Lead is in more products than you realize. You may find it in imported tennis balls and dog toys, golf balls, improperly-glazed ceramic dishes, or water. Lead can damage the nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and several other organs.
Bisphenol A (BPA):
Bisphenol A(BPA) is used in polycarbonate plastics such as those used in some beverage bottles, cosmetic packaging, and the lining of some dog food cans. The problem with BPA is that it may interfere with the endocrine system and upset the metabolism.
Phthalates, which smell like plastic, are a common additive that adds flexibility to PVC(polyvinyl chloride) pet toys. The stronger the plastic aroma, the more Phthalates there are in the toy. When dogs chew on the toy, the chemical can leach out and be readily absorbed by the gums or skin. Phthalates can cause liver or kidney damage.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC):
Also known as vinyl, PVC can be used to make some dog toys. Most PVC toys include phthalates to make the item more pliable. But in time, the material may also release chlorine ions which can react to create dioxins. Dioxins may cause cancer or damage the immune system. Vinyl can also cause developmental and reproductive issues. Avoid giving vinyl toys to puppies and kittens.
Probably more common in pet foods and products that are imported from countries like China, melamine may cause kidney failure.
A heavy metal, arsenic is a dangerous poison. This substance can cause vomiting, and at higher doses, unconsciousness or death.
Some pets love soft, plush toys for cuddling or playtime. If your furbaby chews or licks the stuffy too much, he may create a hole. That’s why it’s important to avoid fillings that may be toxic, cause choking or create an impaction in the gut. Stay away from plush products that have beans, nutshells, polystyrene beads, or other types of polyfill.
If you like to give your furry friend a rawhide chew to keep him occupied, you may be putting him at risk. Here’s why:
- Chemical processing – This treat comes from animal hides that have been heavily processed. To make them the clean white or tan color that you see at the store, the manufacturer usually uses hydrogen peroxide and bleach. Then they add chemical colors and preservatives such as sodium benzoate. You can find some safe rawhides that are labeled preservative-free or indicate that no chemicals were used to make the treat.
- Choking hazard – Animals can swallow pieces of rawhide and get them lodged in the esophagus. Never leave your pet alone with one of these treats. That way, if your furbaby starts to choke or gag, you can try to pull the rawhide out. Don’t try to force it down. Whether you can safely remove the item or not, take your pal to the veterinarian for an examination.
Yarn and String
What cat doesn’t love to pounce on a piece of moving string? But these simple playthings can be dangerous if your furry friend has unsupervised access to them. If a pet swallows a piece of string or yarn, it can wrap up the intestines and cause a life-threatening, surgical emergency. Dogs can suffer the same fate if they swallow a piece of string from a rope tug-of-war toy.
Avoid plush or other toys that have attached decorations such as plastic eyes, ribbons, feathers, bells, or tails. These items can be chewed off and ingested leading to potential intestinal blockages.
Most Dangerous Toys and Chews
Dog toys vary widely because different pups have different needs and interests. Some want to chew, while others prefer a squeaky toy or a tug-of-war rope. It’s important to know the hazards involved with some popular playthings so that you’re better able to protect your pooch.
As descendants of wolves, dogs have a hunting instinct. While some pooches will just bite a squeaky toy over and over, others won’t be satisfied until they rip the toy open to get to the squeaker. In the case of cheaper products, the noisemaker is loose inside the plaything. If your pup swallows it, he could choke.
Tug-of-war toys or other items made of rope can be dangerous for your pooch. The problem is that the threads can unravel into pieces of string. If swallowed, these threads may get caught in the intestines and cause them to bunch up, creating a life-threatening situation. If you use a rope tug toy, never leave your pooch alone with it. However, there are safe alternatives made with non-toxic materials available (we’ll talk about them below).
Bones may seem like a special treat for your canine companion, but they have many potential hazards. The hard material can cause chipped or broken teeth in some pups. These injuries are painful and set your pooch up for infections. On the other hand, your furbaby may also crack or splinter the bone. Swallowed pieces or shards can cause a choking hazard, intestinal obstruction, or punctures in the gut. Other items that can also be too hard for your special pal’s teeth include cow hooves, hard plastic or nylon bones, pig ears, and frisbees.
Tennis Balls or Balls With a Single Hole
If you want to play fetch with your furbaby, make sure the ball is safe. Some tennis balls that are specifically made for dogs contain lead that your furbaby could ingest. And depending on how hard you toss the ball and how Fido catches it, there’s a risk that the momentum could be enough for the toy to get lodged in the throat. This is a serious hazard when you’re dealing with solid balls such as tennis or racket balls as well as balls with a single opening. Either way, the obstruction may cut off the airway creating an immediate emergency. Balls with two holes at least offer a pathway for air exchange.
Cat toys are made with cats in mind. They may not be durable to hold up to your pup’s chewing or play style. And, many feline playthings are small enough to swallow in a single gulp.
Kittens and cats can be so playful, and it’s fun to watch them pounce on their prey. Not to mention, toys may help stimulate your young feline’s mind and senses. However, some of the most popular kitten playthings are also the most dangerous.
Sparkle Balls and other small toys
Any toy that is small enough for your cat to swallow can be a choking or obstruction hazard. One of the most popular small cat toys is the sparkle ball which can be made of yarn and tinsel. These items may be fun for your furry pal to chase, but they can become lodged in the esophagus or intestine if your kitty decides to eat its prey.
Toys With Small Parts
Items such as balls with small bells inside or stuffed mice with ribbon or string tails can be hazardous to your cat. Between sharp claws and teeth, your feline can easily rip toys into pieces. Linear objects such as ribbons or strings can cause intestinal damage. Tiny bells may be swallowed and cause an obstruction.
Toys that dangle from a pole or off a cat tree pose two major risks. If the string or rope is long enough, your kitty could get wrapped up and strangle itself. When the string snaps, it’s also possible for your precious pet to swallow the thread and cause intestinal obstruction or other damage to the gut.
Battery Powered Toys
Mice and other small rodent toys that rely on a battery to scurry across the floor can provide hours of entertainment for your cat. However, you should never leave your furbaby unattended with this mechanical device. If your kitty chomps in the wrong spot, it could puncture release alkaline or acid toxins causing battery poisoning. When a pet swallows a button or other shape of battery, it could also become lodged and result in choking or obstruction. Don’t leave battery-powered toys out when you’re away from home.
Whether attached to another item or alone, feathers may stimulate the stalking instinct in your cat. However, they can also cause damage to your kitty’s mouth. The shaft end of the plumage can be sharp and cause cuts or puncture wounds. If your feline friend swallows the feather, it may get caught in the esophagus and cause choking.
In the age of doing it yourself, you may be tempted to make a toy from common household items. Paper clips, string, dental floss, rubber bands, and plastic bags are examples of potential hazards for your cat. We’ve discussed the hazard of strings and threads. Paper clips have sharp edges that can puncture or lacerate your kitty in the mouth or the gut. Rubber bands can wrap around your furbaby’s tail, ears, tongue, or feet and cut off circulation. If your kitty gets stuck in a plastic bag, he could suffocate. Choose your toy materials wisely.
Pet Toys are For Pets, Kids Toys are for Kids
You may think a kid’s plush toy or ball would make a good plaything for your pet. Think again. They may look the same, but they’re made for different purposes. True, toys made for children go through safety tests, but the standards are set for kids, not active predators. Human youngsters don’t match the strength and persistence of dogs and cats.
You may be wondering if any toys are safe for your pets. The good news is that some companies make reliable, safe playthings for dogs and cats. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the best toys for dogs and cats:
Safe Toys for Dogs
For dogs, some of the safest items include hard, rubber toys that are hollow and have two holes. You can stuff these products with biscuits or canned food to keep your canine pal occupied. Another fun toy is a treat-dispensing toy that your pooch needs to push around the floor. Puzzle toys can also safely offer hours of entertainment.
Made of durable, hard rubber, the Kong toys offer a variety of ways to entertain your pooch. They stand up well to chewing, or you can fill the inside with a tasty treat for your furbaby. The odd shape also makes this a fun and unpredictable bouncy toy.
The inside is hollow, and there are holes at both ends, which helps prevent choking. The materials are durable and unlikely to break into smaller pieces, and there are no sharp edges that could cause injuries.
With durable nylon, this chew toy is made for medium-sized dogs. The product has a savory chicken flavor and ridges that help to clean your pup’s teeth.
This product is designed to stand up to chewing so that it won’t break apart into pieces. The shape will help prevent the object from becoming lodged in your pal’s mouth or throat. With rounded edges and safe materials, this product shouldn’t injure your pup.
This interactive puzzle toy is designed to provide hours of mental stimulation for your furbaby. The shape is easy for a pooch to hold in his paws while he chews and explores the toy. They are made of recyclable, non-toxic materials that are dishwasher safe.
There are no sharp edges on this product that could cause injury. It’s made with non-toxic, durable materials that shouldn’t crack or break apart into smaller pieces. There are holes on the ends and sides of this hollow object to prevent it from blocking the airway.
Also from West Paw, this interactive puzzle toy is designed to keep your furbaby occupied. Use it as a fun feeder or a distraction when you’re away from home. It has a hollow bowl with an open top and a hole in the side. The materials are non-toxic and recyclable.
This product has smooth edges and an open concept. To prevent airway obstruction or oral injuries. The materials are durable and should stand up to heavy chewers without breaking into smaller pieces that could be choking hazards.
Made in Sweden, these durable, interactive toys are designed to safely provide your furry pal with mental stimulation. You can set the toys to different levels to challenge your pooch’s physical and mental abilities to find a food reward.
These products are non-toxic and free of BPA, phthalates, and PVC. They’re approved to be used as feeders and are made of tough composite plastic. There are no sharp edges that could cut or injure your pooch.
Treat your pooch to a squeaky plush toy from goDog. This rooster is made using chew guard technology to stand up to the toughest chewers. With reinforced seams, textured bubble plush, and dangling limbs, this toy will delight your furbaby.
The product is durable and designed to stand up to rough play and avid chewers. The super-durable lining is chew-resistant, and there are no attached pieces such as plastic eyes that could be chewed off and swallowed.
Treat your pooch with Planet Dog. These products include treat-dispensing toys in a variety of shapes and sizes. They’re durable, bouncy, and non-toxic.
These toys feature smooth edges and non-toxic materials. They’re not likely to injure the mouth, and they’re durable so they shouldn’t break apart.
Safe Toys for Cats
When choosing a safe toy for cats, keep their nature in mind. Felines are natural predators and enjoy the hunt. This is something that makes puzzle toys a good option for cats. Other safe toys include products that don’t have loose strings, ribbons, or feathers.
Entertain your cat with a wand bouncer. These dancing toys attract the predator in your feline. They’re made from quality materials and have teasers at the end.
The cat dancers have no chemicals and no sharp metal parts that could injure your furbaby. The materials are durable and designed to stand up to rough play without breaking apart.
PetFavorites Original Mylar Crinkle Balls Cat Toy
These crinkle balls come in bright colors and make a crinkling sound when your cat plays with them. They’re small and lightweight making them easy to bat across the floor or carry around.
The product is made of non-toxic mylar materials. Its 1 ½-inch size makes it difficult to swallow. There are no sharp edges.
Charm your furry feline with this colorful cat dancer toy. The wand has a brightly colored wand and fabric ribbon for your kitty to chase and pounce upon.
With a strong, polycarbonate wand and durable, thick, soft, fleece ribbon that won’t cut or injure your kitty, this toy is made to stand up to hours of play. Remember to store the toy out of reach when you’re not at home.
Made with cats in mind, this Kong treat dispenser features a catnip tail on top and a hole in the side. Screw open the toy to insert treats and let your kitty enjoy hours of stimulation.
The product is made from durable, non-toxic materials. It has no sharp edges and is too big to swallow.
Drive your cat crazy with catnip in this refillable toy. The product features a squirrel shape, cuddly fabric, and a container of catnip.
This toy had no elastic, bells, or strings. The catnip is safely concealed in a hidden closure. It’s made with non-toxic, durable materials that are hard to tear apart.
Occupy your four-footed feline with this cat scratch toy. It features a non-skid bottom, catnip, scratchpad, and a ball that spins in a track. Providing a scratch outlet may prevent your furbaby from using your furniture to sharpen his claws.
With a ping-pong size ball that’s secure in a track, there’s little risk of choking. The edges are smooth so they won’t cut or injure your kitty’s paws or nose.
Beat boredom and make feeding time a game with this interactive feeder. With rounded spikes, this feeder can help slow down overweight food gulpers.
This product is BPA-free and has no sharp edges. It’s dishwasher safe so that you can clean out food debris and prevent bacteria buildup. The material is hard plastic so it shouldn’t crack or chip.
The Ball is in Your Court
Now that you know that the government isn’t protecting your pets from unsafe toys, it’s up to you. Remember to check the labels to know what materials are in the toy. You can also check available resources to see if the toy is on any watch lists. Once you do your homework, look at the product and inspect it before you buy it. Do everything in your power to keep your special pal safe.