Safe Chew Toys: Important things to know and consider
Your dog is going to chew… it’s just a part of being a dog. And it’s actually quite an important part, too! Whether they’re a young puppy going through their teething period or exploring their new world, or an adult dog chewing to pass the time, keep their masticatory (chewing) muscles strong, or keep their teeth clean… all dogs need to chew.
Because chewing is good for your dog’s mental and physical health, it’s important that you provide them with plenty of things to chew on. Fail to do so and they’ll come up with their own chew “toys”… which often wind up being your most expensive pair of shoes, the legs of your dining room chairs, the nearest electric cord, or even your own arm! None of which are desirable, and several of which are downright unsafe, too!
But there are a LOT of dog chews and chew toys available these days! Which ones are best? Which ones should you go with? Which should you avoid? Did you know that some common (and commonly recommended) dog chews, chew toys, and “free objects” could actually be quite dangerous for your dog? It’s true. From causing painful broken teeth, surgery-necessitating digestive obstructions, or distressing choking episodes, some objects you could choose and intentionally give your dog can actually cause them great pain and distress... and bring you heartbreak and considerable expense, too.
Dog Chew Toy Options—Knowledge is Power
Rawhides and Pig Ears: Available everywhere and relatively inexpensive, rawhides and pig ears may seem like a good chew option for your pooch. But use with caution, if at all. Plenty of dogs chew rawhides without incident, but enough wind up with these things lodged in their “windpipe” (trachea) causing choking, or big pieces of them stuck in their stomach causing a digestive obstruction to warrant caution. If your dog actually chews the rawhide, rather than biting off and gulping large chunks, they’ll probably be OK. And they may even get some teeth-cleaning benefits from them, too. Especially if you’re using one of the VOHC-approved “dental rawhides.” So, rawhides may be a good chew option for your dog. It all depends on your pup’s chewing habits and your ability to monitor them.
Pig ears, on the other hand, are another beast entirely (both literally and figuratively). While pig ears can provide some solid chew time (with the same caveats as above for rawhides), the “stuff” they’re coated with will often lead to digestive upset for your pup and can stain your carpets. Pig ears are best avoided.
Edible Chews & Treats: This category—which includes things like Greenies®, Dentastix™, Brushing Chews®, VeggieDent® Chews, and others—don’t really do too much to satisfy your dog’s need to chew, since they don’t really last very long. That said, they can provide some help with your dog’s overall dental and oral health, as they can help to minimize or slow the build-up of plaque and/or tartar on their teeth. Just be aware that they can add a fair number of calories to your dog’s diet, and so shouldn’t be overfed… especially to a dog with a “weight problem.” And also be aware that, like with rawhides and pig ears, if your dog bites off and swallows a large chunk of one of these, it could lead to an episode of choking or digestive obstruction.
Bones: Now here’s a rather controversial topic… but let’s “go there!" Search the web and you’ll likely find plenty of blogs and sites that say it’s OK to feed bones to your dog, so long as they’re uncooked and of a specific type. Thankfully pretty much everyone agrees that cooked chicken, turkey, rib, and other “brittle” bones aren’t safe to give to dogs (as they easily splinter and can cause digestive upset or puncture).
But it’s when you get into the topic of uncooked and “thick” bones that most people start breaking into “camps.” On one hand you’ve got those who whole-heartedly recommend giving dogs bones to chew on. Stating that uncooked, solid bones (like beef knuckle bones, etc.) can provide hours of safe and natural chewing that can help prevent boredom and keep a dog’s teeth clean. They often cite the “naturalness” of dogs chewing on bones, since wolves and dogs in the wild would likely eat or chew through bones. Which, while it may be true, overlooks two very important points. First is that wolves and wild dogs, in part, eat bones to help balance the levels of calcium and other minerals in their diet… domesticated dogs don’t have such a need for supplemental nutrients, so long as they are fed a complete and balanced diet (which most of the commercially available dog foods are, look for one with an AAFCO statement). The second important point is that bones can and do (often!) break teeth and splinter, and those splinters can lead to mouth and/or digestive irritation or puncture. When these types of injuries happen to wolves and wild dogs, they’re likely to suffer from pain and infection, before they die from an inability to eat, peritonitis or sepsis secondary to leakage of stomach/intestinal contents into their abdominal cavity, or other debilitating complications of their bone-related injuries.
Your dog, on the other hand, should they be unfortunate enough to suffer such injuries, would need (and hopefully get) veterinary care to alleviate their pain, infections, and digestive problems. These treatments all cost money, which many pet owners don’t have on hand when these emergency cases arise. This leads to frustration and financial distress, on top of their pet’s pain and suffering. These are the reasons why so many vets, myself included, caution against giving dogs bones. When you’ve seen too many dogs suffer the pain of a broken tooth or the illnesses and distress of bone-related digestive issues, and you’ve counseled their people as they worry about the (often rather significant) financial costs associated with fixing the problems caused by bone chewing, it’s hard to overlook the problems and recommend bones for chewing. In fact, the dangers that bone chewing poses to dogs is a big enough problem that even the FDA has released a warning to pet owners about the practice. So yes, throwing caution to the wind, I will go on record and say that bones are best avoided—regardless of whether the bones are cooked or raw and regardless of how "natural" they may be.
Cow Hooves: Cow hooves used to be all the rage for dog chew toys, fortunately they seem to have gone out of favor a bit. You can still find them, of course… and rather easily, too. They’re just no longer the “latest and greatest” dog chew craze—that distinction now seems to belong to deer/elk antlers and “bully sticks” (both of which are discussed below). Like bones and other hard chew toys, cow hooves pose the dual dangers of breaking your dog’s teeth or splintering, which could lead to puncture injuries of your dog’s mouth or digestive tract. Cow hooves are best avoided.
Elk or Deer Antlers: Now here’s a SUPER popular dog chew these days! After all, they’re natural and “sustainably harvested” (elk & deer shed their antlers naturally). But hold on… before you jump on this bandwagon and go running out to the store or forest to grab your pooch a chunk of antler to gnaw on, it’s important to know that antlers are more than hard enough to break your dog’s teeth. After all, they're hard enough to withstand the force of another deer or elk's antlers in battle, which is one of their primary purposes in nature. And they can sometimes also be pointy enough to cause oral puncture injuries, too. Again, one of their primary purposes in nature, causing not oral punctures to the "other" deer or elk, but skin or eye punctures that can help defeat the "other" deer/elk in battle. The antler “fad” has caused enough injuries that plenty of vets and board-certified veterinary dentists have started issuing warnings for pet owners to help them avoid the pain and costs of such injuries. Below are just a few of these stories and warnings. Please heed them. Elk and deer antlers are not safe or good chew toys for dogs.
- Bennie’s misadventure with deer antlers and nylon bones—true story
- Dog Chews Can Cause Fractured Teeth—written by a Board Certified Veterinary Dentist and Oral Surgery Specialist
- U.K. vets concerned about surge in tooth fractures
“Bully Sticks”: Go to any pet supply store, online retailer, or look in most dog magazines and you’ll find plenty of “bully sticks” for dogs. Many dog owners swear by these chews, and not just because they can provide hours of chewing distraction for their dogs (though some dogs will polish one off in mere minutes!), but also because their dogs absolutely love and go crazy for them.
What’s not to love about “bully sticks?” Quite a bit, actually. Not only can bully sticks add a significant (and often underestimated) number of calories to your dog’s daily intake, but they can also arrive (or become) contaminated with some pretty nasty—and even antibiotic-resistant—bacteria! Here’s an eye-opening article from the Canadian Veterinary Journal about the calories and bacteria (and other things) that these treats can often contain. And as if those weren’t big enough concerns (which they should be), “bully sticks” have also caused tooth fractures and digestive upset in plenty of dogs, too. Oh, and almost forgot to mention… whether they’re called “bully sticks,” “pizzle sticks,” or something else, these treats are bull penises! Bully sticks may be OK chew treats for your dog, it just depends on how many you give them, how they chew them, and how “sterile” they are… as well as your tolerance for having processed bull penis on your furniture, carpets, and bed.
Rubber Chew Toys: So long as they’re not too flimsy, rubber chew toys often represent the safest option when it comes to choosing chew toys for your dog. The best ones are those that are firm enough to stand up to serious chewing, yet have enough “give” to protect the teeth.
There are even some that have hollowed-out areas where you can put treats or stuff with your dog’s favorite canned food or other safe foods. This can provide some much needed mental stimulation for your dog, especially if you freeze the food-stuffed toy prior to giving it to them. Of course nothing is 100% safe, so two notes of caution with the hollowed-out firm rubber toys. First, make sure that the size (and durability) of the toy is appropriate for your particular dog.
Giving your dog a toy that’s too small for them could lead to choking, while too large could cause excessive strain and damage to their chewing muscles and jaw.
The second caution is that some dogs have gotten their jaw, or even their tongue, caught in the hollowed-out area of these toys, leading to some distressing injuries and panicked trips to the vet. For Maximus the Rottweiler, it even resulted in his death! The injuries mentioned here happen less frequently than the tooth fractures and digestive upsets/obstructions mentioned with many of the other types of chew toys discussed here (e.g., antlers, bones, etc.), so the firm rubber chew toys are often among the best options to satisfy most dog’s chewing needs. But you should still monitor their use when you can.
Hard Plastic or Nylon Chew Toys: Like bones, cow hooves, antlers, and a few of the other chew options discussed here, the hard plastic and hard nylon chew toys are just too hard for your dog’s teeth. These types of toys have little to no “give,” and as a result they have led to many a dog’s tooth fracture. If you can't indent the toy with your fingernail, then it's too hard for your dog's teeth. Hard plastic or nylon chew toys are best avoided.
Tennis Balls: It’s an image seen everywhere—a dog carrying around their tennis ball in their mouth. And lots of dogs do love to chew tennis balls! While they can be good fetch and chew options for many dogs, there are three main concerns with letting your dog chew on a tennis ball:
- The risk for a dog to chew and swallow pieces of the tennis ball, leading to a digestive tract obstruction.
- The risk for the ball getting stuck at the back of their throat and causing an obstruction of their throat, preventing them from being able to breathe. This is what happened to a dog named Storm.
- The repeated abrasive action of the tennis ball “fuzz” and how that can wear down your dog’s teeth. This can eventually expose the pulp cavity of a tooth, which is where the nerves and blood supply for the tooth are found, potentially leading to tooth pain and other problems in the long term.
Tennis balls can be good chew options for your dog, so long as you monitor their use closely and don’t let them chew on them incessantly. And in the long term, if you notice your dog’s teeth starting to get worn down, it’s time to give up the tennis balls and find a safer, less abrasive chew toy. They can still play fetch with the tennis ball, but just shouldn't pass their time by chewing on one.
Rope Chew Toys: Rope toys are everywhere, and it may be a good chew toy option for your dog. Rope toys however are not without their risks. Plenty of dogs have had to have surgery to remove the strands of rope toys from their stomach or intestines. All “foreign body” digestive obstructions are dangerous (and distressing) for dogs, but the linear foreign body type that is likely to result from ingestion of the strings that make up rope toys are particularly dangerous. That’s because linear foreign body obstructions often result in the sawing through of a dog’s intestines with severe, painful, and expensive consequences. If you let your dog chew on a rope toy, never let them do so without observation, never leave it “laying around,” and always take it away if you see them pulling out and eating the strands.
Sticks: What may seem like a free and readily available toy for your dog to chew on or fetch is actually anything but! Sticks often lead to distressing and devastating puncture wounds of the mouth, eyes, abdomen, and even the heart! I won't spend too much time discussing sticks here, as I’ve already discussed them (in-depth, and including case stories and news stories) in this article. Sticks are extremely dangerous for dogs! For your dog’s sake and yours, please read the linked article and avoid letting your dog fetch or chew sticks.
Ice Cubes: While not technically a chew “toy,” plenty of people give their dog ice cubes to chew on, especially when it's hot or their pup is teething. Many first realize that their dog likes to chew ice cubes only after one falls from the freezer or ice tray to the floor and their dog bolts over to chomp it up. Unfortunately, like bones, antlers, hard nylon chew toys, and some of the other chew toy types described here, ice cubes can actually be hard enough to break your dog’s teeth. While you may not need to dive on a fallen ice cube before your dog gets to it, it’s also not the best idea to intentionally give ice cubes to your dog to chew. Now, when it comes to ice water and the caution that you may have seen floating around the Internet about it causing Bloat in dogs… that’s just a bunch of hot air... Ice water does not cause Bloat in dogs.
Stuffed toys: This is a group of toys that's tough to make a "blanket" recommendation or statement about, mostly because there are so many different types and qualities of stuffed toys for dogs. If you go with stuffed toys, which can be a great option for many dogs, just make sure that it's a sturdy, well-constructed one with no buttons, "eyes," bells, or other "dangly bits" that your dog could chew off and swallow. And, regardless of what type you get, be sure to take it away and either fix it or throw it away if your dog manages to chew it open and start "gutting" it. Thankfully there are lots of good, durable, safe stuffed chew toys out there for dogs. Do your research, read owner reviews, consider your dog's size and chewing strength, and keep an eye on the "status" of their stuffies to make sure they're holding up, as stuffed toys can be a great option to occupy your dog.
Important "Tests" and Things to Consider When Evaluating a Chew Toy or Object for Your Dog
This is a list of things to consider and be aware of when deciding on chew toys for your dog. Since every dog is different, and every dog might chew differently (amount of time, eagerness, strength, etc.), the different considerations may have different "weighting" for your dog than they might for someone else's, or even for one of your other dogs. Use this list as a guide when evaluating your dog's chew toys, and use it to reevaluate their toys as they grow, if your dog is currently a puppy.
- Hardness: Not hard enough to break your dog's teeth. Thumbnail test = if the toy doesn't have a little bit of "give" when you press on it with your thumbnail, then it's too hard for your dog.
- Softness & Durability: Not too soft or poorly-constructed that your dog will be able to chew it apart and potentially swallow pieces, chunks, or the stuffing inside.
- Coating: Not coated or treated with flavorings that can cause digestive upset.
- Size & Shape: Not of a size or shape that your dog could choke on it or get their tongue or muzzle stuck in it.
- Washability: Able to be put in the dishwasher or washing machine & clothes dryer to be periodically cleaned and disinfected.
- Entertainment Value: Able to provide hours of chewing entertainment and distraction (either because of the toy's longevity, your dog's interest in it, or your ability to "stuff" the toy with treats or food)
At the end of the day, choosing chew toys for your dog is likely to involve a bit of "trial and error," and a whole lot of "getting to know your dog" and watching how they chew and interact with a particular toy. If there's any doubt, either don't leave them unobserved with it, or just take it away entirely and try another one. And, of course, if you're noticing any spots of blood on your dog's chew toys, or on your carpets/bed where your dog has been chewing on their toys, it's time to take the toys away and for a visit to your vet. Similarly, if your dog is vomiting, having diarrhea, or seems less energetic or interested in their food or playing after having a particular toy or chew treat, it's time to take it away and for a trip or call to your vet.
So, What's the Best Chew Toy For Your Dog?
A lot of that depends on the "type" of chewer your dog is. Do they quickly bite off and swallow chunks of their edible chews, or gradually work away at them? Do they do all they can to thoroughly shred up and destroy whatever they get in their mouth, or are they more gentle? To help you decide which types of chews and toys might be best for your dog, we've created three different "dog chewer types" and tried to categorize by these which of the chew and toys types listed above are more likely to be best for your dog. So have a think about what type of chewer your dog is and see what might work best for them below:
- THE INHALER: Now you see it, now you don't! Inhalers bite off large chunks of edible chews and swallow them fast—which is why they're a.k.a. "The Gulper."
- THE DESTROYER: These are the dogs that try to (and often succeed in) thoroughly destroying and making "quick work" out of whatever they get their mouths on! They may or may not swallow what they destroy, so be careful because there can be some overlap between a "Destroyer" and an "Inhaler." And these hybrid-chewers can certainly be very difficult to shop for!
- THE SAVORER: These dogs are lovers, not fighters. They take their time and savor their chews and toys slowly, giving them the respect and attention they deserve.
Chew Toy Recommendations: Now that you've figured out what "chewer type" your dog is, take a look at the lists below of the more-likely-to-be-safe types of chews and toys for each:
Rubber (firm) chew toys
Rope chew toys
Rawhides & pigs ears
Edible chews & treats
Rubber (firm) chew toys
(all types of chews are likely to be OK… lucky you!!)
Rawhides & pigs ears
Edible chews & treats
Rubber chew toys
Rope chew toys
As you can see, the "straightforward" decision of what you choose to give your dog to chew on can actually be quite complicated, and perhaps even a little bit overwhelming. Yet it is an important one. And while the “perfect” (or perfectly safe) chew toy for dogs may not yet have been invented, as you can see above, there certainly are some choices that are (far) better and safer than others. So I’m glad you’re taking the time to research it and I hope that this overview has provided you with the awareness, information, advice, and resources you need to make the best chew toy decisions for your dog. Good luck in your quest, and keep us posted!
What category does your dog fall into? What kind of chews and chew toys do you get for your dogs? Got any other category types or specific chew toys to suggest? Any other words of cautions for other dog lovers? Feel free to share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section below.
Please note: Unless otherwise stated, products, services, and/or companies mentioned, or links to same, are for illustration purposes only and their inclusion does not constitute an endorsement from Preventive Vet. Additionally, we are NOT compensated if you choose to buy what we feature.