Dogs have an innate desire and need to chew. Unfortunately, they’re not always great at picking the best things to chew on. This is where you come in.
It can sometimes feel like there are as many types of chews and chew toys as there are dogs to chew them. And just about everyone has a personal pick for their dog, no matter what they hear to the contrary.
The truth is, there are some types of chews and chew toys that are best avoided if you want to keep your dog safe. Even if you decide that you still want to give your dog the following chews and toys, you should at least know the inherent dangers and risks.
Granted, the chews listed in this article are fairly popular — in spite of all the potential health hazards. And many dog owners understandably argue that their dogs have never had problems before, or that they’ve never heard of friends’ dogs having any problems with a particular chew. The operative words there are “before” and “haven’t heard.”
As vets, we see, first-hand, the problems that can result from dogs who are injured by something as seemingly innocuous as a chew toy. That’s not to say that every dog will have a problem, but many dogs can have a problem. Believe me, if you ever see a dog suffering from a cracked tooth from an inappropriate chew object, or undergoing surgery to remove a digestive obstruction from an inappropriate chew object — or if you ever have to counsel and comfort a distraught pet owner worried about the pain, logistics, or costs resulting from such problems — you’d sound the alarm as well.
Fortunately, there are plenty of safer options that dogs will love just as much, which we’ve outlined in "3 Simple Steps to Choose the Best Chews for Your Dog," and we've highlighted some at the end of this article. I’d recommend picking one of those toys, but if you’re skeptical, read on to see why these other popular chews can be bad news for dogs.
Chews and Chew Toys You Should Not Give Your Dog
Again, I’ll acknowledge that not every dog will have a problem with these toys. However, the likelihood of moderate-to-severe issues is much higher if a dog is allowed to chew on the following (sadly popular) objects and products.
Now here’s a rather controversial topic… but let’s go there! Spend enough time online and you’ll find plenty of blogs and sites that say it’s OK to give 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 as they easily splinter and cause digestive upset or puncture).
On one hand, some people will wholeheartedly recommend bones, claiming that uncooked, solid bones (like beef knuckle bones, etc.) can provide hours of safe and natural chewing. They often cite the “naturalness” of dogs chewing on bones, since wolves and dogs in the wild will eat or chew through bones. That’s partially true, but only if you ignore these other facts about bones:
- Bones Splinter: Whether cooked, uncooked, solid, or hollow, bones can and do splinter, yet they're still hard enough to break teeth. Those splinters can lead to mouth and/or digestive irritation or puncture. You don’t hear about this with wolves and wild dogs because… well… they’re in the wild. But this does happen and those wild dogs will suffer from pain and infection before they die from an inability to eat, peritonitis or sepsissecondary to leakage of stomach/intestinal contents into their abdominal cavity, or other debilitating complications of their bone-related injuries.
- Dogs Don't Need Bones: Wolves and wild dogs eat bones, in part, to help balance the levels of calcium and other minerals in their diet. Domesticated dogs don’t have such a need for supplemental nutrients, as long as they're fed a complete and balanced diet (most of the commercially available dog foods are balanced, just look for one with an AAFCO statement).
Even the FDA has issued a warning to pet owners about bones. So yes, because I have seen the damage and devastation that chewing bones can cause, I will go on record and say that bones are best avoided as chews for dogs — regardless of whether the bones are cooked or raw, and regardless of how "natural" some people claim it is for dogs to chew bones.
Hard Cheese Blocks and Bones
Aside from perhaps some lactose-intolerance, cheese shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for dogs, right? Well, when it’s been processed into a rock-hard “block” or “bone” it certainly can. Cheese blocks and cheese bones can be much too hard for regular chewing and can lead to broken teeth for an unfortunate dog. In our own test, the Qchefs Cheese Bone (as shown in the image) did not pass the "thumbnail test" (a good chew should be soft enough that it will give if you press it with your thumbnail). Making matters worse, this particular bone, as well as other hard cheese-style chews, are too small even for a little dog, which could lead to choking or a digestive obstruction, should your dog literally bite off more than they can chew. If you want to give your dog cheese, stick to small amounts of the real stuff (like string cheese), which can make for a great high-value reward/treat during training.
Cow hooves used to be all the rage for dog chew toys — fortunately, they seem to have gone out of favor. Of course, you can still find them quite easily. 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.
Elk or Deer Antlers
Now here’s a SUPER popular dog chew! After all, they’re natural and “sustainably harvested” (elk and deer shed their antlers naturally). But antlers are hard enough to withstand the force of another deer’s antlers in battle, which means they’re definitely hard enough to break your dog’s teeth. They can also be sharp enough to cause oral puncture injuries. In fact, the antler fad has caused enough injuries that many vets and board-certified veterinary dentists have begun issuing warnings to help pets avoid the pain, and for their owners to avoid the costs of antler-related injuries.
Below are just a few of these stories and warnings.
- Bennie’s misadventure with deer antlers and nylon bones (warning if you're squeamish about images of tooth injury)
- Antler Dog Chews - an update after surge in cases of fractured teeth
Nylabones or Nylon Chew Toys
Like many of the other chews we’ve discussed already, hard plastic and hard nylon chew toys, like Nylabones, can be too hard for your dog’s teeth. These toys have little to no “give,” and as a result they have led to many tooth fractures. If you can't indent the toy with your fingernail, then it's too hard for your dog's teeth. Making matters worse, a reasonably good chewer can rip off pieces of plastic from a Nylabone and swallow them, leading to a likely digestive obstruction. You may have read reports that Nylabones are toxic and can cause seizures; however, there doesn’t appear to be much merit to these claims. The real danger, as I’ve already mentioned, is damage to your dog’s teeth or digestive system.
Pig’s ears are another beast entirely (both literally and figuratively). While pig ears can provide some solid chew time, the coating used on them often leads to digestive upset for your pup and it can stain your carpets.
They can also harbor all kinds of nasty bacteria to grow on! And, if those drawbacks aren’t enough, pig’s ears can even become a choking hazard or lead to digestive obstructions if your dog is likely to tear off large chunks and swallow them whole.
While not technically a chew “toy,” plenty of people give dogs ice cubes to chew on, especially when it's hot or their puppy is teething. Unfortunately — like bones, antlers, hard nylon chew toys, and other hard chews — ice cubes can actually be hard enough to break your dog’s teeth. You may not need to dive onto a fallen ice cube before your dog gets to it, but it’s not the best idea to intentionally give ice cubes to your dog to chew.
FYI: You might have heard that ice water causes Bloat in dogs, which is actually a bunch of hot air. Ice water does not cause Bloat in dogs.
While it may seem like a free and readily available chew/fetch toy for your dog, sticks can be a quick way to end their good time. They often lead to distressing and devastating puncture wounds of the mouth, eyes, abdomen, and even the heart! We have covered this topic in many other articles on Preventive Vet, but it bears repeating that sticks are not free toys and are extremely dangerous for dogs. To best protect your dog's health and safety, as well as your heart and bank account, sticks should never be used for fetch or for chew toys.
How to Tell if an Edible Chew or Chew Toy is Safe for Your Dog
The chews and chew toys listed above are some of the most popular things you could give your dog to chew on, but as you can see, they can also be among the most dangerous. And they’re not the only dangerous chews and chew toys for dogs, and there are new things for dogs to chew on coming out each day. It can be hard to stay on top of them all!
Put all of your dog’s chews and chew toys through the “tests” below to figure out whether a particular object is likely to be safe for your dog to chew on:
- Hardness: Apply the thumbnail test: If the toy doesn't “give” a little bit when you press it with your thumbnail, then it's likely too hard for your dog and could break their teeth.
- Softness & Durability: The toy also should not be so soft or poorly-constructed that your dog will be able to chew it apart and swallow pieces, chunks, or the stuffing inside.
- Coating: It should not be coated or treated with flavorings that can cause digestive upset or support the growth of bacteria (e.g., the coating on pig’s ears).
- Size & Shape: It should not be so small that your dog could choke on it, nor of a shape that they could get their tongue or muzzle stuck in it. It also shouldn’t be too big for them that they could strain or otherwise injure their jaw working on it. (This can get a bit difficult in homes with multiple dogs of varying sizes, but it’s important to pay attention to the size of the toys that you’re bringing into your home as they relate to the different-sized dogs you may have.)
- Washability: Ideally, you should be able to put it in the dishwasher or washing machine/clothes dryer to be periodically cleaned and disinfected.
- Entertainment Value: It should be able to provide hours of chewing entertainment and distraction, either because it will last a long time, you are able to stuff it with treats/food, or your dog just really enjoys playing with it.
It’s confession time: Much of the Preventive Vet team is guilty of spoiling our dogs. We’re slightly ashamed to admit how much of our usable space is devoted to storing our dogs’ favorite toys, nummies, babies, and other embarrassing euphemisms.
The good news is that this experience has given us plenty of food for thought when it comes to recommending toys based on our evaluation of safety, durability overall quality. Here are some of our dogs’ faves that we think yours will love as well.
Our Favorite Interactive Toys for Dogs
Kong makes a variety of highly popular rubber chew toys and interactive feeders. They state that their products "undergo rigorous testing... by independent laboratories," which is part of the reason that Kong is one of our top picks for non-toxic dog toys. The Classic Kong can be filled with dry or wet food and there are plenty of other "stuffing" recipe ideas on the Kong website. You can also freeze the toys with food inside to make them last longer and extend your dog's fun.
Offering enrichment by helping satisfy dogs' instinctual needs, the KONG Classic's unique all-natural red rubber formula is ultra-durable with an erratic bounce that is ideal for dogs that like to chew while also fulfilling a dog's need to play.
Designed for the toughest of chewers, the KONG Extreme offers enrichment and helps satisfy dogs' instinctual needs.
The Senior KONG is designed to provide a gentle and comfortable chewing outlet while offering enrichment and satisfying an older dog's instinctual need to play.
The Puppy KONG dog toy is customized for a growing puppy's baby teeth, the unique, all-natural rubber formula is the most gentle within the KONG rubber toy line.
Size Matters: An important warning about choosing the correct size toys for your dogs, including when you have multiple dogs of different sizes. This photo (inset) is an X-ray of a dog’s abdomen. The three snowman-shaped objects you see in the middle of the image are Kongs within the dog’s stomach! They wound up there, not because the dog’s owner intentionally gave their dog the wrong sized Kongs, but rather because their kiddo didn't supervise closely enough while this dog’s puppies were playing with their food-stuffed Kongs! Mom perhaps decided that her pups were having too much fun and wanted in on the action. Or, maybe it was as it so often is, the kids just left their mess laying around for mom to clean up… and clean up this mom did! She had to be taken to surgery to have these three Kong toys removed from her stomach. She’s doing well and lesson learned for everyone.
Photo credit: Dr. Mandy Roberts, Hoschton Animal Hospital.
West Paw is another fantastic example of non-toxic, durable toys that dogs love. The Qwizl is ideal for inserting treats, so it takes longer for your dog to finish the treat and engages your dog's brain.
What can you stuff your dog's Qwizl or Toppl with? It depends on your dog and the specific size of Qwizl or Toppl you get, as well as the size of the treat, but some popular ideas include: your dog's kibble and/or wet food, peanut butter, and even your dog's regular dog treats. To increase the difficulty level and extend the time your dog will play with (and be distracted by) their stuffed toy, you can freeze the toy after stuffing!
Because of the long shape and hollow core (inset photo), the Qwizl can also take a bully stick (if your dog plays with them safely), and healthy apple slices or carrots. All of these treats also fit in the Toppl, as do the CET VeggieDent chews (also featured below).
Our Favorite Dog Dental Chews
The Virbac C.E.T. VeggieDent Chews are great because they have been clinically proven to help control tartar (and have the VOHC Seal of Acceptance to prove it). As for rawhides, Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Oral Hygiene Chews contain no artificial coloring and are made from carefully selected hides. These chews also include a powerful and beneficial enzyme called glucose oxidase, which helps protect your dog's teeth by breaking down the sugars that disease-causing bacteria feed on. You can buy them online or get them from your veterinarian.
Our Favorite Fetch and Tug-of-War Toys
As mentioned above, West Paw is a great company (they’re a B-Corp!) that makes great products for pets, and their Bumi is a prime example of their awesome proprietary Zogoflex material that’s BPA- and Phthalate-free and non-toxic.Tuffy also makes a great (fabric) tug toy that can stand up to some pretty heavy mouthing and chewing.
This new fetch toy is shaped like a stick but doesn’t have the same hazards of a stick for dogs. After extensive research (and having a lot of fun testing with our own pups), we found that this fetch toy meets our criteria for safety as a fetch* toy.
*Note: This toy is NOT a chew toy. While it will stand up to a little bit of "mouthing" during the fetch retrieval process and, depending on your dog, perhaps even a little bit of post-retrieval gnawing, it is not designed or intended to withstand a serious chew session. If your dog is a serious chewer, opt for something stronger (but still safer) for fetch and chewing, like the Kong toys recommended above.
What kind of chews and chew toys do you get for your dogs? Got any questions about the toys listed here, recommendations about other popular toys, or other words of cautions for fellow dog lovers? Feel free to share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section below.