Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Chew Toys

Dogs need to chew.

Our foster mutts, being mainly adolescent puppies and young adult dogs, especially need to chew. Kongs are and will always be my #1 favorite dog toy, but they don't satisfy the need to gnaw. So I have spent many months experimenting with chew toys, because that arsenal of rawhides and fake bones is all that keeps our furniture (sorta) safe.

But chew toys are expensive, and not all of them are safe, and some aren't really "chew toys" at all, depending on the vigor and determination with which your mutt destroys things. And so we have this post.

Not Chew Toys: Ropes, tennis balls, soft rubber squeaky toys. All these toys can be great fun for dogs, but you should always supervise a mutt who has them, because they're easily torn apart (yes, even the tennis balls -- I've met dogs at the park who could shuck the green coating off a tennis ball faster than I could peel a banana, and then split the ball inside with one precise chomp, creating not one but three spiffy little choking hazards). Rope toys in particular seem to get shredded into dental floss really quickly in my house... and then whoever did the shredding tries to eat them, potentially resulting in some very expensive vet bills.

Also not chew toys: pig ears and dried jerky treats. They're fine treats (within reason -- pig ears have a lot of calories!), but they just don't last long enough to be worth the name. Tendons are borderline, but I've never had one last longer than a minute and a half so I don't think those are really chew toys either.

Chew Toys: Everything else in this post.

As a blanket statement, given all the concerns about the safety of imported pet foods and treats (which, as of this writing, have recently flared up again with respect to chicken jerky treats from China), I would personally look for toys made in the U.S. or Canada (and, where relevant, from animals raised in the U.S. or Canada) and avoid anything made in China.

Antlers: A relatively recent arrival on the chew toy scene, these are deer and elk antlers sawn into standard lengths. Most of the dogs I've given them to have been intrigued by the antlers but not hugely possessive of them, so I'd consider them medium-value toys on average. I stopped providing antlers after hearing one too many horror stories about dogs cracking teeth on them; they are very hard, and probably ill-advised for a vigorous chewer who likes to really crack down on her teeth. But for a less intense chewer I think they'd be fine. They last a long, long time.

Cheese Chews: Rock-hard plugs of yak milk preserved via traditional methods using salt and lime juice, these are sold as "Himalayan Chews" or "Churpi Chews." The label claims that these are cheeses traditionally eaten by the people of the Himalayas, which leads me to believe these people must have teeth made out of diamonds and kryptonite, because these suckers are hard.
The cheese softens after a little while, allowing the dog to scrape it off and eat it... and make a fair amount of mess, if your mutt's not a super neat eater. Dogs seem to value these more than just about any other chew toy I've tried (although some prefer rawhides) and may quarrel over churpis if they're resource guard-y about food. They don't last quite as long as antlers, but on the other hand I've never heard about them cracking teeth, either.

Hooves: Dried cow hooves (theoretically sometimes other animals' hooves too, I guess, but I've only ever seen cow hooves for sale). I have no experience with these. I heard too many stories about dogs breaking teeth on hard hooves and cutting open their gums on sharp ones and decided it wasn't worth the risk. YMMV but I've honestly never heard anything good about using hooves as chew toys.

Nylon and Polyurethane Bones: Nylabone, Hartz, and other companies make these in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. There are varying durability levels so that you can choose a bone tailored to your dog's chewing intensity.

I feel like kind of a bad owner-person because Whole Dog Journal doesn't like these fake plastic bones, but I sure do. Yeah, they're all made of chemicals and synthetic stuff. Yeah, some dogs will reject them because they probably smell and taste artificial, being made entirely of chemicals and synthetic stuff. But none of my mutts has ever turned down a fake bone and they last a long time and they don't break teeth, and generally they're not valuable enough to fight over so I can leave them lying around the house all the time.

So I guess you have to decide for yourself whether you're okay with your dog ingesting tiny scraps of plastic and choose accordingly.

Real Bones: Actual bones should be divided into two groups: baked bones (this includes the clean white sterilized ones) and raw or lightly boiled meaty bones (made at home from raw bones; as far as I know, no one sells boiled bones commercially). These are all bones from large mammals -- pigs, cows, bison and so forth.

Baked bones are too hard for your dog to chew safely, pose some risk of splintering when broken, and, in my opinion, are not safe to give to your dog. Raw or boiled bones are safer but should be further subdivided into marrow bones and knuckle bones. Marrow bones can still be too hard for vigorous chewers and should be taken away once the marrow's gone (although you can then re-stuff them with other fillings and use them like Kongs); knuckle bones can be eaten until they get small enough to pose a choking hazard. Both types last a moderate amount of time, make a pretty big mess (which may be a raw meat mess you don't want in your house), and are valuable enough to spark fights between resource guarders.

Rawhides: Rolled and/or compressed pieces of animal skin (usually cowhide, sometimes pigskin) shaped into knots, braids, circles, and all kinds of crazy designs around major holidays. May be flavored, bleached, or dyed (or painted with titanium oxide to turn them a nice pearly white -- avoid those!).

I look for treats made from thick sheets of undyed, unflavored rawhide. I avoid sticks and gimmicky shapes made from compressed scraps (most of these are dyed and many are artificially flavored, giving me even more incentive to skip them) because you don't know what's in the binders -- companies are not legally required to disclose this information, and given the kinds of crud manufacturers are willing to shove into pet food, I shudder to think what they're using to make the toys. If I can't read the ingredients on the label, I ain't buying it.

And even with all this work, Pongu's still bored with rawhides. He used to love them, but I guess he hit his saturation point months ago; now he has no interest in them whatsoever unless he's taking one away from a foster dog. Oh well. More for them... in the crate.


  1. Great roundup on chew toys, thanks! I have 2 large breed mutts who destroy everything but Kongs and get bored of rawhides. I'm wary of the antlers and bones because my oldest broke 2 teeth on those marrow bones many years ago and the removal of the teeth once they got infected years later was quite expensive!

  2. I'm glad it was helpful to you, and sorry to hear about your dog's broken teeth.

    I used to think that anything sold in a pet store must surely have been tested and approved as safe for dogs, so all those dried hooves and baked bones must be fine. Haha wow was I wrong about THAT one.

  3. My dog goes nuts for bully sticks, though these probably fall in your Not-Chew-Toy category as they don't last very long and are very expensive. The only other plain chew I've had any success with have been pig hooves, but I will avoid these now that I know the risk. She'll go for the Kong but only if there's some cheese or peanut butter shoved in the middle, messy enough to keep me from giving it very often.

  4. Yeah, I'd class bully sticks as "not chew toys," although like tendons they're borderline.

    If your dog likes hooves and you've used them successfully for a long time and you don't think it's likely that she'll hurt herself, then I dunno, they might be okay. Plenty of dogs are just fine with them (and antlers, and even hard sterilized bones). I hate to tell somebody to stop doing something that's working for them, because every dog is different.

    But it's true that I wouldn't give hooves to my own dogs.