Toxic Pet Toys?? 13 Steps to Choosing Safe Toys for your pet

Could toys be poisoning my pet?

You may have heard some talk recently about the questionable safety of pet toys. "Questionable safety?" Really?!? Is it possible that the toys we buy our beloved companions may be harming them?

I tend to be cautious about creating unnecessary panic when it comes to things like this; but it does behoove us to “check out the chatter,” so to speak, so we can make wise decisions. We all love our pets and want to enjoy their companionship for a long time. If anything is harming them, we want to know!

Are our pets’ toys harmful? Even toxic?  After doing some research, here’s my answer: Undoubtedly. At least some of them are, primarily because of the chemicals they contain. The good news is that there are simple steps we can take to avoid the worst offenders.

While the information in this article is valuable for owners of any species of pet, we will refer primarily to dogs for reasons you will see shortly.

Let's look briefly at two of the chemicals that cause the most concern, and then we’ll give you lots of ideas for avoiding the dangers of pet toys.

There’s LEAD in my pet’s toys??

We all know about the dangers of lead poisoning in children, but what about our pets? Do any of their toys contain enough lead to do them any harm?

While there are no studies that directly link lead in dog toys to canine-related health issues, researchers often use "acceptable" levels of lead in children's toys as a guideline. In 2009 the Ecology Center picked up “detectable levels of lead” in about 100 of the 400 products they tested, some higher than the level considered safe for children’s toys. Others have referred to “alarming levels” of lead found in hundreds of pet products.

Amazingly, the seemingly innocuous tennis ball, a favorite plaything for dogs, emerged as a prime culprit. Not only did 48 percent of those tested show detectable levels of lead; but it was the balls made specifically for pets that were most likely to contain lead! Lettering, which wears off over time and ends up in your pet’s stomach, was especially toxic.

Should this concern us as parents of pets? Dr. Saldar Kahn, director of Toxicology Research at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, says yes. Like young children, dogs put toys in their mouths; but unlike young children, dogs exhibit this behavior over their entire lifetime, not just a couple of years. This makes dogs particularly vulnerable to long-term effects of lead.  To be safe, says Dr. Kahn, we should simply avoid toys that contain lead.

What's so bad about VINYL??

“Vinyl” is the common name for polyvinyl chloride or PVC. It’s a cheap, versatile plastic material, and it’s everywhere. Every one of us uses, wears or plays with vinyl every day, as it’s in everything from golf balls, alarm clocks and raincoats to shower curtains, handbags, appliances, and flooring. It has even been found in house dust.

And, of course, it’s in pet toys.

By itself, vinyl is relatively safe; but in its natural state, it's too hard and brittle to be suitable for most products. It needs additives to soften it up, and it’s those additives that cause the greatest concern.

One of those additives, phthalates, can be highly toxic. There are six phthalates normally added to vinyl that are dangerous enough to have been banned in the European Union for use in children’s toys and childcare products.

Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that these phthalates can cause severe health problems, affecting kidney, liver and reproductive function and even affecting babies in the womb and young children.

According to The Whole Dog Journal, certain dog behaviors make them particularly vulnerable to the dangers of phthalates. Chewing, salivating, inhaling vinyl fumes, and ingesting and thereby digesting pieces of vinyl all increase dogs' exposure to these toxins.

We all know dogs can chew on a toy for extended periods of time; and it’s precisely that combination of the repetitive chewing motion and saliva that speed up the release of phthalates. Pups, whose bodies are still developing, are especially vulnerable.

TOXIC TOYS – What’s a pet parent to do??

First of all, don’t panic; but do learn how to avoid the most toxic of toys. In other words, get savvy! Know what’s toxic and what isn’t and buy accordingly.

Pet toys often appeal to the owner but may not be safe for the pet.
Pet toys often appeal to the owner but may not be safe for the pet.

Here are 13 pieces of advice from experts to keep in mind when shopping for pet toys:

  1. Keep in mind that toys are marketed to the pet parent, not the pet. Resist the temptation to buy simply because a toy is cute or cool or fits your idea of fun.
  2. USA-made toys are more likely to have fewer chemicals than those from other countries, particularly China. However, there are no safety regulations for toys in the US, so it’s up to you to choose wisely.
  3. Make like your dog and sniff first. A strong chemical smell indicates, well, chemicals! So move on.
  4. Bright colors may contain toxic ingredients, which can either flake off or be ingested when dampened with saliva.
  5. Any surface coating or printing that can scrape off should be avoided.
  6. Toys with fire retardant or stain guard probably contain a host of chemicals, including formaldehyde. Foam fillings are especially suspect.
  7. Check the label. Companies committed to toys that are safe, natural, and eco-friendly will say so. If you’re not sure the ingredients have been tested for safety, give the company a call.
  8. Avoid toys with a single air hole. This seemingly harmless feature can become a “suction trap” that can be deadly.
  9. Rope toys can also appear harmless, but if they come apart, dangerous shards of rope may end up in your dog’s intestines.
  10. Stay away from all vinyl, which usually takes the form of soft plastic.
  11. Rubber toys need to be durable so they don’t fall apart with vigorous chewing, sending pieces to your dog’s stomach. Look for natural rubber.
  12. Size matters. If a toy is small enough to reach the back of your dog’s mouth, it can become a chock hazard.
  13. If your old toys are falling apart, get rid of them!

SAFE TOYS -- How do I find them?

There are lots of pet toy companies out there you can trust. Be aware, however, that there are also those who have jumped on the “safe and natural” bandwagon who are neither! Follow the guidelines above, do your own due diligence (e.g. call the manufacturer) and look for specific materials like organic cotton and wool, bamboo, natural rubber and hemp.

To get you started, here's just a handful of companies that are committed to making truly safe and natural toys and accessories for pets. The bonus, of course, is that their products, and their manufacturing processes, are also eco-friendly.

  • Simply Fido has adorable soft toys made from organic cotton. They're eco-friendly and tested for safety for all ages of pets. When it comes to color, they use only eco-friendly, low-impact, or "fiber-reactive," dyes -- these dyes use less water, create less waste, and are much less apt to contaminate the environment.
  • Olive Green Dog touts their New Zealand wool and organic catnip, vegetable dyes and fair trade products. They also have pottery pet bowls with lead-free glaze.
  • Kong Company has tough, nearly indestructible toys made from natural rubber.
  • West Paw Design offers tough toys, too, made from Zogoflex which they claim to be nontoxic and free of phthalates and a host of other chemicals. They also use recycled bottles to make really fluffy fluff for their soft toys.
  • All Natural Dog sells dog beds with organic fabrics covers and foam filling free of flame retardants. (I know. Beds aren’t toys, but dogs do spend a lot of time lying on them and burying their noses in them!)
  • Earthdog specializes in hemp products, from toys and beds to collars and leashes.  Their tough hemp canvas toys are stuffed with recycled poly-cotton.
  • From the Field offers dog and cat toys made from organic hemp and organic catnip.

Play time with your pet should be a safe time!  Our pets add richness and comfort to our lives, and we owe it to them to take care when choosing their toys. So let's get serious about finding safe, non-toxic toys! Our pets will thank us.

PurSpray Pet Care is committed to healthy pets, healthy people and a healthy planet. Our one product, PurSpray, has just two ingredients, no toxic chemicals at all, and is both an effective skin, eye and ear treatment and a general cleaner.  See what our customers have to say!

SOURCES: ("Toys and Toxicity," by Julia Szabo) ("Choosing Safe Dog Toys," Sheila Pell; "Beware of Lead and Toxic dog Toys," Lisa McCormick) ("The Dangers of VInyl Dog Toys," Susan Weinstein) ("Seven Deadly Dangers of Dog Toys")