Recognizing safe toys for your dog

Do you know what to look for when buying toys for your canine companion? Here are a few things to consider next time you are out shopping for you dog.

Did you know the average American dog lover spends over a hundred dollars a year on treats and toys? At the same time, though, reports of potential hazards presented by dog toys are mushrooming, partly because there’s no agency overseeing the $40 billion dog toy market. These hazards can include anything from needles left inside stuffed toys to chemical-laden paints and choking dangers. With the holidays approaching, you want to make sure the toys you buy for your companion won’t harm him or make him sick.

Get the lead out

In 2007, Texas lab ExperTox tested four dog toys sold at Wal-Mart. The list of chemicals found in them was quite impressive and included lead, chromium, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. One toy had what the lab described as “elevated levels” of lead – almost one part per million (ppm).

Lead is the toxin dog lovers should be most concerned about, according to Dr. Sharon Gwaltney, Vice President of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center. Lead poisoning can cause abnormal behavior, vomiting, diarrhea, hiding in dark places and convulsions, which in younger dogs might be mistaken for distemper. In chronic form, lead poisoning results in anemia and weight loss. If not treated, it can cause death.

According to the American Pet Products Association, many American manufacturers make their toys in accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s

(CPSC) guidelines for lead content in children’s toys. Products intended for kids can’t contain more than 300 ppm of lead. This is way above the 1 ppm that ExperTox called “elevated levels”.

Although this sounds scary, veterinarian Dr. Steve Marks of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine hasn’t seen even one dog ingest lead via toys in his 20 years of practice. In most cases, dogs get sick after eating or sniffing lead-based paint (which may be applied to some toys), or chewing on scrap metal or leaking batteries. Dr. Gwaltney adds that just because a toy contains lead doesn’t mean it’s dangerous to your dog. “Tests these days are so sensitive that pretty much everything you are going to check will have some tiny amount of lead in it,” she says. “There was a warning on the Internet about 30 ppm of lead in some dog toy. We figured the animal would have to eat a toy like that every day for 16 years to get a dose that would be a problem.”

But what about a pocket-sized dog? Surely what is safe for a ten-year-old child wouldn’t necessarily be okay for a Chihuahua, especially since kids don’t spend the majority of their playtime chewing and licking their toys. “CPSC has built in so many safety margins to their risk assessments that the difference is not going to be significant even if we are talking of a very tiny animal,” says Dr. Gwaltney.

Still, you should be careful when choosing a toy for your dog. Imported products don’t follow CPSC guidelines and some may contain as much as 100 times the amount of lead that’s considered safe. The ones to watch out for are toys with painted surfaces, as it’s the paint that usually contains the lead. If you are worried one of your dog’s toys might have lead in it, purchase a home test kit (the reliable ones require you to take a sample and send it off to a lab).

If the amount of lead found is significant (over 300 ppm) you can ask your vet to test the dog’s blood. Since lead poisoning is not a common disease, your veterinarian might not suspect it right away, even if the dog has all the symptoms. But don’t worry – once treatment begins, the prognosis is good.

Don’t choke

When it comes to safety, think choking hazard. Although tennis balls are a common dog toy, for example, they are often a problem since dogs can chew them in half and try to swallow the bits. The rule of thumb is to know your dog. Don’t give him a new toy and then leave him alone. If he chews tennis balls to pieces you can still give them to him, but monitor him and take the ball away after playtime.

Last but not least – squeakers. If your dog is like mine he will try to get that tiny plastic pouch out of his toy as fast as possible. Once he does, throw the squeaker away. It’s common for dogs to choke on them. In addition, the polyester filling dogs sometimes tear out of plush toys (often in search of the squeaker) is not toxic per se, but if ingested in large amounts it can cause stomach problems, including inflammation. If it causes a blockage, it may even require surgery.

When you go shopping for dog toys, take the accompanying checklist with you. That way, you’ll help ensure the gift you buy for your companion gives him many hours of safe and healthy playtime!

7 steps to safe toys

1) Check where the toy was made. Choose products made in North America or Europe over those mass-produced and imported from other countries, where safety standards are often less stringent.

2) Read labels, check the manufacturer’s website, or call to ask if they test their products for toxicity.

3) Inspect the toy for loose parts and pieces that might easily come off and be a choking hazard.

4) Don’t give children’s toys to dogs. For example, dogs might chew off and choke on the eyes and noses of stuffed animals.

5) Remember – no toy is indestructible. If your dog is an energetic chewer, buy products made of durable materials such as natural rubber.

6) Be size-wise: make sure the toy is not too small for your dog and that he can’t easily swallow it or choke on it. If you have several dogs, base the size of toys you buy on the size of the largest dog.

7) Don’t leave your dog unattended with a new toy.


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