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Toyland for Pooches: Choosing Safe Playthings a Dog Will Love

Nov 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Karen Shaw Becker
German Shepherd sitting in dog bed surrounded by stuffed toys

Arno/AdobeStock.com

Most healthy dogs retain their love of play throughout their lives. Because canine family members can be loosely compared to perpetual human toddlers, it makes sense that they enjoy playtime no matter their age.

Most dogs are also fascinated, at least temporarily, with toys made just for them. Some love to chase a ball or Frisbee and others like a good game of tug or stuffed toys. Most dogs seem to enjoy playthings that squeak when they bite them, possibly because the noise brings to mind the sound of captured prey, or perhaps because pet parents give their dogs extra attention when they “get their squeak on”. 

Most dogs in the U.S. have lots of toys, and many pet parents practice trial-and-error to determine what type their dog prefers—and which are safest—from a mind-blowing selection of tugs, balls, discs, chews, puzzles, squeaky or stuffed toys and more. Because many pet stores welcome dogs, some pet parents even bring their four-legged family members along and allow them to sniff out their favorites.

It’s important to select a dog’s toys carefully, because not every option is a good choice. For example, some dogs, especially large breeds, tend to rip soft toys apart within seconds to taste-test the stuffing. There are also dogs that can swallow small soft toys whole. A pup’s temperament, size and age all play a role in determining which toys are safe, and there are also considerations based on the toy itself, such as materials used, size, shape and more. 

Potentially Toxic Toys

Pet toys are not regulated, so they can be made with virtually any material. Plastic toys, in particular, can be dangerous, because many contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA). Old or weathered toys such as those left outside leach higher concentrations of harmful chemicals.

While BPA-free toys are available, the toxin may have been replaced with similar—or even more toxic—chemicals, including bisphenol-S (BPS), so “BPA-free” unfortunately isn’t a reliable indicator of toy safety. Other adulterants found in dog toys include heavy metals like lead and formaldehyde.

When looking for new toys, choose those made in the U.S. out of 100 percent natural rubber, organic cotton or other eco-friendly and contaminant-free materials. Try the sniff test. If a toy being considered smells strongly of chemicals, put it back. Testing shows that some tennis balls made for pets contain more contaminants than those made for sports. 

The best toys for pets are usually hand- made by individuals or very small companies and can be found at local farmers’ markets or sold regionally in small, independent pet stores. There’s no plethora of companies that produce 100 percent organic toys, but some great, all-natural toys can be found online.

What Dogs Seem to Prefer

Researchers have discovered that regardless of the type of toy, once a dog is completely familiar with the sight, sound, smell and feel of it, boredom can set in. In addition, we may want to avoid “indestructible” toys the dog can’t make a dent in, because they enjoy toys they can pull apart and destroy, or those that are edible. 

Offering a dog easily destroyed toys isn’t ideal, either, as they may accidently or intentionally ingest some of the non-edible pieces. A good alternative is recreational bones (large, raw chunks of beef and bison femur bones), which are quite enjoyable to most dogs, even though they’re not technically toys. Lick mats that hold a soft food treat are also a great environmental enrichment choice for dogs that tend to destroy toys quickly.

Treat-release puzzle toys, toys meant to be chewed and those that make noise or are edible (like a nontoxic dental bone) can also be good options, while toys that are hard, unyielding and silent will probably not be a big hit.

Don’t underestimate our human ability to stimulate a dog’s interests. A session of playtime—playing fetch, tug-of-war or hide-and-seek—will be far more stimulating to the pup than any toy could be. 


Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker has spent her career empowering animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to extend the life and well-being of their animals


Samia LiamaniUnsplashcom

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