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Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

Your local source for news and tips about dogs, cats and other critters, featuring fun videos, reader photos, Q&As and more.

April 27, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Veterinary Q&A: What dogs can safely chew

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Dr. Debbie Barton, a Spokane veterinarian who also works at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, is answering this week's question.


Question: Dogs can chew the darnedest things, especially when they are pups. There are many alternatives out there, -- i.e., Greenies, Nylabone®, soup bones, pig's ears, bully sticks, rawhide chews -- but we've also heard horror stories about their use. They're dangerous, deadly in fact. They smell. They can get caught in a dog's throat or intestinal tract. They're messy. What can dog owners safely give pets to chew? Which products should they steer clear of? What are good alternatives specifically for teething dogs or young animals?

Answer: The following guidelines are designed to help you make good decisions regarding chew-toy safety for your puppies and adult dogs.

Because each pet is an individual with unique needs and behaviors, there is no one toy or routine appropriate for all. Supervision and good judgment in toy selection are the keys. Your veterinarian is there to help you make these choices and answer any questions to help keep your pet safe and healthy.

-- Chewing, in general, is a natural and satisfying activity for most dogs. The buildup of dental plaque and tartar can be decreased (not eliminated), energy can be constructively vented and attention can be diverted from more destructive activities.

-- Discretion in the selection of "chew toys" and supervision of the chewing process is important to maintaining health and safety for dogs. In general, toys should be of a size, either new or partially chewed, that cannot pose a choking hazard. Anything less should be discarded when it reaches a dangerous size.

--Toy selection should be made according to each individual dog's behavior. Some are more enthusiastic than others in their approach to chewing.

-- Rawhide chew toys are particularly popular. Those with "knots" on the ends are more risky, as these tantalizing knobs can be chewed off and swallowed whole. Better to offer the long "rolled" rawhide chews and again discard when they are short enough to swallow. Although rawhide "chewies" are advertised as digestible, if swallowed in large pieces they may cause internal organ damage before completely digested.

-- Dogs chewing on plush dog toys need to be monitored to prevent ingestion of the fiberfill stuffing and squeakers. These toys are best used for retrieving games, in which the owner is actively involved in the play and can set the toy aside in a safe place when done.

-- A Nylabone® can be a good "chew resistant" option for puppies and dogs because they can be purchased in a variety of sizes, shapes, and textures. In general, they are more resistant to destructive chewing, although the possibility still remains. I have had owners tell me that their pooch's Nylabone® lasted less than an hour.

-- The content of chew toys is important in relation to safety. Any toy that can splinter (made of wood) or unravel (rope toys) is potentially dangerous. I have had to sedate canine patients to remove wooden splinters that have worked their way under the gum line, causing pain and infection. I also have had dogs present with strands of a rope toy stuck between teeth, or wadded up into a ball ready to be swallowed. Again, I'm not saying "never," but always with supervision. These toys should be stowed away when the owner cannot be present.

-- Natural bones can be offered with guidelines in place. "Knuckle bones," which are actually the ends of the long beef bones forming joint surfaces, are covered with joint cartilage. This "covering" is soft and spongy and does not pose a danger to the integrity of a dog's teeth. Once this covering has been chewed off, however, a more brittle bone surface is exposed that can cause trauma to the dog's mouth or become splintered in pieces that could be swallowed. In addition, some knuckle bones have a significant amount of fat still attached, and this can cause digestive problems, including pancreatitis, which can be serious or even fatal.

-- "Short-muzzled" (brachycephalic) breeds such as bulldogs and pugs have a smaller pharynx (mouth cavity) anatomically. However, this does not compromise their attraction to tantalizing chew toys. Some of these dogs attempt to chew too quickly, accumulating "chewie" fragments in the back of the throat. This can pose a choking hazard and even risk for aspiration. Rawhide toys and Greenies are among the many toys that can present these dangers.

-- It is true that some toys contain flavoring and dyes that can stain carpeting and clothes. For some families this is a concern, especially if young children will likely be handling the toys as well.

-- The smell of some toys can be offensive to owners, but there are plenty of others that are odor-free, at least until they have been "in use" for a while.

-- Young, teething puppies are naturally attracted to chewing activity. General chewing guidelines apply, being careful to choose toys that are the appropriate size for each stage of the growing puppy's formative weeks. Softer, more pliable toys are recommended, as deciduous (puppy) teeth are more delicate than adult dog teeth.

-- Chew toys can be incorporated into positive-reinforcement training programs as an incentive and/or reward to praise desirable behaviors for both puppies and adult dogs.

SUPERVISION and good judgment are the keys to "chew toy" safety. Your veterinarian is there to help you with all your pet health-care questions. Don't hesitate to ask what is best for YOUR pet family members.

Dr. Debbie Barton

Barton practices small-animal medicine and surgery at the SouthCare Animal Medical Center in Spokane and the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She graduated from WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979. She has worked in private veterinary practice for 30 years. Her special interests are general small-animal practice, and she is part of the organizational leadership team for veterinary students at WSU.

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Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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