Dangerous materials to look out for in pet toys

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Pet toys are an important part of our furry friends' lives, providing them with enrichment and comfort, and us with lots of entertainment watching them.

When choosing one for your beloved pet, it may be tempting to just grab any toy from the pet store, especially the ones that look cute and fun. However, we must be careful with which toys we buy and let our pets play with, as they almost always end up being chewed. If the toy happens to be made of potentially dangerous materials, this increases the risk of them ingesting nasties.

Read on if you are wondering how to know which pet toys to buy, what dangerous materials are in pet toys, and why they are dangerous. We'll also learn more about the safer materials for pet toys to buy.

Dangerous materials in pet toys

"Pet toys are not strictly regulated in Australia. They can be made from anything the manufacturer wishes to include," explains Dr Nicole Rous, a Melbourne veterinarian and owner of natural pet brand Shy Tiger.

"The recalls that Product Safety Australia announces are more specific to human danger rather than pets," Dr Rous says.

We must be careful about what materials are in the pet toys we buy because pets chew on them. This means they can end up ingesting materials that leak from their toys or inhale chemicals that leach out. 

"Much of our knowledge for pets is extrapolated from human studies, so we don't always have exact figures for toxic threshold levels of chemicals," says Dr Rous. 

Thankfully, vets like Dr Rous can help educate pet owners on the chemicals they need to avoid when considering pet toys. 

These are the top pet toy toxins she educates pet owners about:

  • PVC: Polyvinyl chloride is plastic and often has toxic chemical additives to make it softer such as phthalates.
  • Phthalates: A chemical that can leach out of toys over time and affect organs, including the liver and kidneys (Wooten & Smith, 2013).
  • BPA: BPA is Bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting chemical. Many products are advertised as 'BPA-free,' making it easier to avoid.
  • Lead: Lead is a heavy metal found in many products. At high levels, it can damage multiple organs. The scary thing is that the clinical signs of lead toxicity are common signs that vets see in pets daily. They include lack of appetite, diarrhoea, constipation, anxiety, and muscle spasms. Lead is reasonably high in tennis balls that many dogs like to chew. 
  • Melamine: High levels of melamine ingestion have been linked to kidney failure. Melamine can be used in binding toys and as a fire retardant to stop toys from catching on fire. Some paints and varnishes also contain it. 
  • Arsenic: Arsenic is commonly found when toys have been tested, especially squishy toys. Denmark banned squishy toys containing foam, the ones that look like stress balls, and one of the chemicals was arsenic. Higher ingestion doses can result in vomiting and possibly even death.
  • Bromine: Alternative to chlorine, also commonly used as a fire retardant. High levels can cause digestive and urinary issues.
  • Formaldehyde: High levels can cause respiratory and digestive upset. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring compound but can be made synthetically. It can be found in wood and other building materials.

Choking and intestinal obstruction

"One of the biggest issues from toys is potential choking hazards or intestinal obstruction," says Dr. Rous. "This is more likely than damage from inhaling a chemical from the toy. Regularly inspecting toys for loose parts is imperative for pet owners and reporting to the manufacturer so they can follow up if any issues."

Dr Leigh Davidson, a veterinarian at Your Vet Online, has the following advice for choosing a pet toy to prevent choking hazards or intestinal obstruction:

  • Avoid small toys: These can be easily swallowed or lodged in a pet's throat. 
  • Avoid toys with sharp edges or small parts: This includes string, ribbon, or other parts that could break off and be ingested.
  • Avoid toys that are too hard: These could damage the dog's teeth.
  • Avoid toys that are easily broken or shredded and then consumed: For example, rope toys deteriorate with age, and the dog tears the rope and swallows it. This causes blockages that may require surgery.
  • Avoid materials that grow in size when wet: These can cause blockages. This includes water beads.
  • Avoid squeaky toys: According to Humane Society, "Your dog may feel that they must destroy the source of squeaking. This means they could ingest it if left unwatched."
  • Choose stuffed toys carefully: Check labels on stuffed toys to see they are labelled safe for children under three years old and that they don't contain any dangerous fillings, states the Humane Society. "Problem fillings include nutshells and polystyrene beads, but even "safe" stuffings aren't truly digestible."

How to choose the safest pet toys

Dr. Rous says that although it's near impossible for pet owners to be sure of what is in many pet toys, her general advice is to:

  • Avoid rawhide chews: Hides are washed and whitened using bleach and hydrogen peroxide. In addition, some countries permit arsenic and formaldehyde as part of the preservation process. Glue and synthetic flavourings are also commonly used. Residual chemicals from processing can remain on the rawhide, which can be inhaled or ingested.”
  • Smell the toy: If it has a chemical smell to it, don't buy it. 
  • Choose toys made in Australia: By using Australian companies, it can be easier for us to ask all the questions we need to make an educated decision for our pets.
  • Choose pet toys made from natural materials: Natural rubber and BPA-free food grade silicone are all good options, as are some eco-friendly cotton ropes. Hemp and jute are also great materials. For cats, there are various wool toy options (of course, they need to be supervised too). These same concepts apply to pet toys for birds and pocket pets.
  • Choose tennis balls carefully: "Ensure tennis balls are made from rubber. If unsure, opt for genuine sports tennis balls over dog toy tennis balls," says Jordan Weizman, a Canine Behaviourist, and Trainer at Chilled & Fulfilled.
  • Old laundry: Old laundry, such as t-shirts or towels that are no longer needed, can be very comforting to a dog, especially if the item smells like you, according to the Humane Society. Just ensure it's something you don't need, as there is a high chance of it being destroyed, and be sure to supervise your pet with these items at all times.
Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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