Bones and chew toys
Chew toys can be great for many reasons. They alleviate boredom, give a pet something to focus on, and can be a nice treat or reward. Chew toys can be firm or soft, and some may be safe for consumption. There are so many different types of chew toys on the market, and it’s tough to determine what is safe for your pet. In general, there are many risks associated with giving bones or hard chew toys to pets. It is important to be aware of these risks so you can choose safe toys and treats for your pet.
The purported benefits
Many chew toys and bones are marketed for supporting oral health. Some pet parents believe that chewing on bones and other hard objects is a natural way to help prevent plaque and tartar. However, there is limited scientific evidence to support this. On the contrary, there is actually much more evidence showing risks associated with feeding these products.
Many raw products are sold as chew toys. This includes things like bones, antlers, hooves, and bully sticks, among many other popular treats. Raw animal products are notorious for carrying pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and parasites. This is one of the most important reasons for avoiding raw products. Bacteria and other pathogens can live in the pet’s saliva, in their food dishes, on their skin, and in their bedding, and can be shed in their feces and urine. Any animals or humans that have contact with a pet who eats (or chews on) raw products are at risk of contracting these pathogens. This is especially significant for young, elderly, ill, or immunocompromised animals and humans, because their immune systems are not capable of fighting these pathogens, and they often succumb to disease.
For more information about the dangers associated with raw products, see Raw diets.
An important concern for pets who chew on hard objects is tooth fractures. Most dogs chew too long and too hard on these toys, even when supervised. This results in tooth fractures which can have varying degrees of severity. Surprisingly, you may never even know your pet has broken a tooth, because they can hide pain so well. Complicated tooth fractures will need to be removed by a veterinarian under general anesthesia, which can be an expensive procedure. A general rule of thumb is: if you cannot make an impression on the toy/chew with your fingernail, it is unsafe for your pet to chew on.
Bones and hard chew toys can have sharp points that can cause lacerations, or cuts, in your pet’s digestive tract. This starts in the mouth, where you may (or may not) notice bleeding of the gums, lips, or tongue. If these products are swallowed, they can tear the esophagus, stomach, and intestines as well. These lacerations may cause bloody saliva, vomit, or diarrhea.
Pieces or even whole bones and chews can become stuck in different parts of your pet’s digestive system. Pieces of these products can get stuck between the teeth, around the jaw, or across the roof of the mouth. When stuck in the mouth, these pieces will contribute to bacterial overgrowth, leading to bad breath and declining oral health. Many times, objects stuck in the oral cavity need to be removed surgically.
If swallowed, these products can also cause obstructions or blockages in the pet’s esophagus, stomach, or intestines. This is known as a foreign body obstruction, which can be life-threatening, and surgery is usually required to retrieve the object.
If swallowed, these products can also cause severe digestive upset. Vomiting and diarrhea are two obvious problems, and they may also contain blood. Another issue is pancreatitis, which can be caused by fatty products like bully sticks or pig ears. Pancreatitis can be a life-threatening condition, and can lead to behavioral changes, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Safer chew toys
There are many other toys on the market that are much safer than hard chew toys or raw products. This includes softer products like rubber chew toys or balls. Products that can be indented with a fingernail are safest for pets’ teeth and overall health. However, ensure your pet is always supervised when playing with any type of toy, as they may be able to bite off pieces and swallow them, leading to some issues discussed above.
Safer ways to manage oral health
There are many ways you can proactively keep up with your pet’s oral health, without the risks associated with bones and hard chew toys. This includes toothbrushing, feeding veterinary dentist–approved dental diets or treats, or using other scientifically proven products such as water additives or dental wipes. For more information, visit The importance of oral health.
Tufts University: “Five Ways to Keep Your Pet’s Teeth Healthy”
Tufts University: “What are the best foods and treats for my pet’s dental health?”
Veterinary Partner: “Dental Home Care for Dogs and Cats”
Veterinary Partner: “Toothbrushing and Dental Prophylaxis in Cats and Dogs”
VOHC: “Accepted Products”