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Is Rawhide Dangerous for Dogs?

After a few years of my dog's habit of rawhide chews, I noticed a problem.

 |  Nov 1st 2013  |   28 Contributions


My dogs like to chew and so I need to give them options other than my shoes and other belongings. Rawhide chews of various sorts are cheap and widely available. They are made from the inner layer of beef hides, often after a number of cleaning, bleaching, and flavoring processes.

Rawhide is often made into a bone shape with a knot on each end, and I had been buying these chews for quite a while, without even considering that they might be dangerous for. But then...

Avon’s incident

I had been giving my dog rawhide chews not just for one or two years, but for eight years before I first noticed a problem. It was late at night and I heard a sound like the vacuum cleaner makes when I accidentally suck up a plastic bag. My dog was pawing at his nose, and when I opened his mouth, a soggy rawhide was stuck to the roof of his mouth and sucked partway down his throat. I needed to actually reach my fingers into his throat to pull it out.

I considered this a freak accident. After all, he had been chewing rawhide for a long time, and nothing like this had ever happened before. But then a few weeks later, the exact same thing happened again. So rawhide chews were permanently off the menu for Avon. But it made me wonder: was this an isolated incident? Was this just a case of my dog having a weird and dangerous habit of chewing his rawhide into a choking hazard, or are these products potentially dangerous to other dogs?

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A dog's gotta chew on something -- naughty dog by April Turner / Shutterstock

While there do not seem to be any published studies or clinical reports, there are certainly online accounts of people whose dogs experienced adverse effects from using rawhide chews. Reading some of these stories was absolutely heart-breaking. In some cases, the cause of the problem took a while to diagnose and the dog did not make it.

What can go wrong?

Some dogs were like Avon and chewed on the entire sheet until it became soft and created a choking hazard. Other dogs had swallowed large enough pieces of the rawhide to cause a blockage in their digestive track. This can lead to expensive surgery, or worse.

Other owners worry that the processing of the hide uses various chemicals that might linger in the product, or that rawhides can become breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria. And as rawhide is not very digestible, if a dog eats a lot of it, it can lead to less serious but still unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea.

It certainly seems that some rawhide products are less dangerous than others, such as fresher products that are organic or locally made.

Supervised use

The answer many manufacturers and retailers give to any potential problems is that their products should be used under supervision. But seriously, how realistic is this? In a choking situation, the intervention involves sticking your hand right into the dog’s mouth (which is not a safe activity for the human or the dog). For internal blockages, supervision will probably not make any difference. And optimally, I want something my dog can chew while I am out.

But what you can do is see how your dog tends to use the rawhide, whether she creates soggy sheets or swallows pieces large enough to potentially cause a blockage. Dogs showing these risky behaviors should probably not be given rawhide.

Replacement products

A precautionary approach is to provide chews that can’t be transformed into sheets or large pieces (or splinters or other hazardous fragments). For example: chipped and pressed rawhide, Nylabones, stuffed bones, and Kongs.

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What should I choose? -- dog bones by wonlopcolors / Shutterstock

So, is rawhide that dangerous?

There are two way to answer this question. One is: is rawhide dangerous for my dog Avon? The answer to that is clearly yes. There is no way he will be getting any more rawhide sheets in any shape or form. But are they generally speaking, dangerous for a lot of dogs or for the average dog?

I am not entirely sure. There are a lot of stories online saying that this or that is dangerous for dogs. Some strike me as false, like the great Swiffer scare. Chatter among pet lovers suggested Swiffer cleaning fluids contain ethylene glycol (they don’t), and that they can kill dogs when they walk on a surface treated with the fluids. I suspect this was a rumor that arose from a coincidence where someone was using Swiffer fluids and had their dog fall ill. Yet this connection is still widely reported as fact by dog owners across the internet.

The connection between blockages and objects is much more direct. But dogs are found with various items in their throats and intestines like bones and fishhooks (underwear, string, or just about anything). There is no item small enough to be swallowed that has not at some point caused a health problem for a dog. So, it is hard to know if rawhide is particularly hazardous. Reviews of foreign bodies removed from dogs still show that bones top the list and rawhides are relatively rare given that they seem to be a popular product.

If I do a similar search for other chews like Greenies, I find similar stories. But I still give my dogs Greenies, and I don’t think it does them any harm. So I have basically replaced a chew product some people think is dangerous for some other chew products that other people think are equally dangerous. So is it a case where some things are safe for some dogs, and pretty much nothing is safe for all dogs?

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Biting things always comes with a risk -- biting puppy by Steven Mann / Shutterstock

That kinds of leaves me with advice so basic it hardly seems worth giving: keep an eye on how your dog uses chews, and only give them stuff that seems to be safe for them. Most dogs are going to chew stuff, and no option is going to be both completely effective and completely safe for every dog. But based purely on anecdotal reports, I don’t think I can say rawhides are generally hazardous.

But I'm curious: has anyone else had the same problem as me, or had problems with other chew toys?

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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin -- they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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