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Be Choosy About Your Dog’s Chews

The number of chew choices today are mind boggling—and not all of them are safe


Dogs chew. They chew to eat, they chew to play, they chew out of boredom, and they chew as puppies when they are teething. They are equal-opportunity chewers—enjoying soft things like pillows, medium chewables like shoes, and hard items like furniture or even truck tires. Few dogs don’t enjoy chewing as a pastime.

Dog owners are constantly searching for safe chew items that satisfy their dogs’ instincts, keep their homes and possessions safe, and last for longer than five minutes. That can be a tough order, especially with big dogs.

Any chew that is indigestible presents the risk of harm to your dog. If pieces can be chewed or cracked off, your dog may swallow them and end up with a perforation of his bowel or an intestinal obstruction. On the other hand, soft, easily swallowed chew items may pile up in the stomach, cause vomiting, and may not satisfy your dog’s urge to chew.

Here you’ll learn about different chews you may encounter and our advice on what we like and don’t like—and things you should be aware of when you choose a chew for your dog.

1. Sticks

Sticks may be dangerous to dogs. Photography by pavlinas / Shutterstock.

Although sticks are a natural item for your dog to pick up on walks and carry or chew on, wood pieces aren’t digestible. Plus, some wood is toxic, such as black walnut. A dog running with a stick who stumbles may puncture his mouth. And splinters can get lodged in the gums.

2. Bones

Fresh, raw bones have long been thought of as the ideal dog-chew item. After all, they are natural and chewing on them may help your dog’s dental hygiene. However, Rule No. 1 is to only use fresh bones. Cooked bones are hard and brittle. They are more likely to cause a broken tooth or a problem with sharp shards of chipped bone irritating the intestinal wall. Marrow bones need to be long enough that a dog won’t get one caught over his jaw. (Warning: The amount of fat in a long marrow bone could contribute to pancreatitis.) Knuckle bones, such as the end of the humerus or femur, can be chewed down and may be safer. See “Caution: Packaged Bone Treats” in our February 2018 issue.

3. Antlers

Although antlers are often clumped with bones as chew items for dogs, they aren’t the same. Certainly, dried and aged antlers can be as hard as bones and can result in injured teeth. If you choose to let your dog chew antlers, look for cut-up antlers with much of the “spongy” inside available. It won’t actually be soft and spongy, as it has dried, but those areas aren’t as hard for a dog to chew and are less likely to lead to broken teeth.

4. Rawhides

These popular chews may be processed using chemicals that could be dangerous for dogs. Only use rawhides made in the USA, due to potential disease problems. But rawhides are not without problems. Many dogs have trouble digesting rawhide, especially if they swallow a large piece. Obstruction can result.

Pressed rawhide won’t last as long and may be safer for your dog (more digestible), but the ingredients used to hold the rawhide bits together may not be healthy or safe. Again, look for that “Made in America” labeling. Avoid rawhide products that are dyed. Many dyes are not safe for pets. The same is true of many added flavorings. If you’re going to choose rawhide, go with plain rawhide, made in the United States. Note: Some rawhides with anti-tartar coatings may help with home dental care.

5. Hooves, Feet, and Ears

If you attend a dog event with vendors, you’re bound to see boxes of “animal parts” offered as possible chew items for dogs. Cow hooves and duck feet are cleaned and dried for use as dog chews, but both can be brittle and provide small pieces that may irritate the intestines. Lamb ears are suitable for puppies and small dogs, with larger dogs enjoying cow ears. However, pig ears are often quite fatty and may cause digestive problems.

6. Bully Sticks

These are the dried muscle of a bull penis. Bully sticks can be enjoyable chews but often have an unpleasant odor and a big calorie load, so they are not ideal for a dog who is dieting. Occasionally, dogs will swallow a long piece, which can cause some problems.

7. Tracheas

These popular chew items may provide some support for joint health (they contain glucosamine) as well as provide a chewing outlet. Some tracheas will be fatty, but most are safe for most dogs. Lamb tracheas work well for smaller dogs and puppies while larger dogs enjoy cow tracheas. Note: Tracheas should be free of all tissue, such as from the thyroid gland. Ingesting bits of a thyroid could release thyroid hormones in your dog. Over time, this could cause hypothyroidism, which can be harmful to your dog.

8. Dehydrated Meat

These can be excellent chews for dogs, as long as there are no added spices or flavorings. You can simply dehydrate plain slices of meat. Try to avoid getting the meat to a brittle state. Always practice good food hygiene in making and storing any meat products.

9. Manufactured Chews

Hard nylon and plastic chews can work for some dogs. Some of these products are considered edible or will be of a softer consistency for puppies. Again, look for products made in the United States.

However, you need to know that these chews can develop sharp edges and points that may cause some bleeding from damage to the sensitive tissues of the mouth. When they reach that point, these chews should be removed and thrown away.

Nylabones and Gumabones come in a variety of sizes and consistencies. There are even flavored edible versions available. The company offers a chew-style guide with ratings for their chews at www.nylabone.com/dog101/nylabone-chewstyle-guidelines.

Rope toys can amuse many dogs and help floss teeth, however, you need to remove these toys as soon as your dog starts to break off pieces of fiber. These fibers could be swallowed and cause intestinal damage. These toys work well for supervised games of fetch and tug.

Kong chews are a huge favorite in the dog world. These hard-rubber chews come in various sizes, shapes, and strengths. Because many of these chew toys have a hole at one end, they can be used as food-dispenser toys as well as simple chew items.

Dog owners may also “stuff a Kong” to provide more amusement for their dogs while they are away at work. Kongs can be frozen, along with their stuffing, to take your dog even longer to enjoy his treat and to cool off in hot weather. Although there have been accounts of dogs getting a Kong stuck on their jaws, they are otherwise considered safe.

10. Warning: Ice Cubes

Most dogs love ice cubes in warm or hot weather. However, ice cubes are quite hard and may contribute to cracked teeth. Instead of giving them ice right from the freezer, use partially melted ice cubes or put ice cubes in your dog’s water bowl.

What You Should Know

There are no 100 percent totally safe dog chews—concerns include broken or cracked teeth and intestinal irritation or blockage Keep these criteria in mind when choosing the best chew for your individual dog:

  1. You should be able to slightly indent most chew items (obviously this does not work for fresh bones).
  2. Consider the calorie count in any edible chews.
  3. Chew items should not be left with your dog without some supervision.
  4. Make sure any chew items that involve animal products or flavorings are compatible for your pet, for instance, no chicken-flavored chews for a dog with chicken allergies.
  5. The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) does not recommend cow hooves, dried natural bones, or hard nylon products because they are too hard and do not mimic the effect of a dog tearing meat off a carcass. These hard products are associated with broken teeth or damaged gums.

Bottom Line on Dog Chews

There is no one always-safe chew for us to recommend. You must be aware of the potential hazards of each type.

Always monitor your dog while he is chewing, and be sure he has plenty of fresh, clean water nearby. If you have to leave, remove the chew from his reach.With any chew, choking can occur in a matter of minutes. Your ultimate choice of the right chew depends upon your dog’s size, health, and preferences.

Thumbnail: Photography by schubbel / Shutterstock.

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