When your dog settles down with a chew toy, he's not only exercising his jaws and cleaning his teeth—he's getting a mental workout too. "Dogs explore the world with their mouths—they get into a chew like a person gets into a good book," which benefits their brains, explains Kristen Collins, an animal behaviorist from the ASPCA behavior team. Not only will plenty of supervised chew time keep your pooch engaged, it will help stop him from turning to less appealing objects (such as your TV remote) to satisfy his gnawing needs.
Yet with dozens of options in every toy aisle, picking the right chew can be overwhelming—and health concerns abound. Vets are concerned not only about a dog biting off and swallowing pieces of these toys but also with the dangers of the toxic chemicals some are made of. In an industry not directly regulated by the government (see below), it's up to you to make the best choice. Let the nibbling begin!
The Problem with Plastic
Many chew toys are made from polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or vinyl—a cheaply manufactured rubbery plastic. While the texture may be ideal for chewing, what lurks inside is not: The chemicals that give this plastic its chewy quality are known as phthalates. According to one Danish study that examined the effects of these on pets, the grinding, heat, and moisture associated with chewing breaks down the plastics, depositing phthalates into your dog's body and increasing his risk of liver, kidney, and reproductive problems.
Tough plastic bones are another pitfall. A good test: Dig your fingernail into the toy. If you can't make a dent, it's not safe. Puppies and seniors need even softer surfaces than this for their more tender gums.
How To Play It Safe: Vinyl toys don't carry a warning label. So look for toys designated "phthalate free," a claim that is government regulated, or check with the manufacturer. Planet Dog's Orbee-Tuff RecycleBone ($12; planetdog.com) is not only made without phthalates but also uses FDA-certified nontoxic dye. For a superchewer who rips toys in minutes, try Honest Pet Products Eco-Fetcher ($9 to $16; honestpetproducts.com). The dye-and chemical-free ultradurable hemp is soft enough for any dog but tough enough to take serious chomping.
Beware of Bones
Rawhides may seem like a natural choice, but don't be fooled: This animal skin is often put through processing that involves dozens of chemicals, including bleach for color, before hitting stores. They also can break into small pieces that are a choking hazard. Fresh bones from the butcher have drawbacks too—biting the hard exterior can crack teeth, and sucking marrow can cause pancreatitis.
How To Play It Safe: Try Kong Classic ($7 to $23; pet stores)—the nontoxic, natural-rubber cone has a hole for stuffing treats, food, or peanut butter (which can echo finding marrow in a bone). For more chewing time, add food and then freeze.
A too-small toy is too easy to choke on. Before you buy, look for sizing guidelines by weight on packaging. If none are listed, watch your dog's yawn, when his throat is opened wide, and opt for a toy at least 10% larger.
How To Play It Safe: For an ultradurable option with two sizes, we love the nontoxic formulation of West Paw Design's Huck ball ($10 to $14; westpawdesign.com).
There's no government organization that oversees the manufacturing of chew toys. "Big retailers—PetSmart, Walmart, Petco, etc.—set their own standards for filling their shelves," explains Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Product Association. While each retailer is different, most regulations are strict, often mimicking those for children's toys. If you have questions about a store's policy, ask before you buy.
Brain Games For Kitty
One of the worst hazards for today's indoor cats is a lack of stimulation, says Barbara Sherman, DVM and behavior specialist at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine. To get your cat's neurons firing, add 5 to 10 minutes, once or twice daily, of these new, high-tech options.
Tablet Toys: Friskies has launched three interactive games available as free apps for iPad or Android tablets. Load them and watch your cat paw at colors, fish, and birds racing across the screen (without damaging your tablet). For more, check out gamesforcats.com.
Laser Swat: Hold the FroliCat Bolt in your hand or place it on a flat surface and watch as your cat swipes, pounces, and chases the exciting laser patterns. This toy will automatically shut off after 15 minutes ($20; frolicat.com).