Choosing the right toys for your pet

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Can’t anything be easy? There are a million toys on the shelf at the pet store, and you feel like you’ve been warned about every single one of them. This one has a squeaker, which you heard is a choking hazard. Your cousin’s dog got an intestinal blockage from rawhide, so that’s out. Pretty much everything on that next shelf was made in China and can’t be trusted. If the Internet is to be believed, this is basically a store full of death traps.

But toys are an important part of caring for pets. They help alleviate boredom, provide an appropriate outlet for destructive behavior and often serve as a focal point for interactions with us. They aren’t optional.

The problem is that nearly any toy can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Let’s face it, dogs aren’t dainty creatures. They often interact with things by utterly destroying them, which means nearly anything can be reduced to a choking hazard in time. You need to account for your dog’s individual habits when trying to select the right toys. Does he ruthlessly eviscerate stuffed animals within moments of purchase, or is he more likely to tote one proudly around the house for the next six months?

The warnings you’ve heard aren’t incorrect, but they should be taken in context. So long as play is supervised, you can intervene if a squeaker gets dislodged or rawhide gets chewed down to inappropriate size. Sure, you could just place these toys on a strict no-fly list, but that may be unnecessarily limiting. Some dogs are really excited by toys with squeakers, and rawhides (and other similar alternatives) can help keep teeth clean. These kinds of toys have their place if you keep an eye on how they’re being used.

If you’re looking for toys to keep your dog busy when supervision isn’t possible (which is important to prevent boredom in your absence), it’s better to stick to simpler, sturdier options. Hefty rope toys and solid rubber balls can withstand a good beating, and are safer choices in those circumstances. Even then, check for wear and tear on a regular basis. It’s wise to replace them when they grow battle-worn.

Cats are a bit less likely to swallow every single thing they can cram past their teeth, but they aren’t immune to the concern. Because their toys tend to be delicate contraptions with feathers, ribbons and tiny bells, they can be trouble once dismantled. String is particularly vicious when swallowed by cats, capable of slicing right through the intestine. So while that fishing pole toy is a great way of playing with your cat, it’s best to tuck it safely away before you leave the house. And if you live in a mixed-species household, keep in mind that cat toys are often small enough to be choking hazards to dogs.

As for worries about dangerous toys from foreign markets, I’m afraid you can only follow your own judgment. The pet toy industry is woefully unregulated, and there is no agency monitoring safety or durability, so we are left to trust manufacturers and retailers to set their own standards. If a toy looks suspiciously cheap, flimsy or otherwise questionable, it’s probably best to leave it on the rack and go with something familiar.

All that said, toys are supposed to be about fun, not stress. Keep your eyes peeled for unique new ways to interact with your pets. Just like us, animals get bored of the same thing all the time and like to be surprised. Instead of leaving every toy lying around every day, a rotating selection of different shapes, sounds, sizes and textures can keep things feeling fresh and interesting. Puzzle toys that hide secrets (usually of the edible variety) can be more mentally engaging than simple chew toys.

It’s good to think about safety when you go toy shopping for pets, but there’s no need to be paralyzed by those concerns. Take a moment to consider how your pet will interact with whatever you’re holding, and then get back to imagining how much fun you’ll both have once you get home.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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