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Santa needs a Valium; Search for non-toxic pet toys leads to nervous breakdown

Santa’s slavish devotion to selecting only the safest pet toys and treats is starting to catch up with him. Worn to a frazzle from searching for safe pet toys and treats — scrupulously vetting each one to make sure that none of them were made with dangerous chemicals or materials — Santa’s nerves are shattered.

With the ever-increasing global market economy, Santa’s job gets harder and harder each year. But what really blows Santa’s mind is, not the vast number of globally sourced goods, but that there is not a single U.S. regulatory agency that oversees pet toy safety.

When he did ask for help years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM) sent him on a wild goose chase. He recalls what happened:

“In the past, we used to send [people] to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but we’ve since found out that they don’t have anything to do with it either,” said Laura Alvey, spokeswoman for the FDA/CVM “Not everything that is made in the U.S. or manufactured here has a government regulatory agency oversight, and this just happens to be an area that doesn’t.”

When Santa asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for advice, they told him that the agency is not asking to regulate pet products or to create uniform, mandatory industry standards; and that Federal regulators only get involved if an item injures a human. In its history, the Commission has never recalled a pet toy because it was deemed hazardous.

“We do not have jurisdiction over pet toys or pet products,” said Scott Wolfson, the Commission spokesman told Santa. “Our jurisdiction would only come into play if we found that a pet toy or pet product was causing physical harm to the owner.”

Santa already knew the pet industry was unlikely to seek mandatory federal guidelines, but when Santa heard what Robert Vetere, the president of the American Pet Products Association (APPA) said, he nearly had an apoplectic fit:

“You never invite yourself to be handcuffed and regulated,” Mr. Vetere said, but was later quoted saying, “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t you dare regulate us,’ we are asking people to take a look at what we already have done voluntarily and then we will chat.”

Santa was livid. He realized that what it boils down to is, not only does industry balk at regulation, but that no agency has the authority to ask for a recall, even if a pet product has been shown to be defective. Worse, that the design and testing protocols of pet toys are set by the companies themselves.

What made Santa sick was he knew that oversight could prevent injuries to pets, especially from products made by companies that focus on the bottom line rather than the safety of animals. He also knew that a lot of manufacturers don’t understand or care how pets play with toys, and consequently, some of them can be dangerous.

When a poorly designed toy breaks and injures a child, parents can push for a recall through federal safety regulators. But, when a dog or cat is hurt or killed by a pet toy or they lose a few IQ points, what happens next is controlled by the manufacturer.

Santa was assured that some of the larger mass-market retailers have heightened their safety regulations and that retailers like Target, PetSmart, Petco have their own safety criteria. So, even if manufacturers bitch that it’s costly to comply with their standards, he knew – that to obtain their business – they’d have to comply.

Despite their assurances, Santa had enough experience with toy manufacturers to know that not all of them take as much care as he does when it comes to quality control, and without strict government regulations, retailer safety criteria doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.


Santa had another problem. Like other retailers, he faced the same potentially devastating risk that pet toy manufacturers and retailers face: Product liability.

A commercial product liability claim is a legal argument that the maker or seller of a product (1) had a duty to the purchaser or user of the product; (2) breached the duty by selling a dangerous product or one with an unreasonable or unknown risk of injury; and (3) caused damages (personal injury, pain and suffering, lost wages, medical expenses) as a direct result of the breach.

Product liability makes not only the original manufacturer of the product potentially liable, but also anyone else along the chain – distributors and retailers – including Santa. After all, technically, Santa is a distributor.

Santa has reason to worry, because the risks in the pet product business, which historically has been a low-liability business, are rising; the liability for injuries to people continues to rise — and even scarier for Santa — is the historical legal structure that considers pets and animals as personal property is being challenged in state after state, with plaintiffs seeking huge damages for the injury or death of a beloved family pet.


Santa’s woes don’t stop at product liability; Santa’s anxiety reached an apex last year when after searching for pet toys made in the U.S. at a trade show last year — he found just one. Ironically, the only certified organic pet toy he could find was made in China.

What scares Santa more than anything is that most pet products originate in China — which provides billions of dollars worth of products to the U.S. market each year — and every year the number of human products recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission rises, and more than two-thirds were from China.


Ever since consumers began spending billions on pet toys, Santa began updating his Naughty and Nice Lists. This year he came up with The Exhaustive Naughty Toy List and The Terribly Short Nice Toy List to help consumers who do their own shopping for pet gifts.

Although Santa tries to makes sure that none of the pet products he gives pets contain hazardous toxins, including arsenic, chlorine, bromine, NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates) BPA (bisphenol A), flame retardants, formaldehyde, phthalates, dioxins, illegal animal drugs, and heavy metals like cadmium, mercury, lead and hexavalent chromium, he knows that realistically it would be impossible for consumers to avoid them all.

So, to find out what levels of those contaminants are considered safe in pet products – Santa came up empty; the dearth of toxicity data for pets — what’s presumed safe for a 40-pound child may be deadly for a half-pint Chihuahua — was epic. Santa found there are no standards for lead or other toxins in pet toys; and he realized that until there are standards that say whether an amount is safe or not safe, he knew it would be impossible to evaluate what those levels mean.


  • Avoid plastic, rubber and vinyl toys. Because, chances are, they are loaded with plasticizers like phthalates and BPA. In toys made from polycarbonate plastic BPA forms the chemical backbone of it, which continually releases small amounts of BPA that can increase when the plastic is wet, heated, or stressed. Pets may be exposed to BPA when toys are mouthed or handled, and when toys shed BPA into household dust that is ingested or breathed.
  • Avoid toys that have brightly colored paint. Pet toys in red, green, yellow and orange are more likely to be contaminated than those in darker or more muted colors. Use of lead salts to create these brilliant hues is common in the manufacture of inexpensive vinyl and plastic products. Also, NPEs and its breakdown product, nonylphenol (NP) are in most painted, stained, and varnished surfaces.
  • Avoid brightly colored fabric toys. Brightly colored dyed fabrics may contain toxic ingredients and leach dye when chewed on. Plus, fabric dyes aren’t tested for consumption.
  • Avoid super shiny products. Because those pet products may be tainted with high levels of lead – and the brighter and shinier they are, the more dangerous they probably are, turning even the most benign toy into a toy loaded with lead.
  • Avoid stain-resistant, water-resistant and waterproof fabrics. Because pet bedding or pet clothing like those were probably treated with carcinogenic chemicals such as ScotchGuard and Gore-Tex.
  • Avoid fire-retardant treated products. Bedding and toys treated with fire retardants may contain formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals.
  • Avoid smelly toys. Before buying, use your senses. Strong chemical smells indicate residual chemicals.
  • Avoid old toys. When it comes to pet toys, oldies are not goodies. Throw away ceramic dishes that are cracked or have peeling paint. Regularly inspect toys for wear and toss any that are cracked, peeling or frayed.
  • Avoid toys with metal parts and metal pet food dishes. Avoid stainless steel or other metal pet dishes, especially if they’re from China. Why? Because the scrap metal industry is not too particular about radioactive material being mixed with metal scraps.
  • Avoid soft toys. Avoid toys with stuffing, or toys with squeakers or bells if your pet chews aggressively.
  • Avoid toys with dangerous bits. Because glass eyes, beads, or other small pieces from pet toys that can come off and be ingested or choked on.
  • Avoid balls with single air holes. They can create a deadly suction trap, causing severe injury of a dog’s tongue. If a dog’s tongue becomes trapped in a hole in a ball, it may require long and painful medical intervention, perhaps requiring amputation of the tongue.
  • Avoid toys with string. Strangulation deaths can result from string, straps, cords, or ribbons. It only takes a few pounds of force on the neck’s blood vessels to cause strangulation.
  • Avoid small toys. Avoid any toy small enough to accidentally be swallowed such as balls and poorly designed rope toys.
  • Avoid fragile toys. Dogs and cats don’t chew toys, but rather, tear and shear them as they would prey, using their premolars and molars. These teeth are situated farther back in the mouth and any toy that finds its way into this set of grinders is a potential victim—so look for appropriately sized toys your pet can’t work to the back of his jaws.


‘Organic’ and ‘natural’ have been buzzwords in the pet food segment for years, and now those terms are liberally — and inaccurately — used to describe a growing number of pet toys, too.

Manufacturers incorporate organic cotton fill in their plush toys, hemp, and bamboo in their fabrics and vegetable-based dyes in their prints. They’re even using recycled cardboard in their packaging and alternative energy to power their plants, but Santa knows better than to trust manufacturers and retailers to use those terms literally. He knows that the term ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ on the label are literally meaningless.

Santa knows the only way to be sure if something really is organic is if the product has a USDA Certified Organic logo on the label. The Certification is issued by agencies approved by the United States Department of Agriculture and the term Certified Organic designation confirms that a company uses no synthetic chemicals in its manufacturing process.


Manufacturers will always use the lame excuse that consumers won’t pay a higher price for safer products and whine that product testing would place a heavy burden on them, but their real concern is not the cost imposed on their customers, but for their profit margin.

Manufacturers and retailers know, as long as consumers remain ignorant of the danger that cheap products pose, there will continue to be a demand for them and careless and irresponsible manufacturers who will continue to profit from them.

And, the more educated pet parents are, the more they’ll ask questions. Then, I think the industry will change and we’ll have a better safety standard for pet products.

Until pet product regulations are mandatory, consumers should assume that if it’s not safe for a child, then it’s not safe for a pet.


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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.


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