Santa’s stellar guide to toxin-free toy shopping for pet parents

It’s getting close to that time of year again. The fur kids are anticipating a stocking filled with toys and you, poor you, are all in a tizzy over the news that common plastic and rubber dog toys contain dangerous chemicals like BPA and phthalates. Have no fear my frazzled friend, just like last Christmas, when I guided you through the minefield laden with toxic pet toys,  I am here to sooth your furrowed brow, steer you from the dubious pet websites with questionable lists of safe pet toys, and give you a handy guide to safe pet toy buying.

Faux naturale

Just like the plethora of faux-natural pet food brands, there are enough of poisonous pet toys on the market to sink Santa’s sleigh.  Poised to sucker you into believing they have the answer to your toxic dilemma, they snow you with eco-buzz worthy claims that their products are non-toxic, recyclable, BPA-free, phthalate-free and are proudly ‘Made in the USA. Hidden behind the carefully crafted copy and visions of frolicking pets happily playing with their toys lies a dark secret: Those toys could be killing your pets.

Typically marketed with a noble a mission to “educate consumers with easily verifiable facts and information about holistic pet care and natural alternatives” while selling “exceptional holistic pet products and accessories”, these hucksters for the most part get away with it.  Unfortunately, most consumers do not have time or the inclination to question claims or they have the mistaken belief that there are laws against such marketing hype.

A classic example of this type of misinformed marketing is All Natural Pet Care’s list of ‘Pet Chew Toys May Contain BPA and Phthalates (Study) – Which Brands Don’t’. Santa checked that list and found (surprise!) that the recommended toys contained questionable materials or the brands did not disclose what their toys were made of:

Pet Projekt
Triple Crown
West Paw
Planet Dog Orbee-Tuff

Nylabone: Wrong. I wouldn’t feed a Nylabone to a starving dog in India.  Why?  Where do I begin?  The list of ingredients on the so-called “edible” faux-bones reads like a what NOT to feed an animal: sterilized rawhide (rawhide sterilized with formaldehyde and/or bleach), wheat starch, potato starch, soy flour, a boatload of artificial flavors, sprinkled with a good helping of vitamins and minerals sourced from China.  Um…No thanks, I’ll pass on that crap.  The non-edible synthetic “bones” are made of synthetic polymers and inorganic chemicals: plastic, rubber, or nylon and embedded with artificial flavors.  Nowhere on their site do they claim to be BPA-free or phthalate-free.

Kong: Nope, sorry.  Now, I love this, “made with natural Kong rubber” – whatever that means.  There is no information on the Kong website regarding their “natural” rubber, how it is manufactured, or indeed if it is a BPA-free or a phthalate-free material. It may be, but without any substantial information, other than the ubiquitous and meaningless ‘natural’ claim, one cannot be certain.

Pet Projekt: While they do claim some of their toys are free of BPA and phthalates, that claim is highly questionable as their toys are manufactured in China.  No sale, sorry.

Triple Crown (Starmark): Made with a mystery material, described only as “stronger than rubber” and that it is a “FDA approved” “USA made material” free of latex, vinyl, and phthalates.  They left off BPA, but with their unhelpful and confusing description, your guess is as good as mine what the material is.  The toys, which are meant to be stuffed with their brand of treats, contain such unhealthy ingredients as: wheat gluten, rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, chicken flavoring, corn gluten meal, garlic powder, sodium diacetate, carrageenan and titanium dioxide. With crap ingredients like that in their treats – this brand bombs too.

West Paw: They manufacture dog and cat toys and bedding which are all made in the USA (really!).  The material used to make their chew toys is trademarked Zogoflex®, which they claim “does not contain, nor does any of its components contain any known sources of lead, cadmium, mercury, latex, natural rubber, phthalates, hormones, Bisphenol A, or asbestos”.  If you want to know what the molecular structure of Zogoflex is, they suggest you contact them, otherwise they’re not telling you.  The packaging is printed on 100% recycled paper with soy-based inks and the plastic packaging is made from corn.  So far, so sort of good, but I can’t give my thumbs up unless they tell consumers what Zogoflex is, not what it isn’t.

Planet Dog: Sadly, their website is devoid of any useful information about their toys, other than a vague promise that they strive to make only “non-toxic and recyclable products”.  Their chew toys are made with a trademarked Orbee-Tuff material which is simply described as a “thermo plastic elastimer”.  Better known as a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) or thermoplastic rubber it is a material that can hardly be described as anything but unplanet-friendly.  TPE can mean pretty much anything from a type of plastic to carbon to rubber. found that some of Planet Dog’s toys to be some of the most toxic pet toys tested.  They found alarming levels of lead, arsenic, chromium, and bromine.  Sorry, Planet Dog, but you lose big time.

Healthy – Not

Although this small list of recommended chew toys bombed, it is not, by any means, an uncommon type of recommendation – using what criteria, I have no idea. Clearly they didn’t do their homework. Meanwhile, there are others who, on the other hand, clearly did do their research: Hundreds of pet toys have been tested for toxins over the last few years; most notably, who tested over 400 pet products, and found that over 45% of them had one or more hazardous chemicals in them.

The most recent study performed on dog chew toys found that toxic chemicals such as BPA and phthalates readily leech from the chew toys. The greatest danger lay with dogs toys containing phthalates, since repeated mechanical pressure from chewing and the presence of saliva speed up the phthalates’ release.

Regulations, my eye

Leave it to the private sector to do all the heavy lifting, because you can’t rely on the government to do it for you. Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate pet toys, and that the Consumer Product Safety Commission only regulates pet toys that can be proven to put people and not pets at risk?  Since there are no government standards for hazardous chemicals in pet products, it is not surprising that toxic chemicals were found. Even if there were a standard, it’s not clear how useful it would be considering the government is still operating on the creaky-old, and mostly useless, Toxic Substances Control Act of 1978.

Santa’s safe toy shopping tips

  • Caveat emptor — is that two-dollar squeaky toy worth the potential risks of choking, tongue entrapment, and chronic toxicity it might pose to your pet.  Choose carelessly and your pet may pay the hidden cost.
  • Is the text on the packaging or the website for their products deceptive, i.e. mostly advertising as opposed to information?
  • Aside from toxic ingredients, the most familiar hazards are choking and stomach obstruction.  Are there pieces as well as particles that may be ingested, in addition to the toxic materials and coatings that might pose a risk?
  • Avoid balls with single air holes, which can create a deadly suction trap; sticks and stones; heavily dyed toys; toys treated with fire retardants or stain guard; soft plastics.
  • Avoid any soft plastic, PVC, vinyl, or toys that are painted, or have a rhinestone, charm, or trinket item as they are likely to contain one or more hazardous chemicals.
  • Avoid toys with unnaturally bright colors. The dyes used may not be safe, in fact could even be toxic.
  • Don’t assume that because a company uses recycled materials, that those materials are safe or safer than virgin material, they’re just better for the planet.
  • Unless the company volunteers the information as to the material used to make their products, you can’t be certain what it’s made of. If they don’t or won’t tell you that is a huge red flag.
  • It is vital to remember that any toy, whether it was made in China or in the U.S.A. all have an inherent risks associated with them: pieces can, and do, break off and may become obstructed in the intestinal tract, causing serious health problems and death.  And any toy might contain a dangerous chemical.  Just because something is made in the U.S.A. does not guarantee its safety.

What can pet parents do?

It should not be the responsibility of public health advocates to test these products.  Product manufacturers and legislators must take the lead and replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives.

Ultimately, we must stop these toxic chemicals from entering our homes by urging product manufacturers and legislators to replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives immediately.

Please support the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill that promises to reform the outdated, toothless Toxic Substances Control Act of 1978 and urge your senators to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act.

Find out more

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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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