Are Rawhide Chew Toys Safe For My Dog?

A beagle splashing through the water at a beach.

The answer is yes, and no. There are a number of things you should know about rawhide chew toys and treats so you can give your dog the pleasure of chewing them safely. The information below is not intended to alarm you and rob your dog of the pleasure of gnawing on his favorite rawhide, but is offered so you can make the best decision for your pet.

What Is Rawhide?

Rawhide is the minimally processed hide of an animal—it’s basically leather. The uncooked skin, or hide, of cattle is stripped of hair, then washed, shaped, and dried.

The Tufts University Veterinary School publication, Your Dog, contradicts this definition of rawhide, stating it is not made from animal skin, but instead from connective tissue, which is the internal tissue between organs, and between muscles and bones.

Pressed rawhide is different—it is processed, similar to pressed wood, and made of a variety of parts. It breaks apart more easily and is generally more digestible.

Where Is The Best Rawhide For Dogs Made?

Make every effort to buy rawhide products that are made in the USA (not just packaged here). American hides are the best because there are stricter regulations on the cattle industry in the United States than there are in other countries, higher standards of cleanliness in the slaughterhouses, and only hydrogen peroxide is used to bleach the hides. Some tanneries in Asia and South America remove hair from the hides using arsenic, lime, or acid—all of which remain in the leather, even if it is washed afterward. Obviously, these chemicals are bad for your dog; where rawhide is sourced matters.

Is Rawhide For Dogs Regulated?

There is no health regulation of rawhides because they are not technically a recommended dog food. This means you have to pay attention and make decisions for yourself without any official “seal of approval” about the relative safety of the product. The “all natural” claim on many labels means virtually nothing, since it does not reflect how the cattle are handled before slaughter or what happens to the hides during processing.

Rawhide Risk To Pets And People: Salmonella

Rawhide pet chews can be contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, which can cause serious illness in dogs and the people around them. Young puppies and critically ill dogs can get very sick if exposed to salmonella, and even healthy dogs can suffer from intestinal symptoms. There is also the worrisome possibility of cross-species contamination; even a healthy person can be affected by salmonella poisoning. Symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and nausea, with effects lasting up to a week. Infants, elderly people, and those with impaired immune systems are at the greatest risk.

As with many bacterial illnesses, hand washing is the key to health. If you handle a rawhide chew, wash your hands. If you have toddlers or other small children who might pick up a rawhide chew and put it in their mouths, then avoid the risk and don’t let your dog have rawhide around a young child. There’s also some risk of a dog bite when a child plays around a dog who has a prized chew and wants to guard it. Consider giving rawhide to your dog only during the little person’s nap time or preschool hours.

The good news is that salmonella is only a threat in theory, because there have been no recalls of any rawhide product in the U.S. due to salmonella. Of course it could happen anytime, just as there were recalls of pig’s ears in 1999 because of salmonella contamination.

Other Dangers Of Rawhide Chew Toys

Intestinal obstruction, stomach upset, and dental problems are complications that can arise from rawhides. If the dog tries to swallow a big wedge-shaped piece of rawhide, it can stick in the throat or lodge in the bowel. There can also be intestinal blockage and upper-airway obstruction when a dog chews off a large piece of rawhide. Most of these problems are not emergencies—they just cause vomiting and/or diarrhea.

About “Dental Cleaning” Rawhide

Rawhide can’t clean tartar off your dog’s gums or teeth—tartar is at the gum line, where even aggressive chewers can’t reach with a rawhide. There are “dental chews,” which are often sold in vet’s offices, that claim to clean the dog’s teeth as she chews, and they must have some cleansing action to justify their name and the claim on the package. However, actual teeth cleaning is best done by the vet, or by you, under the vet’s supervision.

What Kind Of Rawhide Should I Give My Dog?

Rawhide comes in many forms. There are big rawhide “bones” with a knot at either end, thin “pencils” of rawhide, and a “pencil” made of chopped rawhide that crumbles and is easier to chew but doesn’t last as long. By experimenting with your dog, you can discover what kind of rawhide chews are best suited to his chewing style and appetite. See the descriptions below to determine what kind of rawhide will give your dog the most pleasure without jeopardizing his health.

Tips For The Safest Use Of Rawhide Chew Toys

  • Medium to light chewers do the best with rawhide because they can gnaw off small pieces at a time. Light chewers won’t make much progress and heavy chewers may try to bite off and swallow large pieces.
  • Avoid rawhide bones with added components. If the knots at the ends are separate pieces, the dog can chew them off, and then try to ingest them all at once.
  • Avoid very white rawhides that seem too lightweight for their size, an indication that they contain formaldehyde, which is a bleaching agent.
  • When in doubt, bigger is always better (less chance of choking).
  • Always supervise the chewing.
  • If you have a large dog with an aggressive chewing style, rawhide may not be the best idea for him. If your dog chews off big chunks of rawhide—rather than chewing small bits off the edges—he can suffer internal problems. Hardcore strong chewers, or dogs who gulp their food, may be better off with another type of chew toy, such as a Kong.
  • Some dogs have tender mouths or sensitive teeth and seem to approach rawhide not as a greatly appreciated treat but as an uncomfortable obligation.
  • Pressed rawhide, which is made of tiny pieces smashed into a shape, can be good for gentle chewers. This rawhide crumbles when the dog chews it so it doesn’t become a big, dangerously gluey chunk. However, in some dogs, rawhide in this form can cause loose stool.

Chewing is a physical and emotional need for most dogs, though some seem to need it more than others. There are dogs who can happily spend half their waking hours chewing vigorously on whatever is offered to them. Know your dog’s habits and choose his rawhide chew toys judiciously.

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