For dogs and other pets, toys are not a luxury, but a necessity.
Toys are important to your dog’s well-being. Toys help fight boredom when you have to leave your dog at home, and provide comfort when they’re feeling nervous. Toys can even help prevent your dog from developing certain problem behaviors.
Although cats can be pretty picky about toys, dogs are often more than willing to play with any object they can get their paws on. That means you'll need to be particularly careful when monitoring your dog's playtime to prevent any "unscheduled" activities.
Many factors contribute to the safety or danger of a toy, and a number of them depend upon your dog's size, activity level and preferences. Another thing to consider is the environment where your dog spends their time. Although we can't guarantee the safety of any specific toy, we can offer the following guidelines.
The things that are usually most attractive to dogs are often the very things that are the most dangerous. Dog-proof your home by removing string, ribbon, rubber bands, children's toys, pantyhose and other inedible items that could be swallowed.
Be sure to buy toys of appropriate size for your dog. Toys that are too small can easily be swallowed or become lodged in your dog's throat.
Supervise your dog's play with squeaky toys: your dog may feel that they must find and destroy the source of the squeaking, which means they could ingest it if left unwatched.
Avoid or alter any toys that aren't "dog-proof" by removing ribbons, strings, eyes or other parts that could be chewed off and ingested. Discard toys when they start to break into pieces or are torn. Check labels on stuffed toys to see that they are labeled as safe for children under three years of age and that they don't contain any dangerous fillings. Problem fillings include nutshells and polystyrene beads, but even "safe" stuffings aren't truly digestible. Remember that soft toys are not indestructible, but some are sturdier than others. Soft toys should be machine washable.
A note about rawhide
If you're thinking about giving your dog rawhide chew toys, be sure to check with your veterinarian about which ones are safe and appropriate for your dog. These toys may pose choking hazards, so give them to your dog only when you can supervise them.
Many rawhides are byproducts of the cruel international fur trade. For a humane alternative, consider toys made of very hard rubber, which are safer and last longer.
Hard rubber toys such as Nylabone® and Kong®-type products come in many shapes and sizes and are fun for chewing and carrying around. For dogs that like tug-of-war and chewing on interesting textures, rope and woven toys are usually available in a "bone" shape with knotted ends.
Tennis balls make great dog toys for fetching, but don’t stand up to chewing very well. Discard any tennis balls that have been chewed through, as they can pose a choking hazard to your pet.
Kong®-type toys, especially when filled with broken-up treats, can keep a puppy or dog busy for hours. (If your veterinarian says your dog can eat peanut butter, make sure it is not sweetened with xylitol—which is toxic to dogs—and add some to the crushed-up treats for a tastier, and busier, snack!)
"Busy-box" or "feeder" toys are large rubber shapes that can be filled with treats. By moving the cube around with their nose, mouth and paws, your dog can get to the goodies. Many dogs who tend to eat their food too quickly benefit from being fed through a feeder-style toy.
Soft stuffed toys are good for several purposes, but they aren't appropriate for all dogs. Here are a few tips for choosing the right stuffed toy:
- Some dogs like to carry around soft toys. If your dog sees their toy as a companion, pick one that's small enough to carry.
- Some dogs want to shake or "kill" their toys, so choose one that's large enough to prevent accidental swallowing and sturdy enough to withstand the dog’s attacks.
Dirty laundry, such as an old t-shirt, pillowcase, towel or blanket, can be very comforting to a dog, especially if the item smells like you! Be forewarned that the item could be destroyed by industrious fluffing, carrying and nosing.
Toys for teething puppies
From 12 weeks to six months, as they lose their baby teeth and their adult teeth erupt through their gums, puppies get the urge to chew on everything. Supplying teething toys will make them more comfortable and save your hands, shoes and furniture. Durable nylon bones and rubber toys can take weeks of chewing without breaking into pieces that might be swallowed. You can buy specialized puppy teething toys designed to be frozen and imprinted with soothing textures.
Toys for blind dogs
Blind dogs still have their senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch. A 2022 study found that vision and smell are linked in dogs and together help them navigate through the world. Even without added scent, blind dogs will likely be able to smell and find individual toys, but stores offer toys with food odors and toys that make noises. Smearing food on nylon bones or filling rubber toys with food or hiding it within “puzzle” boxes will entice blind dogs to play. They may also like tug of war and can generally follow a toy dragged along the floor. Some blind dogs adapt so well with their other senses that they play much like sighted dogs.
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Making toys last
Rotate your dog's toys weekly by making only a few toys available at a time. Keep a variety of types easily accessible. If your dog has a favorite, like a soft comfort toy, you may want to leave it out all the time.
Provide toys that serve a variety of purposes — give your dog at least one toy to carry, one to shake, one to roll and one for comfort.
"Found" toys are often much more attractive than toys that are obviously introduced. A game of finding toys or treats is a good rainy-day activity for your dog, using up energy without the need for a lot of space.
Many of your dog's toys should be interactive. Interactive play is very important for your dog because they need active "people time," which enhances the bond between you and your pet. Try balls, flying disks and other toys that help foster the bond between person and pet.
By focusing on a specific task —such as repeatedly returning a ball, Kong, or Frisbee® or playing "hide-and-seek" with treats or toys — your dog can expend pent-up mental and physical energy from boredom in a limited amount of time and space. For young, high-energy and untrained dogs, interactive play also offers an opportunity for socialization and helps them learn about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, such as jumping up or being mouthy.