Perfect Pet Presents: Safe and Eco-Smart Toys
by Julie Peterson
The pet aisles are so full of squeaking, plush and colorful toys it can make a dog or cat parent’s head spin like a Frisbee. Add blinking lights, flavors, promises of higher intelligence or cleaner teeth; then toss in concerns about sustainably sourced materials, potentially toxic ingredients and varying degrees of quality. The choices are complex.
It would be nice to look for that gold seal of approval from the Pet Toy Regulatory Agency. But don’t bother: There is no such thing. It’s all up to the consumer to figure it out.
The Problem Is Real
Concern regarding toxicants in children’s toys and the realization that they posed a risk of chemical exposure led to regulatory protections. “Similar safeguards do not exist for pets, even though they exhibit similar chewing and mouthing behaviors,” says Philip N. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of terrestrial ecotoxicology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “Owner education is key to limiting unintentional chemical exposure.”
According to a 2013 study co-authored by Smith and published in the journal Chemosphere, common endocrine-disrupting chemical toxins in plastics can enter a dog’s body through saliva. Concentrations of leachable chemicals can increase in older, degraded toys, according to the National Institutes of Health.
For anyone that has ever had a pet destroy a toy faster than it takes to calculate the cost per second, durable construction may be the highest concern. After all, if the toy is vigorously ripped to shreds, pieces may be swallowed. The most immediate issue becomes intestinal blockage.
This is a common problem for cats and dogs with a propensity to eat garbage, plants and holiday decorations. But when we spend good money on actual toys, we would like to think that it won’t lead to surgery. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee. Poorly constructed toys have required many pet owners to watch for the parts to pass through the animal or, worse yet, make a trip to the vet.
Even if a toy seems sturdy, it’s best to observe the animal with the toy. Charlotte Easterling, a graphic designer in Madison, Wisconsin, learned this from her cat, Hazel, who choked on a common cat toy. “She was playing with a glitter ball and then started meowing kind of frantically, scrambling around and pawing at her face. I jumped up and pulled the ball out of her mouth,” recalls Easterling. Hazel only gets big glitter balls these days.
A New Generation Spurs Change
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey provides insight into the demographics, buying habits and other traits of dog, cat, bird, small animal, reptile, fish and horse owners. The 2019-2020 survey shows that about 85 million U.S. homes, or 67 percent, include a pet. This leads to a lot of money flowing into the pet toy and care community.
Annually, dog owners spend about $124 and cat owners spend about $89 on treats and toys. The survey also indicates that Millennials are the largest pet-owning demographic.
“The pet care community is doing a great job of meeting the demands of a new generation by offering a range of products made from sustainable, recycled and upcycled materials,” says Steve King, CEO of APPA, in Stamford, Connecticut. King notes it’s expected that as Gen Z pet owners begin to assert themselves in the marketplace, we will see more products based on sustainability and transparency.
Shopping for Safety
Experts offer some guidelines for ways consumers can choose harmless toys:
- Be suspicious of toys manufactured overseas or cheap ones made in the U.S.
- Contact the manufacturer and ask if toys contain phthalates, BPA, arsenic, bromine, chemical dyes, chromium or formaldehyde.
- Look for toys made with ingredients from nature (hemp, leather or wool).
- Find a pet supply store that has natural, safe and sustainably sourced products.
- Inspect toys periodically for loose parts and watch the pet with new toys.
- If a pet plays with a toy and then acts oddly, contact the vet.
Julie Peterson writes from rural Wisconsin. Connect at [email protected].