Regular reader Stefanie sent in this question....
What are the safest dog chews on the market? I usually give my dog Nylabones to chew on - but I notice that in addition to the traditional rawhides, Greenies, and other processed chews - there are bully sticks (which I didn't know what these were made out of until just today and was a little taken aback), deer antlers, and even Himalayan (hard cheese) dog chews - which are safest or are any of them?
There seems to be a lot of debate among veterinary professionals as to the best and safest chew toys on the market. I'll share my opinion and what I tell my clients.
I am definitely against using any kind of really hard substance to chew on, especially antlers and bones. I know that it's rather stereotypical to give dogs bones, as you see it in cartoons and movies. They also really seem to like them and these products are easily available in any pet store. However, bones and antlers can cause severe fractures of the teeth, especially of the upper molars. The broken tooth is not only painful but can lead to abscessing of the tooth root. I've also seen bones get stuck on the teeth and even cause constipation.
Hard rubber toys like Nylabones run a smaller risk of breaking teeth. The material is not digestible, but in small pieces will pass through the dog safely. The risk comes if the dog breaks off and swallows a large enough piece to cause an obstruction. Even so, I do let my dogs chew on these products, though I check the toy regularly to make sure large sections aren't coming off.
In my opinion there is a lot of misinformation about rawhide chews. I have never seen a case of rawhides getting stuck in the intestines, and they won't sit there indefinitely. I've never even talked to a colleague who has seen this happen. However, there are a few things to be careful of. Some dogs will be sensitive to the material, resulting in diarrhea or even vomiting. This isn't truly dangerous but is obviously something people want to avoid. The only real big risk is if the dog swallows the knot or strip whole. You need to watch your dog's chewing habits and make sure they aren't prone to doing so. Since the material won't dissolve in the stomach a large enough rawhide could cause an obstruction. The one time I did see a potentially serious rawhide issue was when a dog swallowed the knot whole. The owner brought her in and she vomited it up in the lobby without any treatment. However, that could have been a surgical case. I had to stop giving rawhide strips to one of my dogs because she would stick it half-way down her throat while she was chewing and I was worried that she would swallow it. Otherwise I don't mind rawhides.
Greenies developed a bad reputation over five years ago because of some isolated cases of dogs swallowing large parts of the treat and developing intestinal obstructions. Some of these cases resulted in surgery and even death. After this became a national problem (even though it happened in less than 1% of dogs) Greenies changed the formula so it would actually dissolve in the stomach. After talking to a rep at a conference I took one home, set it in a glass of water overnight, and was pleasantly surprised to see it come apart easily the next day. Greenies are also one of the best treats for dental care, so I fully endorse them.
In general I approve of softer treats specifically designed for dogs as long as that individual doesn't develop any particular digestive problem. However, you should always watch your dog very carefully to make sure they are chewing slowly and not taking off large chunks. If too large of a piece of any treat is swallowed, it can be potentially dangerous. And stay away from anything that is harder than the dog's teeth.