Dog Toys Are Fun! (Right?)

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding playing "rope toy tug" with your dog

Published: February 03, 2014
By Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM

Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
These baby bottle nipples were surgically removed from a pet who decided they'd make a darn good snack. Ooops!

Isn’t it adorable when little puppies grab onto a rope toy and swing it from side to side, bashing themselves in the head and shoulders, growling fiercely with nary a care in the world?

Until, of course, a tooth comes out. Oopsie. So what’s more important, his play or his baby teeth?

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding playing “rope toy tug” with your dog. One way of looking at it is that it’s a normal play behavior of dogs, who will wrestle with each other for possession of a prized object, and thus it can be used as a fun game or even as a training tool. The other way of looking at it, not quite so rosy, is that a dog’s teeth can be broken or even ripped out of its mouth by exuberant tugging. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not a good way to start your day.

Middle ground is lacking here, but I suppose I’m jaded. I’ve seen the dangling, broken teeth and bleeding gums; I’ve seen dogs who have rope fibers stuck between and wrapped around their teeth, sometimes in nasty, gummy, foul wads of string and fur and whatever else the dog has ingested in the last two years or so. I must say that this makes for a most unlovely odor and some pretty nasty dental disease. I’ve also seen the damage wrought on the intestinal tracts of both dogs and cats when they swallow something long and thin (like rope or string!) and it can’t pass all the way through—instead it gets stuck along the way and creates severe damage, necessitating a tricky surgery and sometimes, occasionally, even resulting in death.

As it is unlikely that rope toys will go away, I do wish that more dog owners would carefully supervise how their dogs play with them so that some disasters might be avoided. A few simple guidelines outlined by veterinary behaviorists indicate that the human needs to be the one who starts and stops the game. At the end of the game, the dog can “win,” or walk away with the prize, but the human needs to be the one who defines the end. If a dog starts tugging on your clothes to get you to continue to play, that’s inappropriate and the dog may not be a good candidate for this type of game. Most important of all, the human needs to be able to issue a command and take the toy away from the dog without being bitten! If the dog is overexcited and teeth make contact with hands instead of the toy, then the game is inappropriate for that dog.

Another unpleasant consequence of having a dog who is too enthusiastic about playing tug manifests itself when you’re trying to get dressed and the dog decides it’s playtime, grabbing your socks/pantyhose/shoes/whatever and trying to initiate the game. Depending on what you paid for your clothing, that might become annoying in a hurry. I always tell pet owners not to reward any puppy behavior that is SOOOOO cute now, but might not be so adorable when the dog hits about 60 pounds or thereabouts. 

Another type of popular toy -- hard plastic or nylon chews or certain bones or hooves -- makes me cringe when I hear people talk about using them. Back before I’d seen broken teeth in dogs who had been allowed to chew vigorously on toys like these, I had a “hard chewer” who would destroy and ingest any toy I gave her. This made me worry a great deal that we’d end up going to surgery to retrieve something she had swallowed that wouldn’t pass through on its own, so when I found the hard plastic bones that she couldn’t tear up as easily, I thought I was onto something. Fortunately, I saw the little chips in the enamel of her teeth and realized what was happening before a much nastier tooth fracture occurred, and I was able to take those away from her before more serious damage was incurred. Since then, I have seen many dogs with badly broken molars from chewing on objects that are too hard. Tooth fractures are VERY painful, so if the risk can be minimized by choosing chew items carefully, that’s a plus. A good rule of thumb is that if you rap yourself on the knuckles with the toy and it hurts, it’s too hard! Don’t let your dog chew on it.

Of course, sometimes dogs are just goofy and they’re going to defeat your best efforts to protect them from themselves. My current power-chewer, Rogue by name (yes, it’s most appropriate), has had one surgery after chewing on a thick rubber stall mat laid by the back yard gate to keep her from bouncing that area, Tigger-like, into a muddy mess. I have no idea how long that chunk of rubber rattled around inside her stomach, but it finally tried to travel south through her digestive tract and got wedged at a narrow point, necessitating surgical removal. That was not fun for any of us! Later, as I cycled through toys that I thought might not break her teeth but that she might not chew into pieces and swallow (thus necessitating another surgery), I finally gave up after she cracked a tennis ball into several pieces before my eyes and swallowed half of it before I could take it away. A trip to the emergency clinic and a couple of careful doses of peroxide later, those pieces came back up. Thank goodness. She now only gets “consumable” treats—the hardest thing she chews on is a strip of rawhide. So far, so good (knock wood).

Does this mean that tennis balls are inappropriate for all dogs? Of course not! Some dogs would never dream of chomping one into bits and swallowing the chunks. If you start young and provide a variety of choices for your dog, with careful supervision you can determine the safest toys for your particular pet.

Folks don’t often think about cats getting into trouble with their toys, but they certainly can. The problem with cats is that you just never know what they’re going to choose as a toy. Grandma’s sewing kit? Yep. My best friend’s cat ended up with a sewing needle embedded in the roof of her mouth, migrating through the tissues there. A shoelace sitting innocently on a coffee table, waiting to replace a frayed one? Yep. I pulled one of those out of The Terrorist’s mouth after he’d managed to get about half of it all the way into his stomach. What a nasty, slimy thing that was! (Certain residents of our home are now a little more careful about walking away from projects like that.) Tinsel hanging from a beautiful Christmas tree, rubber bands from the newspaper? Oh yes. And once inside, that stuff is nasty. It can cut the intestines to shreds in no time at all.

The weirdest one I’ve seen was a kitten who came in not once but twice to our practice for eating toy baby bottle nipples. After the second one was surgically removed, the owners re-homed that kitten to a place with no children’s toys lying randomly about to tempt him.

So what is the moral here? All pets are different, and not all toys are appropriate for all pets. Toys and chews that can cause damage to teeth are NEVER appropriate! I know that people will think, “Well, my dog has had one of those hard chew bones/toys for years and there’s never been a problem,” but that’s exactly the problem—you won’t know something is wrong until it happens, and then it’s too late. Toys with strings or other long, thin objects (like pantyhose, speaker wire and such) are ONLY appropriate for supervised play; the same goes for toys that pets might be able to swallow whole or in big pieces, resulting in a GI obstruction. Think defensively when you purchase pet toys. Ask yourself, “What could go wrong with this one?” Hopefully a little bit of prevention and common sense can save you a trip to the emergency clinic!

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