Dangers of Rawhide and Safe Alternatives

Pet care & safety
rat terrier chewing on a rawhide

Rawhide chews and bones are very popular for dogs. They come in all sorts of sizes, and they are pretty economical to buy. Depending on the dog, a rawhide can last days or even weeks! However, rawhide is extremely dangerous. It is so dangerous, that I am stunned they can still sell it. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA both discourage rawhide consumption and list it among the dangerous household products for pets (next to pesticides and cleaning chemicals). If you still use rawhide, read on to find out more about why you should stop - and what chewing alternatives are out there.

What Is rawhide, anyway?

It’s the inner layer of cow or horse hides that has been cleaned and stripped of hair. In order to remove the hair from this layer, the hide must be soaked in chemicals, primarily sodium sulfide. It’s as toxic as it sounds. It’s then washed and whitened with hydrogen peroxide, dried, and pressed into the treats you see in the stores (sometimes they add flavorings or coatings to make them appetizing for dogs). Other toxins, such as trace amounts of arsenic and formaldehyde have been detected in rawhide treats as well. Rawhide is classified neither as a human food nor pet food, so there are no regulations over its production.

Dangers of Rawhide

Choking - Probably the biggest danger of them all is the risk of choking. If you’ve ever watched a dog chew on a rawhide, you know how stringy, soft, and long it can become. At some point, a dog will have worked at it long enough that he’s chewed off pieces small enough to fit into his mouth and even into his esophagus, but that’s often where the buck stops. The rawhide can quickly and easily become lodged in his throat, blocking his airway and potentially tearing his esophagus’ lining as it tries to work its way down. This is a life-threatening emergency and without immediate vet attention, the dog could perish. Here are signs that a piece might be lodged in his throat:

  • Drooling

  • Panicking

  • Pawing at his mouth

  • Not being able to swallow food or water

Contamination - Because it is made from animal skins and material, salmonella is a huge concern. Both you and your pet can contract salmonella from his rawhide! It’s fairly common for a standard rawhide bone to be laced with this bacteria. In fact, between 2008 and 2011, there were 6 major FDA recalls of rawhide due to salmonella.

Digestive Distress and Intestinal Blockage – If your dog does successfully swallow a piece, what happens next can be just as dangerous. The rawhide swells up in the intestine or stomach, causing severe GI distress. This can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, and pancreatitis. Rawhide is not digestible, so your dog has to pass it as he ingests it. If he does not, a blockage occurs, and surgery is required. Alternatives

Okay, so do I have you convinced yet? Are you running around the house throwing out all of your rawhide? Are you wondering what to sub in for this old-standby? Here are some options:

  • Bully sticks (they also go by other brand names) - these are dried bull pizzles. There is no choking hazard, they are digestible, and they come in all the same sizes and shapes you might expect from a rawhide. Although we use these, there are some downsides: they have the same bacteria issues as rawhide, they are very high in calories, and they are messy and stink to high heaven!

  • Antlers- These are from elk or deer. They won’t splinter or create much odor, and they have nooks and crannies that really help get your dog’s teeth clean. Be sure to get the naturally-shed ones for extra kindness!

  • Kongs- These are the ubiquitous red (and other colors) rubber oblong toys that you can stuff with treats and various spreads to keep your dog occupied and chewing for hours! They are billed as being indestructible, so there are no concerns about choking or digestion (except for whatever you put in it). There are plenty of other rubbery type of chewies on the market as well. Check out Dogzilla and Zanies as well.

  • Yak/Himalayan chews- These are the bomb. They are made from yak’s milk using a Nepali method. They are hard and thick, but yielding. They are all-natural, so there is no concern with bacteria, choking, digestion, or smell. These are one of the best chewing options available on the market today.

  • Frozen peanut butter, broth cubes- You can always go DIY and make your own frozen concoctions that your dog can work on for hours. These are especially great during the summer months!

  • Marrow bones- These are the big guys--femurs or hip bones that are thick and filled with marrow. Keep them in the freezer, and then offer one to your dog with supervision. You can get them at the butcher or meat counter in a grocery store. Just beware: they are really messy!

  • Dental chews and treats- there are a plethora of brands on the market, and there are mixed reviews of different ones, depending on who you talk to. One that seems to be safest is Halo brand chews (they come in different flavors), but you should definitely ask your vet and local, independent pet food store for their feedback.