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Chewing — it’s what dogs do. And rawhides are classic chew toys for dogs. Made from the inner layer of cowhides that are cleaned, cut, shaped, sometimes flavored and then dried, rawhides can give dogs hours of chewing pleasure. Or they can be gulped down practically whole by dogs who are more eager for the eating experience than the chewing experience.
So when clients ask me if it's safe to give their dogs rawhides, I have to say that it depends on the individual dog. Labrador Retrievers and Pit Bulls, for instance, tend to be heavy-duty chewers and gulpers. They are among the dogs who are most likely to bite off and swallow large pieces of rawhide. Those chunks can become stuck in the esophagus, stomach or intestinal tract and may pose a choking risk or require emergency surgery or endoscopic removal. Other dogs, though, may be content to gnaw on them for hours or days.
That’s just one of the reasons why everyone, including veterinarians, has a different opinion on whether it’s okay to give your dog a rawhide. I asked two of my colleagues, Tony Johnson, DVM, and Tina Wismer, DVM, to weigh in with their experiences.
There’s a small but real risk of a blockage if a dog swallows a piece of rawhide, says Dr. Johnson, an emergency and critical-care specialist in Indianapolis. “I have seen many esophageal foreign bodies in smaller dogs with rawhides,” he says. He’d rather not give rawhides to dogs at all. In his opinion, the ideal dog treat or toy should be either completely consumable in 30 seconds or as inedible and difficult to consume as possible.
At home, though, his wife — who is also a veterinarian — gives rawhides to their three dogs with no problem.
“Stomach acid will break down small pieces of rawhide,” says Dr. Wismer, a veterinary toxicologist and medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “That’s not a problem. The issue is if they ingest a piece that’s big enough to leave the stomach whole, and then it gets stuck in the intestinal tract.”
Some dogs break teeth when chewing rawhides. There’s a higher risk of that with pressed rawhides because they are more dense, Dr. Wismer says.
The way rawhides are prepared can also be a concern. In the United States, rawhides are washed with degreasers and detergents, sterilized with hydrogen peroxide and then thoroughly rinsed. The hides are refrigerated until they are processed to keep them fresh. But rawhides made in other countries may be produced under less stringent practices. Dr. Wismer notes, however, that there has been only a single documented incident of imported rawhides contaminated with toxins. “This dates to the early 1980s, when there was one shipment of rawhides that was contaminated with arsenic,” she says.
The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the manufacture of rawhides in this country. It’s up to consumers to call U.S. manufacturers and ask about their practices. That’s a heck of a lot easier to do with a manufacturer in the U.S. than one in China.
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