Of course you want what's best for your dog — like chew treats that are all-natural and healthy. And your dog just wants something tasty to gnaw on. But not all natural chews are created equal. Some are more likely to cause digestive problems or cracked teeth. Others may hurt your dog's gums or be a choking hazard.
Here's some information about rawhides, bully sticks, deer antlers and other natural chews to help you make good choices about what's best to give your pet.
Even though rawhide can be good for your dog's teeth and can satisfy his need to chew, there are several drawbacks to giving your best friend rawhide, says WebMD. Some dogs are either sensitive or allergic to rawhide or the substance used in making it. This can cause digestive issues, including diarrhea. Because dogs often chew off pieces of rawhide, it can become a choking hazard or even cause dangerous blockages in the esophagus or digestive tract. Sometimes the only way a vet can remove them is through surgery. Rawhide treats can also be prone to salmonella or E. coli contamination or can have trace amounts of toxic chemicals.
Rawhide is made from dried animal skin. Because it's an animal byproduct, it's very attractive to dogs. It starts out hard, but it softens up after some serious gnawing from your dog, so no pieces splinter off or typically hurt your dog's teeth or gums, points out Nancy Kerns, editor of Whole Dog Journal. If you're going to give rawhide to your dog, she suggests purchasing only those treats made in the U.S. for the freshness factor and to avoid illegal and toxic chemicals. Kerns also suggests buying thicker rawhide, which isn't easy to break into pieces, and avoiding extremely white products, which had to be bleached to look that way.
Many veterinarians steer their clients away from cow hooves.
When a dog starts chewing on hooves, pieces can break off and be swallowed, causing irritation to the dog's stomach and small intestine, according to California veterinarian Dr. Stan Kunin, DVM, for the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, an animal welfare organization. Hooves can also cause an obstruction or bowel perforation.
"Hooves are actually my least favorite bone to offer because they're sharp and brittle," says Chicago-based holistic vet Dr. Karen Becker writes on HealthyPets. Becker says that dogs often suffer severe oral trauma from chewing on sharp hooves.
"I know there are plenty of people out there who will say, 'No, my dog does fine with hooves,' and that's great. But statistically speaking, veterinarians see more cut mouths from hooves than any other type of recreational bone."
She says if you do give your dog hooves, feed only American-grown hooves to make sure they've come from nontoxic animals. If you see that the hoof has broken or splintered, take it away from your pet.
Deer and elk antlers
If you've ever given your dog a deer or elk antler to chew, you know they can grind forever and never seem to make a dent in it. That's because it's like chewing on a rock, say many veterinarians and canine dentists.
"The carnivore (dog) skull, teeth, and muscles are not designed to chew on antlers," says Dr. Kevin Stepaniuk, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Dental Society. "Antlers can cause your dog’s teeth to fracture resulting in pain and infection that may remain hidden."
Although antlers may seem to be an all-natural, healthy and renewable chew treat for your dog, Stepaniuk says they may do much more harm than good in most dogs. "If a chew toy is so hard that injury would result if you were hit with it, it will also have a tendency to break your pet’s teeth," he says.
However, if your dog is not an aggressive chewer and just likes holding or gently gnawing on a bone, then he'll likely do fine with an antler, Becker says.
Bully sticks are made from a bull's private parts. (Photo: Owen Bryne [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Bully sticks — also known as bull pizzle — are made from dried bull penis. You can also find pizzle from other animals, like pigs.
A small study by researchers at Tufts University found that the treats can be contaminated with bacteria and likely have more calories than pet owners realize. The average six-inch stick had 88 calories, which is 9 percent of the daily calorie requirements for a 50-pound dog, and 30 percent of the daily calorie requirements for a 10-pound dog. Although only 26 treats were tested, nine of them had some sort of bacteria.
Sticks that are small and ropey can be a choking hazard, depending on the size of your dog, Becker points out. As a rule of thumb, Becker suggests you take any chew away from your dog once you can't see it sticking out two inches on either side of your pet's mouth. If your dog is chewing and you can't see much of the treat hanging out of her mouth, there's a risk she could choke on it or swallow the rest whole, which could cause an obstruction.
Veterinarians suggest if you're going to give these treats to your dog, look for sticks made in the U.S. And because of the high calorie content, give them only occasionally.
Himalayan dog chews
These relatively new long-lasting chews are a type of Himalayan hard cheese made from yak or cow milk. "This is one of the more unique chews available on the market today, and it’s great for dogs that can't eat certain types of protein," Becker says.
Message boards, however, are full of anecdotal evidence of dogs that love the treats, but owners who have had to take them away because of splintering and cracked teeth.
Some people offer pigs' ears as treats, but there is concern that the chews may be too greasy. (Photo: Karen [CC BY 2.0]/flickr)
Dog owners should avoid giving their pets dried pig ears because the treats can be very greasy and can cause an upset stomach, veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker said on "Good Morning America." Becker's concern is that the pig's ear is often where hormone injections are given (in the live animal) so remnants of the hormones can remain.
In addition, pig ears dog treats have recently been linked to an outbreak of salmonella infections in 35 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 143 people have become ill and 110 hospitalized because of the bacteria, which has been linked to pig ear treats. Dogs can become sick from eating contaminated products and people who handle the products or the sick dogs can also become affected. The CDC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are advising people not to buy or feed any pig ear dog treats, including any that may already be in homes.
Some people choose to give their dogs bones that they buy from the butcher department at the grocery store. But there are also pre-packaged bones that you can purchase in pet stores and online. While it only seems natural to give a dog a bone, the FDA warned pet owners not to buy commercial bones after dozens of reports of illnesses and even deaths, due to the products.
The bones are often described as "Ham Bones," "Pork Femur Bones," "Rib Bones" and "Smokey Knuckle Bones" and are different from uncooked butcher-type bones. According to the FDA, the bones may be dried through baking or smoking, and can contain other ingredients such as preservatives, seasonings, and smoke flavorings.
Owners and vets have reported symptoms including digestive tract blockages, choking, vomiting and diarrhea.
Know your dog
Before you throw away everything in your dog's treat jar and limit his snacking to peanut butter-filled Kongs, remember that no two dogs are alike.
"Every pet is like a small child. Some may chew appropriately. Some may break a chew toy in half and quickly swallow it ... Some may chew too aggressively," says Stepaniuk.
"My point is that anytime a new toy is introduced, supervision is necessary to be certain the toy is chewed appropriately and or not swallowed by our four legged kiddos. We need to keep an eye on them just like we would with our two legged toddlers."
Editor's note: This file has been updated since it was published in August 2016.