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Rawhide is a Raw Deal

The six dangers of rawhide dog bones.

by Sheila Pell
February 17, 2022
Golden Retriever dog chewing on rawhide toy seated on a blanket by a window
Matthew Linker / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

If you have a pup that loves to chew, you’ve probably combed the pet aisles looking for enticing substitutes for your laptop cord and chair leg. Among the piles of dog toys, the knuckle and femur bones, one pet store mainstay is the bins where the rawhide is cached.

Promoted as an “all-natural” treat, rawhides keep dogs entertained, perhaps even more so when in its many basted, twisted, even brightly colored mutations. It’s the equivalent of that marshmallow-filled cereal made with real oats that kids howl for all the way down the breakfast aisle. Your dog would like to convince you that rawhide is primal therapy for their carnivorous soul. But the closer you look at how rawhides are produced and the risks associated with them, the more you may want to wean your pup off this dubious byproduct.

If rawhide manufacturers were held to the same standards as drug makers, they’d be forced to add an equally long list of warnings to their labels: Rawhides may cause stomach torsion, choking, vomiting, diarrhea, and salmonella poisoning.

6 Dangers of Rawhides for Dogs

1. Rawhides are made with toxic chemicals

While chews made from rawhide, bone, or other animal parts are consumable and are therefore considered “food” under FDA law, as long as the label contains no reference to nutritional value (such as “high protein”), the agency advises that manufacturers “may not have to follow the AAFCO pet food regulations.”

Producing rawhide begins with splitting an animal hide, usually from cattle. The top grain is generally tanned and made into leather products, while the inner portion, in its “raw” state, goes to the dogs. Removing the hair from hides often involves a highly toxic recipe: sodium sulfide liming. A standard practice is to procure rawhide in the “split lime state” as byproducts from leather tanneries, facilities that top the list of U.S. Superfund sites.

Along the way, various chemicals are used to slow down the rate of decay of the animal skin. In the post-tannery stage, hides are washed and whitened using a solution of hydrogen peroxide to get rid of the rotten stench. They may even be coated with titanium oxide to make them appear whiter. And that’s not all, other poisonous residues that may show up in rawhide include lead, arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde.

2. The flavorings may contain carcinogens

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of patents for flavored rawhide hitting the market, from bubble gum to hickory. However, in creating treats pups will chomp for hours, companies also produced potentially more toxic products. The more dogs lick, chew and swallow the material, the greater their exposure to any contaminants it contains.

In the case of bubble-gum flavoring alone, the Material Safety Data Sheet revealed a toxic confection containing the carcinogen FD&C Red 40, along with preservatives like sodium benzoate. But tracking the effects of chemical exposure is nearly impossible when it’s a matter of slow, low-dose poisoning. The FDA’s veterinary branch, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, only checks into pet food additives after numerous complaints about a particular chemical.

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3. Rawhides are not digestible

Being a byproduct of the leather industry, traditional rawhides are chemically engineered to make them tough and durable, but those same qualities make them hazardous to a dog’s health. Rawhide chews are consumable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are digestible. “Most commonly, they swallow things that are too big to pass and end up stuck in the esophagus, stomach, or intestines,” says Dr. James Barr, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

While a dog can happily chow down on a rawhide, softening it, they ultimately only break it down into smaller chunks. Those tough non-digestible pieces are swallowed whole and do not break down. Instead, the rawhide swells within a dog’s stomach making it difficult to pass. At best, rawhides can cause a minor stomach ache and, at worst, cause a life-threatening obstruction in the gut.

4. Dogs can choke on rawhide

Another risk associated with rawhides is biting off more than they can chew. Literally. So, if a dog tries to swallow a chunk of rawhide that is too big, the piece may end up stuck in the esophagus, causing them to choke.

“The most common thing that causes actual choking in dogs are dog treats like rawhides that can be swallowed,” says Dr. Barr. “Bones and rawhides to a dog that chews them well pose little threat, but dogs that want to quickly ingest their treats are the ones most likely to get things stuck in their throat. Though it’s too big to swallow, they try anyway.” Even if a pup properly chews their food before swallowing, accidents can happen.

5. Teeth fractures are common

While not exclusive to rawhides, these chews can cause significant tooth damage. According to Dr. Nadine Fiani, Associate Clinical Professor at Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, chewing on hard objects, like rawhide, is actually the most common cause of tooth fractures.

Puppies and aggressive chewers are more likely to experience a fracture because they lack inhibition. Not only can a fractured tooth be painful for pups, but it leaves the door open to a secondary infection, which can spread to other areas of the body.

6. Grim connections to the dog meat trade

With rawhide produced in Asia, there’s no knowing what it’s made from. Even dog skin is a possibility. In some areas of Asia, the dog trade is widely prevalent, with tens of millions of dogs being slaughtered each year for their meat and fur.

An investigation in the late ’90s of the fur trade by Humane Society International, an arm of the HSUS, resulted in this information: “In a particularly grisly twist, the skins of brutally slaughtered dogs in Thailand are mixed with other bits of skin to produce rawhide chew toys for pet dogs. Manufacturers told investigators that these chew toys are regularly exported to and sold in U.S. stores.”

Healthy Alternatives to Rawhides

When it comes to rawhide chews, the most important thing to remember is to always supervise your dog and remove any small pieces. For healthy alternatives to rawhide for your dog, consider using veggies such as carrots, frozen kongs, free-range chews, bully sticks, Himalayan chews, or organic raw bones. If you do choose rawhides, look for those free of toxic preservatives and chemicals that are dried naturally and made in the USA.

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Sheila Pell

Sheila Pell is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about environmental issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Modern Farmer, San Diego Reader, The Bark, and American Forests. She lives in northern California with her husband and two large dogs.