Here’s a question for you that may help illustrate the dangers of rawhide chews: How digestible is shoe leather?
Answer: Not very.
So is it a surprise to learn that rawhide is arguably even less digestible?
Plus, rawhide goes through more bleaching processes and is soaked in more chemicals than shoe leather.
All of which makes it even more surprising that rawhide chews are such popular treats for dogs. But the dangers of rawhide chews don’t stop there. The dangers to pets also include:
If you regularly give your dog rawhide chews, then read on. You may want to reconsider that decision.
The Dangers of Rawhide Chews
A quick summary of the dangers of rawhide chews makes for worrying reading:
- The potential for slow poisoning from the toxic chemicals used in processing.
- Dubious origins of some of the chews. Some jerky pet treats sourced from China have been linked to the potentially fatal kidney condition Fanconi syndrome, which raises concern over safety standards generally.1 Not to mention, sometimes there are unapproved additives.
- Choking hazard.
- Bowel blockage (and no, rawhide isn’t digestible).
- Salmonella and E. coli. There were 6 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalls of dog rawhide chews due to salmonella between 2008 and 2011. But this infection isn’t confined to dogs — people in contact with salmonella-contaminated rawhide can also become infected. This is especially serious for the elderly, children or those with weak immune systems.2
Rawhide: The Triumph of Branding Over an Unpalatable Truth?
Question: What is rawhide?
“Hmm,” you might reply, “the clue’s kinda in the name … raw hide.”
Actually, you’re wrong.
A more apt name for rawhide is processed hide … and here’s why.
What Is Rawhide Made of?
Rawhide … ahem, processed hide … is not a food product.
Rawhide is a byproduct of the leather industry.
So full marks for not letting materials go to waste, but major minus points for not being organic or natural — or edible.
How Is Rawhide Made?
The story of rawhide starts with the skin of a slaughtered animal. The skin is removed from the carcass.
The resulting hide is made up of layers, each with a different structure and properties. When that skin is turned into shoes or a handbag, it’s the valuable outer layer that’s used.
It’s the inner “waste” layers that get turned into chews, glue, soap and so on. (Spot a common theme here: Glue and soap are not food products.)
To understand why rawhide is so highly processed, take a look at how the valuable outer grain, or leather, is harvested. This is part of the tanning process, which is an involved multistep process.
Let’s summarize it here:
- Preservation: Fresh from the carcass, the hide is given a chemical bath. This is to stop the skin from degrading before it can be processed. Not doing this means the hide would rot.
- Stripping away hair and fat: At the tannery, ash-lye or sodium sulphide lime is used to strip away hair on the outside and fat on the underside.
- Puffing the hide: More chemicals are added that “puff” the hide and make it easier to split into layers. Now that this stuff has been through a significant number of chemical baths already, let’s just follow the “raw hide” layer to see what happens to it next.
- Whitening and bleaching: The inner layer of hide is washed in bleach, hydrogen peroxide or chemicals to remove the smell of rotten leather and whiten it.
- Prettify: To make the “rawhide” look and smell appealing on the pet store shelf, it needs to be colored and flavored in some way. This often involves coatings of chemicals, including titanium oxide, sodium benzoate and known carcinogens such as FD&C Red 40.
From a layer of soggy, stringy fat to a bone-shaped chew is quite a journey. But not so “raw” hide now, is it?
That chewy treat your dog chows down on has been soaked in chemical preservatives, ash-lye, chemical puffers, bleach and then colors and flavors.
Hmm … tasty or toxic?
Even for those of you who are comfortable with the above, the dangers of rawhide chews don’t end there.
The problems can be much more immediate than a slow, sustained exposure to chemicals, because blocked bowels and choking are very real hazards.
Is Rawhide Digestible?
Short answer: No, rawhide is not digestible.
When your pet chows down on a rawhide chew, they soften and macerate it. When they weaken the main chew sufficiently they pull smalls chunks away, which the dog then invariably swallows as a prize.
Guess what? That chunk is not digestible and travels right through the digestive tract and is passed out in their poop.
Does Rawhide Dissolve in the Stomach?
No, rawhide does not dissolve in the dog’s stomach. In fact, the opposite is true — the rawhide swells up.
Far from being broken down, rawhide forces your dog to pass the pieces they swallow, making for a risk of bowel blockage. This makes it a matter of luck as to whether the dog gets a minor bellyache or a major blockage in their bowel.
This is no small matter. A foreign body lodged in the gut is a very serious, potentially life-threatening problem.
Not only can food not pass along to be digested, but if the rawhide chunk is big enough, it could damage the bowel wall, causing tissue death and serious sepsis.
The symptoms of this include:
- Persistent vomiting
- Lack of energy
Early detection gives the dog a fighting chance, but the diagnostic work-up and subsequent surgical removal of the offending object are costly. The surgery is not without risk of serious complications, such as peritonitis.
How Long Does Rawhide Take to Digest in a Dog?
Sadly, rawhide has the digestible qualities of shoe leather, which, we’ve agreed, isn’t digestible.
If you would worry that the dog swallowed part of your shoe, then apply the same logic — because rawhide chews aren’t a good idea.
At What Age Can Puppies Have Rawhide?
Those young, developing kidneys are especially sensitive, and early exposure to chemicals could potentially damage their development.
The Dangers of Rawhide Chews: Choking
This isn’t just a scare story — it happens.
A client of mine, whose beloved dog was the last link to her deceased daughter, lost that priceless pet to a rawhide chew.
This cuddly bear of a dog was found dead in the morning. Overnight, she’d choked on a rawhide bone that was kept in her bed. She must have chewed the treat in the night and tried to swallow the knuckle end.
Tragically, the piece was too big to go down her esophagus, got stuck in her throat and blocked her windpipe. Unable to breathe, the dog asphyxiated and died.
Never leave a dog alone with a rawhide chew.
Tips to Reduce the Dangers of Rawhide Chews
I’m not being a killjoy for the sake of it. Make your own (informed) decision about what’s best for your dog. If you then decide to continue giving rawhide chews to your dog, at least do so as safely as possible:
- Buy rawhide chews sourced from countries that source goods reliably and have high processing standards.
- Wash your hands after handling rawhide chews. This is for your own sake, to reduce the risk of picking up a stomach illness — or worse, salmonella or E. coli. This is essential for people on chemotherapy or with weak immune systems.
- Give the right-sized chew treat for the dog. For example, don’t give a puppy-sized treat to an adult dog — they may just try to swallow it whole.
- Always supervise the dog while they’re chewing, and remove the treat when you’re not in the room.3
- Remove the chew and throw it away once it’s small enough for the dog to swallow.
Listen to this veterinarian list the risks of certain dog treats, including the dangers of rawhide chews:
OK, so your dog loves a rawhide chew. Coming in from a long walk for a satisfying chew is what makes their tail wag.
Fair enough. You don’t want to deprive them of a good chew (it is, after all, a natural thing to do). But how about choosing a safer and more wholesome alternative than exposing them to the dangers of rawhide chews?
Here are some suggestions:
- Vegetables: Crunchy-munchy vegetables such as carrots, green beans, apple or cabbage stalks make for a nutritious chew.
- Nylabones: These synthetic chew bones are durable and a satisfying chew. They slowly disintegrate into rice-sized pieces that are digestible. However, avoid the dog swallowing one whole (it happens!), and remove the chew before it’s small enough to swallow.
- Chew toys: There’s a great variety of chew-safe rubber chew toys these days. To make them extra tempting, try smearing the outside with a little peanut butter.
- Yak chews: These innovative chews are made from yak milk, making them both safe and delicious. But the same rules apply: Remove small pieces that could be swallowed.
- Puzzle feeders: The iconic KONG smeared with peanut butter or stuffed with wet food makes for a great chewing experience.
- Rice chews: Most pet superstores stock a wide range of edible chews made from rice.
- Dental chews: Again, these are safe as long as large chunks aren’t swallowed whole.
The Hidden Dangers of Popular Alternatives
What, there are no bones on the list of safe chews?
Whether or not to give bones is a whole different argument — either way, bones don’t make it onto my “safe” list.
Other popular alternatives to rawhide include deer antlers and hooves. However, these have a different set of problems. They can be hugely damaging to the dog’s teeth.
Many veterinary dental specialists are seeing a huge upsurge in dogs needing complex dental extractions because of fractured teeth.
Happy and Healthy
Chewing is a natural activity. Your dog needs a safe outlet to express this behavior or risk them destroying soft furnishings and shoes.
But the emphasis is on “safe.”
Think carefully about how you satisfy your dog’s need to chew so they stay both happy and healthy.
What to read next:
These specific treats are responsible for a worrying rise in cases of death and illness in dogs. See the article