When two of Nancy Rogers’ beloved 8-year-old Shelties unexpectedly died within weeks of each other in 2007, she wondered what caused their death. At that time, 7 million Mattel children’s toys that were made in China were being recalled for containing excessive amounts of lead, which causes serious developmental and mental-health problems in children who are younger than age 6. Rogers wondered whether lead or other chemicals in her pets’ toys might have contributed to their deaths, so the Illinois nurse hired a laboratory to analyze 24 of her dogs’ chew toys.
The tests revealed that one of her dogs’ “tennis” balls contained 335.7 parts per million (ppm) of lead. That’s more than three times the maximum amount of lead (100 ppm) that’s allowed in children’s toys, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is the federal agency that’s charged with protecting the public from unsafe products.
However, no federal limit exists for the amount of lead or any other chemical that’s allowed in pet products. In fact, CPSC doesn’t regulate pet products, period. Neither does Food and Drug Administration. CPSC regulates only pet toys that can put people, not animals, at risk.
“I don’t know of any other agency that does,” CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson says.
We found three studies in the past 9 years that found elevated levels of potentially toxic chemicals that are in pet toys (more on those studies later). However, 15 experts tell us that no scientific consensus exists on the potential dangers of chemicals that are in pet products, because no research has been conducted on the long-term adverse effects of chemicals on pets.
In other words, without any standards or guidance on the safe limits of chemicals that are in pet products, Rogers still wonders about the significance of her now 9-year-old test results. The results didn’t solve the mystery of why Rogers’ dogs died, and they didn’t link her pets’ sudden illness to lead poisoning. Rogers just came away with more questions.
“We need standards for what amounts of lead and other chemicals are harmful to dogs and cats,” Rogers says. “Without standards and more clinical research about the effects of toxins in pet toys, we don’t know what the numbers for the test results mean.”
We find it alarming that we don’t know more about what’s in pet toys, considering how much money that’s spent on such toys each year.
Consumers spent an average of $47 per year in 2015 on dog toys, and 77.8 million pet dogs live in the United States, according to American Pet Products Association (APPA), which is a trade association. Likewise, consumers spent an average of $28 per year in 2015 on cat toys, and 85.8 million pet cats live in the United States, APPA says. No statistics exist on the total amount of money that consumers spend on pet toys, but going by APPA’s numbers, the total amounts to at least $6 billion.
THE STUDIES. APPA receives plenty of complaints about chew bones and breathing obstructions. However, the organization says it hasn’t received reports of pets that had “ill effects from playing with any pet toy” because of toxic chemicals that are in the toy.
Still, three independent studies in the past 9 years found elevated levels of potentially dangerous toxins that are in pet toys, and those studies give the 15 experts with whom we spoke reason for concern.
A 2007 Consumeraffairs.com test on imported Chinese pet toys found that a variety of the toys were tainted with toxic heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium and lead. The chemicals, which are known cancer agents and neurological poisons, are released from toys when pets lick and chew them, says Ernest Lykissa, who is the toxicologist who assessed the toys.
In September 2009, Ecology Center, which is an environmental organization, examined at least 400 pet products—including pet toys and “tennis” balls but also beds, collars and leashes—for toxins. The researchers found that 45 percent of the products contained at least one hazardous toxin that’s linked to cancer, liver and reproductive problems as well as developmental and learning disabilities. The toxins include arsenic, bromine, chlorine and lead. Seven percent of the products had lead levels that were above 300 ppm.
Forty-eight percent of the “tennis” balls contained lead, while none of the tennis balls that are made specifically for sports contain lead. The lettering that was on one pet tennis ball contained a staggering 2,696 ppm of lead, which is about 27 times the amount of lead that’s allowed in children’s toys. The lettering also contained 262 ppm of arsenic, which is a known human carcinogen.
Jeff Gearhart, who is the research director at Ecology Center, says the results show the necessity of more research into federal safety guidelines that limit lead and other chemicals that are in pet products that are made for cats and dogs. He says such standards would protect pets and young children, who might put a pet’s toy in their mouth. Every expert whom we interviewed agrees.
“Pets, like children, have higher exposure to chemical hazards, and our data show that pet products are far more likely to have hazardous chemicals than children’s toys,” Gearhart says.
Most scientists and veterinary toxicologists agree that a limit should exist for lead that’s in pet products, because a limit exists for lead that’s in children’s toys, says Tina Wismer, who is the medical director of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Poison Control Center.
Although she hasn’t seen a case of lead toxicity that was linked to a pet toy, Wismer says long-term exposure to lead can jeopardize a pet’s health. According to Merck Manual for Pet Health, which is considered to be a comprehensive manual on animal health, lead poisoning in dogs can cause bleeding and swelling of the brain, damage kidneys and suppress the immune system. The manual says lead toxicity leads to anemia, gastrointestinal problems, neurological damage, seizures, vomiting, weight loss and even death. Old wall paint, metallic toys and fishing weights are the most common causes of lead poisoning in pets, experts say.
APPA says most pet-product manufacturers voluntarily follow the federal limits for lead that’s in children’s toys. We found 15 pet-toy manufacturers that claim in their marketing that their products have less than 100 ppm of lead. However, no independent third-party laboratory certifies those toys for meeting that level. In other words, you have to take the 15 pet-toy manufacturers at their word. Furthermore, obviously, many more manufacturers and marketers of pet toys exist. We searched the exhibitor list for the SuperZoo pet-products trade show, which convened in August 2016 on the keyword “toy.” Sixty-three companies came up.
In another study, a 2012 Texas Tech University team found high concentrations of bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in cylindrical-shape fetching sticks that are used to train dogs how to retrieve. Texas Tech researchers also detected lower levels of those chemicals in plastic chew toys. BPA and phthalates are used to make plastic and vinyl more elastic and have been linked to reproductive problems in humans and rodents.
In the study, Phil Smith, who is an associate professor of terrestrial ecotoxicology at Texas Tech, and graduate student Kimberly Wooten analyzed 48 fetching sticks and 12 chew toys. They created fake dog saliva and then, to simulate a chewing motion, squeezed those fetching sticks and toys with stainless steel salad tongs. The researchers discovered that BPA and phthalates leached from the fetching sticks in concentrations that would be considered on the high end of what one might find in children’s toys but still under levels that are considered to be safe for adults. However, the same study found that the chew toys had high levels of BPA and phthalates but were on the lower end of what one might find in children’s toys. In other words, the results from the fetching sticks were more problematic than were the results from the chew toys, but both sets of results still were concerning.
“The chemicals leaked out of those products at high concentrations, but it’s hard to say what high means,” Smith says. “It would be great to have more research and data that suggest what levels are harmful to pets.”
Smith and Wooten stop short of saying that their study proves that the fetching sticks and chew toys are toxic to dogs, because they don’t know what concentrations of BPA and phthalates might cause health problems in dogs.
“We don’t have enough data,” Wooten says. “This is an area where a lot more research is left to be done.”
In July 2012, the United States banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s sipping cups, but it still is allowed in children’s toys. Some phthalates aren’t allowed in children’s toys, either. However, no ban or restrictions exist of BPA or phthalates from pet toys. That’s unfortunate.
“The potential issues of toxicity associated with pet toys should be an issue not only for pets but also for any young infants or children who are crawling and walking around and contacting pets,” says veterinarian Dr. Jean Dobbs.
WHAT TO DO. No standards or regulations in pet products exist, but pet owners can avoid potential toxins.
Almost all of the experts whom we interviewed tell us that you should avoid buying plastic chew toys. If you buy plastic chew toys, Mike Schade of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which is a consumer-advocacy group that campaigns against toxic chemicals, urges pet owners to avoid pet toys that are made of polyvinyl chloride or vinyl plastic. These products contain harmful phthalates and often are chewed or sucked on, which increases the chances that phthalates are released and absorbed or ingested. Instead, Schade says, you should look for products that are made of polypropylene, which is considered to be a safe plastic.
Almost all of the experts whom we interviewed also tell us that you should feed your pet from a stainless steel—rather than a ceramic—bottle, bowl or plate. Ceramic products can leach chemicals into food and water, while stainless steel products don’t leach any chemicals. Experts agree that it’s wise to avoid ceramics altogether, because some products have been found to have elevated levels of BPA.
“I tell pet owners to be careful with any product that their dog’s or cat’s food and water come in contact with,” says veterinary toxicologist Dr. Justine Lee of ASPCA.
PetSmart, which is one of the largest pet retailers in the United States, is the only retailer that we found that claims to use an independent third-party laboratory to test the pet products that it contracts for manufacture and sells under its own brands, including Top Paw, regardless of the product’s origin, for lead and phthalates.
“We choose to hold our private-label pet toys to the same strict chemical standards that the federal government requires for children’s toys,” the company tells us.
PetSmart also uses a third-party laboratory to test its private-label pet products for antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury and selenium, which are chemicals that aren’t banned federally but are regulated in children’s products in some states.
“As new information becomes available, we update our standards and guidelines,” the company says.
In July 2016, Wal-Mart Stores announced that it asked its suppliers to remove eight “high-priority” chemicals, including phthalates, from products that are sold in U.S. stores. Wal-Mart Stores’ program affects 90,000 items, including pet products.
“This underscores the need for suppliers to take steps and eliminate chemicals, like phthalates and lead and BPA, which have been identified in pet toys over the years,” Schade says.
We found 15 companies that claim to make “natural” or “toxic-free” pet products out of natural cotton, hemp and rubber, but no consensus exists on what constitutes a toxic pet product or what the word “natural” means. Most of the 15 companies state on their website that their products are free of BPA, lead, phthalates or other potentially toxic materials. We found that the companies typically use polypropylene instead of potentially toxic plastics.
As of press time, New York State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee was considering amending its environmental conservation law, which regulates toxic chemicals that are in children’s products, to include pet products. The amended law would forbid the sale in New York of any pet product that contains 10 chemicals, including lead, and their associated compounds. At press time, no one could tell us when or whether the law would advance beyond committee. It’s the only legislative call to action that we found for pet-toy regulations as of press time.
“We’re all animals,” Schade says. “We often look at animal studies to see how chemicals might be harmful to humans. If there are safe alternatives to chemicals, such as phthalates and lead, why take an unnecessary risk with our beloved companions?”
We completely agree, and we urge CPSC and FDA to wake up and take the health and safety of our furry friends seriously.
Lisa McCormick is an investigative producer for WDAF-TV in Kansas City, Missouri, and has spent 22 years as an investigative journalist. She has written about pet issues for Bark and Dog Fancy.