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Rawhides for Dogs: To Chew or Not to Chew?

Last September I found myself in an upstate New York country vet’s office on a Friday night at roughly 1 a.m., hugging my sobbing, future sister-in-law, Theresa.

Her dog, Raila, a Shepherd mix, started breathing strangely earlier in the day. Raila’s wheezing gave way to rattling sounds when she exhaled. She also had a lower than usual energy level, and did not bark when someone approached the front door. In fact, she wasn’t barking at all.

Having owned four dogs I have seen my share of out of the ordinary behaviors.

I have also learned that the most important thing to do when you suspect there is a problem is to follow your gut instinct. The old adage, “Better safe than sorry,” always applies. Following my gut, combined with quick action saved my Cocker Spaniel, Anise, from going blind from a cat scratch, and also from complications from colitis, as well as aided prolonging my former Shepherd, Nyla’s life.

Concerned for Raila, I went into detective mode and asked if Raila had eaten anything unusual. Theresa replied that she hadn’t. Then, I noticed a piece of rawhide on the floor. Knowing the dangers of rawhide, I asked about the “treat.” Theresa did not suspect it as the culprit and said Raila had eaten those treats in the past. However, she also admitted to being a little hesitant to give one to Raila that morning because, some months before, another family dog, Carmella, a Shiba Inu, nearly choked to death on the exact same type of treat.

After fretful hours of trying to figure out Raila’s behavior and watching Raila get worse over the course of the evening – to the point where she couldn’t drink water – Theresa agreed to take the dog to an emergency vet.

Sure enough, rawhide was to blame. The vet gave Raila a fast-acting tranquilizer so he could look down her throat. He determined the rawhide had completely passed down her throat (scraping as it went; imagine swallowing a Dorito) so she was out of the woods. Raila was lucky. Although she suffered a nasty scratch to the throat that required two-weeks-worth of antibiotics, and had to eat a modified diet for one week, she recovered.

Not every dog is so lucky.

Do you know about the dangers of rawhide? Many otherwise informed and conscientious dog parents do not realize that feeding their beloved pooch rawhide treats may lead to, among other ailments, choking, intestinal blockage, pancreatitis and even death.

Rawhide. The stuff is everywhere. And it is available in so many different forms. Choose your own dead animal part pig snouts, ears, hooves, innards or just plain cow skin.

Why is it risky business to feed your dog these treats? Let us delve into the heart of the hide and learn why. Rawhide is cured animal hide pressed into shapes, such as bones, or just left au natural. This seemingly ultimate chew toy (inexpensive and hey! Dogs love’em) has lurking danger potential, especially if you do not monitor your dog’s chewing habits.

Rawhide can be chewed up into tiny pieces and scratch the throat on the way down to the gut, as in Raila’s case. That is if it makes it to the gut. Choking is another very real danger of rawhide as the uneven, gnarled pieces may get lodged in your pet’s throat. If the happy hide makes its way down there without a hitch, then you need to worry about acute pancreatitis and intestinal blockage.

Surprised? Thought you were just keeping Fido happy?

Rawhide is also not regulated so any old “ingredient” may find its way in there, including arsenic and formaldehyde. So it is best to buy American or Canadian rawhides only. Also, as rawhides are made from animal bi-products, salmonella is a worry. And as many dogs are allergic to various substances, it is best to buy the unbleached kind.

If you are still interested, consider what one Texas-based craftsperson, Dusti Summerbird-Lockey, who also runs the Dallas/Fort Worth-based Dane Angel Network, writes about the dangers of rawhide. Since he is an artist who works with rawhide, he knows first hand how dangerous the material can be for animals.
He describes the manufacturing of rawhide, explaining that rawhide comes from bull, cow and horsehides obtained from slaughterhouses. Once all meat is scraped off, the hide is repeatedly soaked in either an ash-lye solution or a lime solution. The ash-lye involves covering or soaking the hide in a mixture of wood ash and water, which creates lye. The hide soaks for approximately three days in the lye solution, then as much of the hair as possible is scraped off. The process is repeated until all hair is removed.

The lime solution is the quickest and most often utilized by manufacturers… The hide soaks for one to three days and the hair is scraped off. This process is highly caustic but the most efficient for mass production.

As if this weren’t scary enough, the lime solution is removed with a bleach solution. This process also ‘sanitizes’ the rawhide. The rawhide is then pressed into shapes and dried, during which time the rawhide shrinks up to half of its size.

This means that the rawhide can expand in a dog’s stomach, once it is wet with saliva and swallowed. The gastric juices will not break it down and it is this bloated piece of hide that can cause stomach upset or even death.

So, now what? Luckily you are not stuck with the hide.

If you want to provide your dog with a safer, chewy treat there are alternatives. Try bone-shaped salmon skins, which are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, sweet potato chews, rich in beta carotene and antioxidants, or Kong® toys, which are durable rubber toys that can be stuffed with soft treat material; and there are many more nutritious treats to be found at holistic pet stores. However, to refer to another adage “an ounce of prevention” always keep a close eye on your furry loved ones while they are munching on treats.

Wendy Doscher-Smith is a journalist, dog photographer and groomer. She can be reached at