Teddy bears, tennis balls, flexible rubber flying discs — every pet store carries a seemingly endless variety of toys and gadgets for man’s best friend. But it’s up to you as a pet parent to bring home toys that won’t pose a danger to your dog.

Toxic toys

Shopping for dog toys is unfortunately not as worry-free as you might think. The nonprofit advocacy group Ecology Center tested more than 400 pet products in 2009 for hazardous chemicals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, chlorine (PVC) and arsenic. The results were alarming.

  • Almost half of the pet products had detectable levels of one or more hazardous chemical.
  • A quarter of them had detectable levels of lead.
  • Seven percent had lead levels greater than the Consumer Product Safety Commission standard for lead in children's products.
  • Nearly half of pet tennis balls had detectable levels of lead, while sports tennis balls contained none.

“Since there are no government standards for hazardous chemicals in pet products, it is not surprising that toxic chemicals were found,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.

Related: The Right Way to Walk Your Dog

“Pets are the canary in the coalmine in terms of chemical exposure” since dogs lick both toys and themselves, says Gearhart. And since you share your home with your dog, the whole family may be exposed to the chemicals pet products might be releasing, says Gearhart.

Here are some tips on how to choose safer dog toys:

  • Look for seals that indicate organic certification or FDA approval.
  • Beware of products that don’t disclose materials in the packaging. If you really want to give them a try, contact the manufacturer and ask what the toy made of.
  • Pick simpler toys. A simple toy made of natural products will probably be safer.
  • Look for natural products on the label, such as jute, wool, cotton, coconut fiber, natural gum rubber and leather.
  • Avoid toys with strong chemical smells. Some chemicals are odorless, but if the toy has a strong funny smell, it could indicate the presence of a toxic chemical product.
  • Look for dye-free toys. Fabric dyes may contain toxic ingredients and leach dye when wet.
  • If you are looking for chew toys and rubbery toys, make sure they are phthalate-free. A number of phthalates — substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity —are known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm in test animals.
  • Shop at stores interested in the environment. Markets and pet stores with an eco-friendly attitude are pickier when deciding what to display on their shelves.
  • Look for companies with a conscience. Explore their website and how they started. If their focus is on health, safety and the environment, there's a good chance they use less or no chemicals.

Gearhart advises you to voice your concerns to manufacturers, insist on knowing exactly what goes into your dog’s toys and choose carefully the companies you buy from. “That’s the power of marketplace.”

Tattered toys

Chemical free or not, if you live with Puppy the Destroyer, there’s also a risk toys will be ripped apart and your pooch will ingest a piece. “Dogs are notorious for eating things,” says Samuel D. Stewart, DVM, a vet at Massachusetts Veterinary Referral Hospital in Woburn, Massachusetts.

No toy is indestructible. But you may be able to avoid an emergency hospital visit if you know your dog’s habits and discard dangerous toys, adds Stewart. “It all comes down to how much you know your dog.” Surgery is painful, life-threatening and will be a four-digit expense, so keep an eye on your dog while he plays with a new toy. If he breaks it, throw it away.

Related: 8 Tricks for Giving Medicine to a Dog or Cat

Dog toy safety 101

Here are some tips to make puppy playtime safe:

  • Remove any parts that may get detached, such as tassels, strings, eyes, ears and tails. Your dog may eat them on purpose or by mistake, Stewart says.
  • Don’t let your dog play with old shoes or a toy that resembles them. He’ll learn that similar items are OK to chew on, says Stewart.
  • Inspect every toy before giving it to your pooch. Look for rips and toss any broken or ripped toys. “The insides of a toy may be ingested,” says Stewart. It’s especially common for dogs to swallow squeakers.
  • Never give your dog a bone from your kitchen to play with. Those can splinter and cause her to choke. Same thing for corncobs. “Dogs can’t digest them,” says Stewart, and your pooch will need surgery to have it removed. Rawhide toys are also a choking hazard and should only be given to dogs when you’re there to supervise (and with a vet’s approval), according to the Humane Society of the United States.
  • Get rid of toys you think your dog might destroy. If they would be safe for a less destructive dog, Stewart suggests donating them to a charity or shelter.

A toy for every pastime

Depending on your dog’s mood, he might be up for cuddling a toy or catching a ball. No matter the occasion, there’s a toy for it.

Running and jumping. Balls and flying discs are perfect to get your active dog to burn extra energy. Never give him a ball so small he could swallow it (large breeds can even swallow tennis balls), and supervise the play until you’re sure it’s the right ball for your dog. If he swallows it, he may choke or need surgery. Avoid cheap plastic discs that may crack and splinter if he bites them. Choose a thick rubber one, suggests the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Chewing. Get your dog a strong rubber toy, which may come with holes to hold treats or delicacies like peanut butter or cheese. The treats reward him for playing and provide mental stimulation. Tough rubber toys also may come in funny shapes that make them bounce randomly, adding more fun to the game, the AVMA says.

Cuddling. Soft fleece or plush toys are great for snuggle time. Your dog may prefer the ones with squeakers. Just beware of the risk of swallowing them, the AVMA advises.

Related: Caring for Your Older Dog

Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.