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Are rawhide chews safe for your pet?

Of the many questions I'm asked, the most common is, "Is rawhide safe?"

I'm a little uncomfortable answering this question because dogs (and all pets) are unique, so what works well for one may not be right for another.

Humans offer their canine companions rawhide chews for various reasons. You might give a dog a rawhide chew to reduce behavior problems, such as barking or destructive chewing, or for the dental benefits.

It's important to understand exactly what rawhide is. Essentially it is the hide from an animal such as a cow or pig. Like humans, animals have more than one layer of skin. The outer, thickest layer is often used to make leather furniture, clothing, shoes, etc., while the inner, softer layer is frequently used for rawhide chews.

There are three main concerns regarding rawhide. First, knowing where the rawhide originates can offer clues as to the quality. What the animal was fed (grains, free range, etc.), the conditions in which it was raised, its health, or if it is routinely given hormones or antibiotics will all play a role in the overall quality or safety of the end result - a rawhide chew.

A second concern is how the hide is transported. Many times a refrigerated truck is not available and to ensure that the hide doesn't spoil, hazardous measures may be taken.

Sometimes harsh, potentially dangerous chemicals such as arsenic or titanium dioxide are applied to the hide, which is then transported for days or weeks to the manufacturing plant.

The final concern is a clean and safe process for curing the hide. The hide should be rinsed free of hair and dirt with clean water and then soaked or cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. Much of the poorer quality rawhide is cleaned by soaking in a commercial lime/water solution and then bleached to remove the lime and sanitize the hide.

Once the rawhide is clean, it should be dried in a special drying process similar to how fruit is dried for human consumption. Sun drying causes uneven drying, possible bacteria growth and the potential for over-drying, which causes a brittle and possibly unsafe product.

It can be difficult for consumers to know which rawhide is a quality product. Read labels to determine country of origin or type of processing, or ask questions at a reputable pet supply shop or your veterinarian.

The better brands, specifically those made in the U.S., cost a little more, but are worth every penny.

Don't be fooled into thinking you can determine the safety of rawhide by looking at it.

Be sure to talk with your veterinarian if your dog has gastrointestinal or digestive problems. Keep in mind that young puppies have immature digestive systems and should enjoy a chew treat specifically made for their age.

Rawhide should not be given to dogs unattended, as it can pose a choking hazard; the small, chewed-down pieces should be thrown away. Offer your dog a variety of chewing alternatives but, "For the Love of Pets," choose them responsibly.

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Karen Fieldhammer is a pet lover and owner of a local pet products store. She has been researching pet nutrition since 2004.