If your dog loves soft toys, this could break his heart

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dogs and their stuffed animals

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  • In the wild, dogs would seek out and kill prey, which they may carry around in their mouths; holding a soft toy as such may fulfill this innate desire
  • If a puppy is taken from his mother too soon, he may try to mimic the behavior by sucking on a plush toy and kneading it with his paws
  • If your dog is still a puppy, he may enjoy “chewing” on plush toys while he’s teething, as it’s soothing for his gums
  • Some dogs develop an attachment to a plush toy and carry it with them for comfort, as a child might carry a security blanket
  • It’s important to also choose organic, U.S.-made toys, and avoid plush toys made in China, due to the possibility of toxic contaminants

Every dog is unique, and along with that comes a distinct preference when it comes to toys. One dog may love to chase rubber balls while another will prefer squeaky toys or tugs. For some, however, stuffed toys — or plushies — are the clear winner. Dogs may enjoy interacting with plush toys for a number of reasons, starting with their ancestry.

In the wild, dogs would seek out and kill prey, which they may carry around in their mouths. Holding a soft toy as such may fulfill this innate desire. When dogs are born, keep in mind that they’re born into a litter of pups and immediately look to nurse from their mother.

If a puppy is taken from his mother too soon, he may try to mimic the behavior by sucking on a plush toy and kneading it with his paws. When puppies are with their littermates, they may even suckle on each other, so mouthing a plushie is a normal behavior for some dogs — one that may persist into adulthood.

If your dog is still a puppy, he may enjoy “chewing” on plush toys while he’s teething, as it’s soothing for his gums. Still, other dogs can develop an attachment to a plush toy and carry it with them for comfort, as a child might carry a security blanket. Female dogs, in particular, may bond with a stuffed toy the way they might a puppy, and may enjoy “mothering” it, just as human toddlers may carry around baby dolls.

Of course, there are also dogs who love plush toys because they get to unstuff them. In this case, stuffed toys may only last for minutes at a time, especially if there’s a squeaker involved.

Choosing the right plush toy for your pet

If your dog loves plush toys to carry around, you’ll want to choose one that’s small enough to fit in his mouth, but not so small that it could be swallowed. For dogs who love to shake and “kill” their stuffies, choosing a larger, more durable plush (usually made from hemp fiber) is highly recommended.

It’s important to also choose organic, U.S.-made toys, and avoid plush toys made in China, due to the possibility of contamination. When Consumer Affairs tested pet toys that were made in China, but purchased at Walmart, they found dangerous levels of lead, chromium and cadmium.1 I also recommend avoiding synthetic chews made of nylon or flavored plastic, as they could contain questionable ingredients that your dog is better off not ingesting.

Some of the best high-quality, nontoxic dog plushies are those that are handmade and sold at farmers markets or small pet boutiques. However, you can also find some safe organic pet toys online. Avoid giving your dog stuffed animals meant for children, however, as they aren’t intended for dogs. And no matter what type of toy you give your dog, always monitor him while he’s playing.

Once the toy is torn or the stuffing is pulled out, throw it away so your dog doesn’t try to eat it or the squeaker inside. Keep an eye out for any small parts that are on the toy as well; if it has eyes, ears or a nose that can be easily chewed off and swallowed, posing a choking hazard, for instance, don’t give it to your dog.

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How to clean your dog’s favorite plushie

Plushies can quickly pick up dirt and grime, creating more than just an eyesore. When the National Safety Federation (NSF) conducted a study to find the germiest items in a typical home, dog toys made the top 10 list and were found to contain coliform bacteria (including Staph bacteria), yeast and mold.2

Fortunately, plush toys can be added to your washing machine along with your dog’s washable bedding and blankets. Use the sanitize cycle or, if the toy seems more delicate, wash it on cold. Use natural, fragrance-free detergent, or sprinkle toys with baking soda and add vinegar to the rinse cycle.

You can add them to a laundry bag if you’re concerned about the cycle being too rough, but in general high-quality dog toys, which are designed for tough chewing, should have no problem surviving a wash and rinse cycle. Most can also be added to the dryer with no problem, which will help to kill more germs as well. Alternatively, you can let them air dry in the sun, another germ-zapper.

Can your dog become too attached to a stuffie?

As long as your dog isn’t exhibiting any signs of obsessive kneading or sucking on the toy, and isn’t acting aggressive if you come near it, there’s no reason to take his stuffie away. While some dogs tire easily of toys they get to play with every day (which is why swapping them out regularly can help to retain some of their novelty), other dogs will want to keep their stuffed toy by their side day and night.

As dog trainer Liz Kover, speaking to The Dodo, put it, “Dogs are eternally toddlers … There is no reason to replace something that they are really attached to with something else. That one toy she has been attached to — it's part of their repertoire of their comfort things that make up their world."3