Updated: Dec 23, 2021
The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes a slew of tasty treats to indulge in. If you’re trying to share the season’s tasteful abundance, you might be tempted to snag a Christmas rawhide for your pet. We’d recommend you hold off on that—there are safer, healthier, and all-around better treats for your pet than these green and red dyed chews.
What Are Rawhides?
If you’re not sure what the big uproar about feeding rawhides is (haven’t pets been having them forever?) then the first thing you need to know is it’s not actually a food product—it’s the leftovers of the leather industry. This classification is important because it means companies can bypass food safety standards and regulations. As you learn more about rawhides, you’re going to be struck by “how is that legal?” and other similar outbursts of indignation, and this is the answer: because it’s not “technically” food.
As a disclaimer, we should mention that, as with anything, where the rawhide originated can affect the quality and standards of its production. Hides shipped in from overseas have likely undergone significantly more processing and exposure to chemical preservatives.
A Brief History of Rawhide
When a product makes it into the mainstream market for as long as rawhide has, we tend to forget to examine it any closer. So how did we get here? Stick with us for a quick history lesson: prior to the 1950s, dog toys were a piece of rope, a ball, a stick, or—if they were very lucky—an unattended leather shoe. After WWII, the fairly-new commercial rubber industry couldn’t keep up with the demands of chewing-obsessed dogs, and leather dress shoes were still being destroyed in untold numbers.
At this point, leather makers collectively realized it was their time to shine. The leather industry only uses the outermost layers of skin for their products, while the inner layers were, at the time, discarded. Suddenly there was a purpose for this otherwise useless byproduct, and rawhide became an example of upcycling: the surplus leather byproduct started being dried, layered, and portioned into dog treats. At least, that’s all we assume they did to rawhides back then— the specifics of the process weren’t widely discussed, and therefore no serious concerns were raised. After all, everyone was probably just happy their shoes could make it through the day unscathed.
Modern Day Rawhides: How are They Made?
Today, rawhides are one of the most popular dog chews in the world, and their popularity means we know a bit more about their construction. Let’s quickly go through the manufacturing process step-by-step.
Step 1: Chemical Preservatives
Fresh hides get treated with chemical preservatives or high-salt brines to slow the onset of decay before being shipped to the tanneries. As we mentioned, hides shipped from overseas are treated much more intensively in this step than ones that originate closer to the tanneries where they will be processed.
Step 2: Liming or Lye for Hair Removal
When they arrive at the tannery, the hides are soaked in a toxic solution of sodium sulphide liming or an ash lye solution to remove the hair. The first layer is then stripped and sent off for use in the leather industry.
Step 3: Bleach or Formaldehyde for Bleaching
The remaining layers kept for rawhide get cleaned using a combination of bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and/or formaldehyde. This step helps remove any smell and preserve the hide, as some of them may have begun to rot by this point. The use of bleach serves to whiten the rawhide; for some less reputable companies, this is important because a discerning consumer may know that a naturally creamy white hide is of higher quality than darker yellow hides. If an unscrupulous company is looking to cut corners by splitting the hides into thinner layers, this is the step where they’ll do it (more on that later).
Step 4: Artificial Colour and Flavouring
Depending on how the hide has been treated up until this point, it might not
seem appealing, even to a dog. To solve this, the rawhide can be basted, smoked, and soaked with artificial flavours. Some even get coated with dental chemicals with the promise of promoting healthy teeth. This step is also where festive, artificial colouring and paint come in to lure unsuspecting pet owners with the idea of “seasonal treats”.
Step 5: Product Shaping With Glue
Next, the hide is shaped—sometimes all it takes is the fancy braids or the
near-cartoonish “dog bone” shape that convinces pet parents to purchase. The reality is, these treated hides don’t always dry and hold the shape they were folded into: sometimes, they need to be glued together. If a company is okay putting formaldehyde, bleach, and other toxic chemicals in a dog chew, do you think they’re using organic and food-safe glue? You can probably answer this one yourself.
The Dangers of Rawhide
If you’ve been giving your dog rawhides for years and never seen any adverse side effects, here’s why:
You’ve been very lucky.
You haven’t been able to see the effects of slow, micro-dosing chemicals yet.
This isn’t a judgement. In fact, several pet parents here at Red Dog Blue Kat have given their dog a rawhide treat before—maybe not dogs we have right now, but certainly dogs we raised and cherished in years past (after all, we’ve been at this a while). We live and breathe healthy pets here, so if we’ve fallen for the allure of the Christmas-themed rawhide before, then we hope you can forgive yourself for having done the same. After all, rawhides rarely have ingredient labels on them, so how can anyone be expected to know? Remember, these chews aren’t classified as food, so companies have no legal obligations to mention any chemicals involved in the process of making them.
There may be little to no ingredient information on the label, but there is one very important piece of information provided there: a warning label. Rawhides pose a significant choking hazard to your pet! Once your dog has gone to town on a rawhide long enough, their saliva will have softened it to the point where they can break off chunks—frequently chunks that are too large for them to safely swallow, and they can easily choke.
Alternatively, as mentioned in step 3 of the rawhide process, some companies split the hide into thin layers to stretch out the product. (Surprise! If they do this step, it involves—you guessed it—more chemicals.) These types of rawhides don’t need to be softened to become a choking hazard: they’re thin enough that strong chewers can splinter off sharp shards which can poke holes in the esophagus, stomach, and intestines or bowels.
Labels on rawhides will warn you to monitor your pup while they chew and to either remove any pieces that break off or take the entire rawhide away if they have worked it to the point where it has become soft. If your dog swallows these pieces, they can get stuck in the throat or digestive system, resulting in a vet visit and invasive surgery to remove it, or worse. About 25% of pets that get a gastrointestinal blockage from a rawhide will die, which is a frankly terrifying statistic for any pet parent.
Knowing Who To Trust & Doing Your Research
Did you know that rawhides are “just as safe” for cats as for dogs? And yet, any cat owner could tell you their cat has next to no interest in a rawhide treat. While we can’t pretend to be kitty mind readers, it’s probably because cats are a little bit more skeptical and particular: they trust you; they just don’t trust that weird-smelling chew you just thrust in their face.
So we should all think like cats. We can find stores and brands that are honest about their ingredients and quality assurances and earn our trust, but be prepared to do some research if someone recommends a product you haven’t tried before. Some companies claim their hides don’t come from overseas and therefore don’t need as many chemicals to ensure the quality of the rawhide, and some companies don’t split the hide into dangerously thin slices. Certainly, these are better options than other rawhides, but that doesn’t negate that these chews are exposed to some dangerous chemicals. Plus, rawhide chunks that haven't been fully saturated still pose the omnipresent risk of choking or experiencing an internal blockage.
What’s the Healthy Alternative to Rawhide?
If it wasn’t the fancy braided Christmas wreath that caught your attention, maybe you tried rawhides because you heard feeding raw is the healthiest option for your pet (for most, it is), and you figured rawhide would fit under that umbrella (it doesn’t). Despite the name, these hides are in no way raw when they get to your pet—they’re very, very processed. The only thing that might be nice about them is they give your dog something to chew other than your shoes!
Don’t panic though, you don’t have to pick out your least-favourite shoes for a sacrificial offering. There are plenty of healthy options that will satisfy your dog’s need to chew without exposing them to the dangers of rawhide.
**Disclaimer:** Even though all of these options are safer and healthier than rawhides, no chew is 100% choking-safe. You should always monitor your pet while they chew. (Plus, it’s fun watching them “figure out” their chews like tasty little puzzles.)
1. Raw Bones
If your dog is crazy for rawhides and you’re hesitant to deny them their go-to favourite chewing occupation, then let us introduce you to raw bones. Try buffalo femurs for gnawing or beef knuckles for big chewers. We promise your dog won’t be reminiscing the days of rawhide after chewing these. Remember, raw bones are okay but cooked bones are an absolute no-no!
Deer and elk antlers are a great all-natural alternative to rawhides! They’re the longest-lasting option, and they don’t splinter easily. In fact, the biggest concern with antlers is due to their durability—the threat of a heavy-chomping dog cracking a tooth. As with all chews, monitor your dog closely and make sure they’re practicing safe chewing habits! (And make sure you tell your pup it didn’t come from Santa’s reindeer!)
3. Himalayan Chews
These chews are made of a mixture of yak and cow milk that is dried over weeks to form a hard, cheesy-tasting treat. This chew is 100% digestible, so once your pet has chewed the ends enough to soften it up, they can snack on cheesy little nibbles. This is a great source of protein for dogs that can provide hours of entertainment! A word of caution here: these can also be hard enough to crack a tooth in more aggressive chewers, so know your dog’s chew type. Also, if these are dropped from a height, they can fracture into small shards that are sharp, but still digestible. You can soak the leftover pieces or broken shards from these chews in water overnight and then “puff” them up in the microwave, for an additional crispy treat!
4. Bully Sticks
Bully sticks have recently surpassed rawhides as the go-to favourite dog chew, and they have all the benefits with none of the pitfalls. They’re long-lasting, easily digestible, and have great dental benefits. Plus, they’re made of a single-source protein, usually beef, from a single piece of, er, anatomy. (If you don’t already know, then trust us—you know enough.)
Not all alternatives require a trip to the pet store! Raw or frozen full-size carrots can be an accessible and natural crunchy chew for your dog. However, only feed large, regular size carrots, as baby carrots can be a choking hazard, and limit your dog to one carrot a day.
6. DIY Chew Treats
Do you have a KONG toy and a desire to be a personal chef to your dog? There are so many great recipes online—check out this one from Perfectly Rawsome! Pureed dishes like this are perfect companions to a KONG: simply seal one end (either with cellophane or a slathering of peanut butter) pour in your puree, and freeze! Voila, you have your very own homemade chew treat!
7. Dehydrated Beef Trachea
These are great options for strong chewers: they’re tough enough to provide a satisfying crunch, and they have so many great health benefits! Not only can they clean up teeth and promote healthy gums, but they also have significant amounts of naturally occurring chondroitin and glucosamine, which are two key ingredients in promoting healthy bones and joints. If you have a larger dog breed, especially those with foreseen joint issues later in life, we highly recommend treating them to these chews every few months. As a bonus, these are hollow chews—so they’re a great all-natural alternative to a KONG if you want to stuff some extra tasty treats inside.
It’s the Thought that Counts this Holiday Season
Even if we consider ourselves discerning and educated consumers now, it’s unlikely rawhide will vanish from our lives immediately. As we approach Christmas, these ubiquitous treats will tempt even the best-intentioned friends, family, and general admirers of your dog to grab a rawhide as a gift. For those who are unaware of the dangers, these treats seem perfect because they’re coloured and fashioned into shapes specifically for the holidays. This is one of those “it’s the thought that counts” situations; it might be best to save some bridges, politely accept the gift and put it aside—let your guests know your pup already has treats allocated for the day!
Does your dog have a favourite chew we didn’t mention? We’d love to hear about it! Let us know on Instagram @reddogbluekat