Dog food will be the staple of your dog's diet, but rawhides are wonderful tools to satisfy your dog's natural urge to chew without allowing him to destroy your furniture, shoes, and other potential household targets. But as with dog foods, some rawhides are better for your pup than others; choosing the best kind will make a noticeable difference in the quality of his health in the long term.
First, what is rawhide made of? The first part of the answer is the easy one. The skin of large, hoofed animals is made up to two layers. The outside layer is the part that is used to make leather jackets, shoes and other clothing items. The inside layer, which is softer, is used to make rawhides.
Take a look at the country of origin printed on the rawhide packaging. If it's made in America, chances are the rawhide comes from beef cattle raised on corn -- these are the same animals that are used for human consumption. These rawhides are considered the highest grade. If the rawhide comes from a South American country, it's probably made from grass-fed cows; these animals are generally tougher, and this rawhide will be harder for your dog to chew. Other types of rawhides come from Asian countries -- if the package says China, Thailand of Vietnam, it most likely contains the hide of water buffalo.
All these types of rawhides can be safely consumed, as long as it is done in moderation and under supervision. It's not unheard of for a dog to choke on a small piece of rawhide, but their bodies are more than able to digest the pieces of skin. Rawhides are extremely high in protein, and also contain some fiber. Low in fat and calories, a good rawhide can be a healthier treat than a dog biscuit.
But nothing is ever that simple.
If a dog is allowed to digest large quantities of rawhide in a short amount of time, their bodies can have difficulty digesting this material, causing gastrointestinal distress and blockages. While your pup may see nothing wrong with continuing to chew on a favorite rawhide that he's had for weeks, he may actually be chewing on a breeding ground for salmonella. Any rawhide that has lasted for more than a week should be disposed of before it can get your pup sick.
The more you dig into the background of where rawhides come from and why they may or may not be healthy, the shadier it gets. Since they aren't meant for human consumption, there are no strict regulations on their manufacture; since they aren't a primary dog food, they don't fall under any of these potential guidelines, either. As long as there are no promises made on the label -- such as to the amount of protein contained in the treat -- the companies don't have to abide by the same rules that govern the manufacture of pet foods.
Rawhides used to be separated from the outer skin of the animal by hand, scraping the inner lining free before it was made into chew toys. Now that the demand is so great, this is no longer efficient. Some companies will separate the layers of skin by soaking the hide in solutions made of lime, lye, or sodium sulphide.
This isn't a big deal if the leather is destined for a purse, but can build up in a dog's system if they consume a regular amount of rawhides treated in this way.
The hide isn't naturally white, either. Rawhides that have a shiny white color may look more appetizing than off-white or yellowed rawhides, but that shine isn't natural. Some companies, trying to appeal to the eye of the consumer, will treat rawhides in a hydrogen peroxide solution to make them appear clean.
More disturbing are some of the rumors that surround the source of rawhides. A quick internet search will reveal government warnings and commercial recalls on products contaminated with salmonella at the factory. And most disturbing of all are rumored findings that some companies in Asia are less than particular about the source of the hide, mixing the skins of slaughtered dogs in with other sources of product.
All the information can be confusing, but there is a simple way to wade through it and make sure your dog's rawhide is safe. Find a reputable company, and stick with them. Do your research, and find out how the rawhides are prepared and what animals they are coming from. Take away any old rawhides, or small pieces that present a choking hazard. Never leave your dog unattended with one.
This may all cost a little bit more, but it'll be worth it in the long run. A healthy, properly prepared rawhide will help keep your dog's teeth strong and clean, while satisfying his natural urge to chew. Just keep in mind that not all rawhides are the same, and choose these toys with the same care as you choose his food.