Veterinarian Lynn Bahr’s coworkers laugh at her when they see her mouth full of cat toy. “When I’m designing toys, I put everything in my mouth. If my cat is going to chew on it, or my dog is going to chew on it, I’m going to chew on it first. I feel it, I taste it. I just really pretend that I’m a cat.”
The pet product industry has long thought that dog owners would shell out for products, but cat owners were stingier. “Cats have always been sort of a second-class citizen and not much thought has been put into products for them. Now, that’s changing,” says Bahr, founder of Dezi & Roo pet product company. As cat product lines become more robust, people are growing more concerned about exactly what’s in those toys. The demand for safe, eco-friendly products is growing.
Dangerous ingredients for cat toys
Unfortunately, no US regulatory body is responsible for tracking toxins in pet toys. This means manufacturers are expected to self-regulate. With many pet toys made overseas, it’s even harder to rely on any standards.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is used to make auto parts, pipes, polyvinyl flooring, raincoats, shower curtains, shoes and pet toys, among other common products. And while you probably wouldn’t chew on your shower curtain, your cat may be chomping PVC toys. Manufacturers often use phthalates — linked to liver and kidney troubles — to soften toys and make them more flexible. PVC is nicknamed “the poison plastic” for its unfortunate tendency to leach ingredients. Bisphenol-A (BPA), another common plastic ingredient, has been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption. Lead, a neurotoxin, is still used in some imported toys, especially those that are painted.
Eco-friendly, non-toxic cat toys
So, what should you look for in the ultimate cat toy? Something safe for cats and that won’t cause environmental harm or clog a landfill for the next millennium.
Dharma Dog/Karma Cat toys from Distinctly Himalayan are handmade by women’s collectives in Nepal, crafted from Himalayan and New Zealand wool and non-toxic dyes. Their packaging is also eco-friendly. Choose from adorable toys shaped like octopi, dolphins, snakes and starfish. Strictly Himalayan also manufactures cute pet beds and baskets. The baskets are made from seagrass and water hyacinth sourced in Vietnam. “Being sustainable and fair trade is actually very serious for us, and has been for decades,” Jennifer Neufeld, co-owner of Distinctly Himalayan, said. “We’re members of the Fair Trade Federation and Pet Sustainability Coalition.”
Etsy has a whole department of green cat toys. This is the place to get something really special to express your cat’s personality. You can get handmade fabric sushi rolls, zombie sharks and pot leaves stuffed with catnip here.
About half of Dezi & Roo’s line is eco-friendly. You can choose little felt clouds with stuffing made from post-consumer and BPA-free plastic bottles, or paper ring toys. The Hide and Sneak — which resembles a rectangular tube made from paper sacks with cardboard entries at each end — is a top seller. Bahr recommends dusting toys with silver vine, a catnip alternative. Dezi & Roo processes the silver vine in the US, then tests it for mold, yeast, salmonella and E. coli to ensure your pet’s safety.
Making your own cat toys is another excellent option, allowing you to reuse and recycle things around the house. Holly Tse and her cat Furball wrote Make Your Own Cat Toys so other cats could have endless entertainment while reducing their carbon paw prints. Their cat crafts use old clothes and items from your recycling bin. Bahr says a good homemade toy can be as simple as wadding up some paper, dusting it with silver vine, and throwing it across the room for your cat to chase.
DIY cat toy concerns
Before you get too creative with your recycled toys, remember that cats often swallow things they shouldn’t. Part of the reason is just how they’re made. Those adorable sandpaper tongues are covered with backward-facing barbs designed for grooming. But those barbs can act like Velcro, forcing Kitty to swallow something before they — or you — know it. This can lead to illness, expensive vet visits, and death. So, tempting as it is to let your cat play with fun and inexpensive things like dental floss, rubber bands and hair ties, keep these easily-swallowed items away from them.
Also, if your cat seems low-energy or has diarrhea after eating catnip, you might have got a moldy batch, or catnip treated with pesticides. Find a reliable source of regular, US-grown catnip.
Play with your cat
Cats love to play. “I think the thing that really propels me is how many owners say their cats don’t play,” Bahr says. She blames a lack of good products, rather than your cat being too mature. This is especially tragic if you have an indoor cat. Instead of dooming your cat to life as a couch potato, try buying or making some new, environmentally friendly toys for them. Also, supervised play is best. It bonds you with your cat, and if Kitty starts chewing up something they shouldn’t, you’ll be there to intervene.
Images via Teresa Bergen and Distinctly Himalayan