Worried about what toys are safe to give your pets this holiday season?
You're not alone.
In the wake of ConsumerAffairs.com's investigation that revealed some Chinese-made pet toys contained what a forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead and other toxins, dog and cat owners continue to search for safe alternatives.
"When I was in Petco yesterday I noticed how just about all the toys and all ropes are made in China," wrote pet owner Linda of North Carolina. "My question is . . . do they carry the same risks with lead, chromium, and cadmium?
"Many of the dog toys I had purchased from Petco are ropes, and stuffed toys that look like slippers, canes, other holiday designs, and a teething ball. I don't have any plastic toys with a coating except for the teething ball has some kind of coating. But the stuffed toys do have colors in them. I want to know if there are any risks?" she wrote.
The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) -- in response to our investigation -- said its members were triple checking with their suppliers to ensure the products were tested for lead and other poisons.
Some pet companies -- including PetSmart -- also told us they randomly test their products for lead and other toxins.
Earlier this month, the director of the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) -- run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals -- lauded such testing and urged pet toy makers to publicly disclose their findings.
"To reassure pet owners, we encourage manufacturers to test pet products for lead and other contaminants and post findings on their corporate Web sites," said Dr. Steven Hansen.
But our investigation revealed there are no national standards for lead and other toxins in pet toys.
Most companies use the benchmark of 600 parts per million for lead. That's the amount allowed under federal law for lead paint in children's toys.
But veterinarians and the APPMA wonder if the level used for humans should also be used for pets.
They've called for "acceptable standards and levels" of lead and other toxins specifically for pet toys.
Is there a risk to pet owners and their children who come into contact with these toys that these dogs have been slobbering on? asked ConsumerAffairs.com President James R. Hood in a New York Times report today.
"A lot more lead will come off something when its wet and it has been partially digested in a pets mouth, Hood said. There should be standards to protect humans first, and we need to find out what level is safe in this application. Somebody needs to look into this issue.
Not just toxins
It's not just toxins in Chinese-made pet toys that dog and cat owners apparently have to worry about this holiday season.
An Ohio pet owner recently discovered a sewing needle inside her dog's stuffed reindeer toy, which was also made in China.
"We were playing and I was trying to teach my dog how to bring the toy back to me," said Carol W. of Akron, who has a six-year-old English bulldog named CandiCane. "I grabbed it and she wouldn't let goso we were playing tug-of-war."
That's when Carol noticed something shiny on the plush toy.
"At first I thought it was a wire and then my hand got pricked," she said.
On closer examination, Carol discovered a three-inch sewing needle embedded in the stuffed reindeer.
"I checked the toy before I'd given it to her," Carol told us. "But there was so much padding in the toy and the needle was in there length-wise that I didn't feel it.
"What made me sick is what if I'd given her the toy and then walked away? I give toys to her to keep her occupied when I'm not home. I just happened to go home for lunch that day. I was sick for a week thinking what would have happened if I'd given her that toy and gone back to work. It could have killed her."
Carol returned the toy to PetSmart, where she purchased it last December.
"At the end of the year, I always go to PetSmart and buy toys for my daughter's two dogs," she said. "The toys are 50-75 percent off. I buy them and put them in a bag in the basement and then give them to my daughter when she comes home.
"When I got CandiCane in May, I remembered that I had some of these toys in the basement."
The company gave her a $25 certificate and promised someone from the corporate office would contact her. No one did.
"They didn't even send me a letter of apology," she said. Carol is also contacting the U.S. importer and distributor for the toy.
In the meantime, she advised pet owners buying toys for their dogs and cats this holiday season -- or throughout the year -- to carefully inspect the products.
"You can't open them all up, but try to at least squeeze them. And pull off all those tags.
"I'm always apprehensive about buying toys made in China," she added. "But I didn't expect this."
What Carol -- and other pet owners who've contacted ConsumerAffairs.com -- say they really want are U.S.-made pet toys.
Enter West Paw Design.
The company makes pet toys and bedding for dogs and cats at its manufacturing plant in Bozeman, Montana. And all the materials used to make its products are sourced in the USA.
"We started sewing toys back in 1996 when the company first got rolling," said Spencer Williams, the company's president. "We got into this before all the concerns about lead and other toxins in pet toys were raised. And we've been at this for a long time.
"During the 1990's, people raced overseas for low prices," he added. "But we stuck to our guns. We wanted to do what was safe for pets and we wanted to manufacture products here. We also wanted to make a product we could believe in."
In 2004, the company developed what its calls a Zogoflex material to compete with chew toys made from rubber and latex.
"We designed a latex-free, durable, recyclable product that is safe for pets and the environment," Williams said, adding his company's products are sold online or by 2,500 independent dealers nationwide. "At that time, people told us you can't do injection molding in the U.S. They told us anything to do with plastics was moving overseas. Well, we like to prove people wrong. We stuck to our guns again and bought an injection molding press."
Williams is convinced that companies can make better -- and safer -- products when they have control over the manufacturing process.
"When you source overseas, you have no connection to the raw materials used, who is making them, or what the working conditions are like. At our company, we have control over the materials used and who is making our products."
Williams said his company doesn't test its products for lead and other toxins because they're all made in the USA. And he's confident they're safe.
"By sourcing domestically, it would be unlikely that our mills would expose their workers to toxins because of the safety standards here in the US," Williams said.
Consumers who are worried about the safety of their pets' toys should buy ones made in the USA, he said.
"The working conditions are better here and, consequently, those companies tend to make better products."
Another company that makes most of its pet toys in the United States is the KONG Company.
The Colorado-based company, which manufactures the well-know red rubber toys for dogs, said its products are made with FDA-approved materials and routinely tested for product safety.
And all but three of the company's pet toys -- Air KONG (tennis ball toys), KONG Plush, and KONG Wubba -- are made in Golden, Colorado.
Those three Chinese-made toys, the company said, undergo rigorous testing.
"All imported KONG product lines are tested by independent laboratories, once in China and again in the U.S. to prove they are safe and non-toxic," said Chuck Costello, director of marketing for the KONG. "Once products are received in the KONG warehouse they are again subjected to strict KONG quality control procedures."
Forget the feds
During our investigation, we learned pet owners can't rely on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ensure the safety of dog and cat toys.
The CPSC told us it doesn't have any regulatory control over these products.
"We only have jurisdiction over a pet-related product (that is not food), if evidence is presented that the product has put the safety of consumers at risk," spokesman Scott Wolfson told us. He did not address the potential danger to children and adults exposed to the pet toys.
Meanwhile, the American Veterinarian Association said consumers who are worried about the safety of their pets' toys should talk to their veterinarian.
Consumers who want to test their pets' toys for lead and other toxins can find a diagnostic facility through The American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians.
The CPSC warns pet owners to be leery of the home lead testing kits now on the market. Those kits, they said, are often unreliable.