By Victoria Schade
Cat toys are typically delicate, sparkly things that tap into the feline hunting instinct, whether it’s a horizontal pursuit across the floor after a toy on a string or an aerialist’s graceful takedown of a feathered wand in midair. But that same prey drive can turn a seemingly harmless toy into a life-threatening hazard. Dr. Katarina Luther, DVM and owner of the Cat Care Clinic in Madison, WI, warns pet parents that even the most basic cat toys can pose a threat because of the “simple but clever anatomy of a cat’s tongue.”
“The common sand paper feel of a cat’s tongue is actually many small barbs that face backward, which benefits a cat when grooming,” Luther says. “When presented with a material like a string or other fabrics, these barbs can act like Velcro and practically force the cat to continue to ingest and swallow the item, rather than spit it out. Once swallowed, the toy can then cause serious problems if not recognized and treated quickly.”
The following are a few common cat toys and toy components that might pose a threat to your feline best friend.
Some pet parents worry that catnip is a drug that can turn their cat into an addict, but the real hidden hazard of this herb is less about creating a cat junkie and more about the handling of the product before its assembly. Catnip is a perfectly safe non-addictive treat for cats. However, feline veterinarian Dr. Mardi Vargofcak-Apker says that questionable catnip from low-quality suppliers can lead to gastrointestinal problems because of mold exposure from improper storage, or from the pesticides or herbicides used on the plant before harvest.
Cats experiencing a negative reaction from poor quality catnip might drool, stop eating or have diarrhea. To avoid black-market catnip, look for US-based toy makers that grow their own herbs.
Many cat toys on a wand have flexible string that gives when pulled. While the toys are a great way to exercise cats, if swallowed, the string can lead to dangerous consequences. Vargofcak-Apker says that if the string becomes detached from the wand, one end can get anchored in the cat’s mouth, either under the tongue or looped around a rear tooth, while the other end is swallowed. The elastic string acts like a curtain on a curtain rod, looping around the intestines and pulling them towards the mouth, causing knife-like lacerations that can be fatal.
Toys that dangle from the edge of a table or over a doorknob present a dual hazard in that there’s a risk of string ingestion as well as the potential for strangulation when the cat is playing with it unsupervised. Dr. Elisa Kleinman, DVM, warns that if the string is long enough a cat can become tangled in it, and in a struggle to get free the cat might accidentally become twisted in it with fatal consequences. Like most cat toys, dangling toys are typically okay for play if a pet parent is close by to supervise the interaction (or better yet, to participate in the game).
Some versions of this go-to colorful cat toy are small enough for a cat to swallow in a single gulp. Luther has surgically removed many sparkle balls from cats whose owners often didn’t even realize that their cat had swallowed it. She warns that swallowed toys pose a serious threat since they’re not always vomited up. In such cases, the toy moves farther down the intestinal track where it can cause serious internal damage and even cause obstruction, requiring surgical intervention.
These soft enticers used on top of many cat toys might seem harmless, but feathers can pose multiple risks. If ingested the feathers might create a choking hazard, and Vargofcak-Apker warns that the sharp points on the quill end of the feather can cause lacerations in mouth.
Many cat toys use bells as a noisy embellishment, or as a lure inside a plastic cage-style ball. Curious cats might not be able to resist chewing and swallowing the little bells, and while some of them might be small enough for a cat to pass, that’s not always the case. Vargofcak-Apker says that if the bell doesn’t pass naturally, the metal can break down in the stomach and expose the cat to dangerous toxicity.
Many cats are as entertained by simple household objects as they are by store-bought toys. While it might seem like an inexpensive way to keep a cat happy, these DIY toys can pose a serious threat. Dr. Colleen Currigan, DVM and president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners in 2016, warns that hair ties, rubber bands and all types of string, from dental floss to butcher string, can be ingested with disastrous results. Currigan has heard of cats swallowing everything from a pop-up turkey thermometer to coins to pieces of rubber flip flops. She warns that anything “chewable”— whether sanctioned or stolen—can be a risk factor for intestinal blockage if ingested.
Although pet store toys are not guaranteed to be safe, many cat toy dangers can be mitigated if pet parents actively supervise play time and intervene if the cat starts eating the item rather than swatting and chasing it. Vargofcak-Apker suggests that pet parents also take care to put cat toys away in a safe spot after the game is over, as wily feline hunters can find their way into closets and drawers if the motivation is strong enough.
Looking for a treat-dispensing toy? Check out these tips before you buy one.
Victoria Schade is a certified dog trainer and author.