We did our research — all the research.
When my fiance and I finally decided to adopt a pet of our own after months of fostering adorable furbabies from the Charleston Animal Shelter and months of heartbreaking goodbyes as we returned them to the shelter — we felt prepared. First, there was the application process with various foster organizations around the state. Then the phone interviews, the in-home interviews, the vet research, the foster visits, and, finally, the drive to Greenville to fetch our doe-eyed shepherd mix with Dobby-like ears.
Who knew the toy aisle at PetCo would be the biggest hurdle?
“We do really extensive research, tons of it, before we bring a toy in,” says Christi Gephart, owner of Charleston’s All is Well holistic pet store. “We do the work to find sustainable, recyclable toys that we believe in — for the sake of pets and their owners.”
Pet health and owner sanity should be the benchmark for all pet toys, but when you hit the massive, furry, rubbery, squeaker-stuffed wall of toys at most pet stores, health and sanity seem to go flying out the window. Suddenly you are drowning in a sea of “Pawliday” Christmas-themed bones, Star Wars wookies with sound effects and bacon-scented silicon. When I started considering the stuffed French baguette with a moustache and heart patterned tighty whiteys on (Leaps & Bounds brand, in case you’re interested), I knew I needed to remove myself from the situation.
If seeking expert help for toy shopping seems excessive, it’s not.
“Surgery is really expensive,” says Gephart, cautioning against the repercussions of unsafe toys.
To avoid surgery, or at least the mess that is a shredded pet toy, experts recommend carefully selecting your fur baby’s next plaything.
“For every family we work with, it’s not a pet, it’s another family member,” says Mallory Cooper, the founder of Charleston Dog Walker, a pet caretaking service. “You are your pets whole world. And to me, my dogs are my world.”
Kongs are an absolute go-to for Cooper when it comes to dogs. No longer just the hard, rubber chew toys that look like a silicone bee hive, Kong has expanded its offerings to include everything from rope throws to giraffe shaped squeezable toys.
“You can pick one up pretty much anywhere,” says Cooper of the classic Kong chew. “You can go through the life stages of the dog with the Kong since there are all different sizes and softness levels.”
When it comes to the standard rubber chew toys, Kong is still recognizable anywhere. That standard is likely what you’ll find in stores across Charleston, but for owners set on something more unique, Kong’s site is a prolific catalog of options, including dozens of interactive toys to keep dogs occupied. The company even produces a training guide with tips on common hurdles like teething, separation anxiety, digging and weight management.
“They are especially awesome for crate training,” says Cooper, who’s been through the process multiple times and now coaches customers through it, too. “Putting treats inside as a reward is an amazing trick.”
For chewers, Gephart at All is Well recommends the Westpaw Hurley dog bone made of a material the company dubs "Zogoflex." It was a game-changer, says Gephart, when she discovered the practically indestructible bone for her dog mix.
“I used to have a pit mix who destroyed everything,” she says. “That toy actually lasted longer than he did. You could barely tell it was used and he played with it every day.”
That’s the goal, according to the company, which flies under the slogan “built for dogs who play hard.” The Zogoflex bones are made to bounce, float, go in the dishwasher and be fully recyclable. That last accolade is a cherry on top for pet owners like Gephart, who seeks out the most environmentally friendly products for her own shop.
Dogs that do manage to break the Westpaw bone are rare. So rare in fact that the company guarantees their bones and will replace a broken one.
“I can’t count the number of people who have come in and thanked us for finally finding a toy their dog won’t shred,” says Gephart.
For fetch, there’s one standard Gephart and Cooper agree: the Chuckit!. Like a long-handled plastic ice-cream scooper that serves as a trebuchet for mini tennis balls, the Chuckit! is billed as a back-saver for owners tired of bending over to pick up slobbery balls. It also has the pleasant side effect of slinging the ball with the skill of a major league pitcher, no matter how weak the pet owner’s arm.
“The Chuckit! is awesome,” says Cooper. “If you have a dog that enjoys chasing something, that is pretty much the best invention ever.”
Cats are a different matter altogether.
“A lot of people don’t realize that cats definitely need to get their activity, too,” says Cooper.
When it comes to cats, toys that appeal to their natural pouncing instincts and get them to run around are best. No matter how lethargic and uninterested they might act, says Gephart, they need playtime, too.
“Cats can get so bored lying around the house all day,” she says, “so having things to keep them mentally stimulated is important.”
String or feather wands, laser pointers, even motorized ribbon twirlers — the best cat toys might be mistaken for props from a variety show. For something to entertain them while you’re away Gephart touts hemp mice toys with catnip inside, which she loves for their durability and earth-friendly materials. When it comes to choosing between laser pointers and feather wands though, that’s all about you, the human.
“It’s really what you want to do,” says Cooper, “after all, you’re the one who’s really going to be using it.”
One week into pet ownership, my living room looked like a war zone of half-eaten stuffed turkeys, abandoned tennis balls and unloved rope throws. But in true puppy mom fashion, I will continue to spoil the new addition to our family all the same.
“It’s a bond with someone who will love you unconditionally and be there with you,” says Cooper of having a pet. And with that comes the desire to make them happy and the commitment to keeping them safe.
“For me it’s all about finding the right toy for each individual dog,” says Gephart. “I want to stand by the products I sell. When I go to bed at night I feel OK knowing no pet is going to get sick from one of these toys.”
Taking time to find the right fit is worth it, even if it means calling in the experts or tackling the labyrinthine toy aisles of a pet superstore. Kongs galore, a Chuckit! in every size, feathers and lasers and hemp mice included — there certainly is no lack of choices.
As Gephart always reminds shoppers: “every pet is different."