Tennis balls are the quintessential modern dog toy. My dog can sniff them out of roadside ditches, and nothing gives her as much joy as chasing after them in a wide open field. However, tennis balls are a special toy in our household, reserved for supervised playtime.
This is because, while they are undeniably one of the most beloved dog toys out there, tennis balls can pose health risks for dogs.
My dog loves chomping on tennis balls until they pop. Dogs with powerful jaws like hers can easily break tennis balls in their mouths. This can lead to serious choking hazards. Sometimes, one-half of the tennis ball can get lodged in the back of their throats, blocking the airway. If this seems far-fetched, you may have heard that Oprah Winfrey's Golden Retriever, Gracie, choked to death on a plastic ball.
The ball itself is not the only choking risk. Some dogs enjoy shredding the yellow-green fuzz that surrounds the tennis ball. Eating this fuzz can lead to choking hazards and intestinal blockages that could require surgery.
Dental Wear and Tear
Choking hazards aside, tennis balls pose another risk: dental wear and tear.
That green fuzz might seem soft, but tennis balls are designed to withstand tennis courts and rackets. Dr. Thomas Chamberlain, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist, warns that the fuzz is actually quite abrasive, and accumulated dirt and sand increases the abrasive quality of the ball. As your dog chomps on a tennis ball, the fuzz acts like sandpaper, gradually wearing down her teeth in a process called "blunting." This can eventually lead to dental problems such as exposed tooth pulp and difficulty chewing.
How to Play With Tennis Balls Safely
These risks are serious, but you don’t have to throw out all of your dog’s tennis balls. Instead, make sure that your dog only has access to his tennis balls during supervised play sessions. This is especially important for dogs that like to chew on tennis balls, as they are the most at risk for choking and dental wear.
There are a few other things you can do to ensure that your dog plays with tennis balls as safely as possible. Work with your dog to make sure that tennis balls never become part of a game of "keep away." You need to know that you can get the tennis ball away from your dog quickly if it becomes dangerous, and the "drop it" command is also a useful command to have in your arsenal in case your dog puts something else in his mouth, for example a bone or piece of dangerous trash.
Dr. Marty Becker, a veterinarian writing for VetStreet.com, advises keeping more than one tennis ball on hand for a continuous game of fetch, which can help keep your dog in shape, but cautions against allowing dogs access to more than one tennis ball at at a time. Dogs that pick up multiple tennis balls could get the ball at the back of their throats lodged dangerously.
If your dog can’t handle tennis balls without chomping obsessively, you may want to consider an alternative toy. A rubber ball, especially one designed for powerful chewers, makes an excellent tennis ball substitute, without some of the risks.
All in all, tennis balls can be a fun part of your daily routine, as long as you are aware of the potential risks and take the necessary steps to prevent accidents.