Are Tennis Balls a Dangerous Toy for Dogs?

Tennis ball
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Q: We took our puppy to a training class at the local pet store. The trainer handed out a list of dangerous items that we should never give our pets, and on that list was a tennis ball. We thought this was odd. We’ve had dogs for years and have always thrown tennis balls for them. As a veterinarian, do you see a problem?

A: Yes — and no. Our Golden Retriever, Shakira, is a tennis ball addict, and a daily dose of fetch has helped keep her lean and fit well into her senior years. But tennis balls do present a hazard that requires they be used only in supervised conditions.

The problem is that dogs have strong jaws capable of compressing a tennis ball. If that compressed ball pops open in the back of the throat, it can cut off a dog's air supply. Most notably, one of Oprah Winfrey’s beloved dogs was a tennis ball victim, but there have been many others. The chewed bits of a tennis ball also aren't something you want inside your dog.

You don't have to throw away all your tennis balls, but you do need to use them in a way that reduces the risk of choking. Tennis balls should always be put out of reach after a game of fetch, and no dog should ever be allowed to use them as a chew toy. In supervised play, insist that your dog fetch, return and immediately release the ball — no games of keep away while the dog works the ball in her mouth. And have only one ball in play at a time, to minimize the risk of having your dog pick up more than one and get the furthermost ball lodged back in her throat. Keep the game of fetch fast and lively to keep the focus on the chase and the next throw. (I couldn't live without the Chuck-It, a tool that flings the ball much farther than most of us can throw.)

Nothing in life is without risk, sadly, but there's no need to deny your dog the joy and needed exercise that a tennis ball can provide. Just be sure to follow a few simple guidelines to keep playing safely.

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