Why I Hate Tennis Balls (And Dogs Love Them)

For many dogs, the highlight of their day is a game of fetch with the ball. Who can resist? You’d have to have a heart like a stone to say no. Or, like me, to know too much.

Stay with me while I show you five ways that tennis balls were made in the devil’s workshop. Afterwards, I’ll tell you how your dog can still have that fun without the risk.

Tennis Balls Injure Dogs

Dogs are dogs, not cats. You probably didn’t need this vital piece of news, but many dog owners really do exercise their dogs like cats (some also feed their dogs like cats, but that story’s elsewhere!).

dog catching ball
By Dan Bennett (Flickr: nice catch!) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
What do I mean? Think about how wolves hunt: they chase their prey over long distances, tiring them out until they can bring them down easily. In other words, just like humans, dogs are built to be endurance athletes.

What dogs aren’t are natural gymnasts. Although they can easily outrun a cat over a long distance they aren’t as good at leaping, twisting or climbing. They lack the explosive spring and the natural flexibility of cats, who hunt by stealth. In modern exercise terms, cats are fast twitch, dogs are slow twitch.

When dogs chase tennis balls they suffer a lot of joint injuries. You’ve only got to look at the way dogs twist and jump, skid and turn to see why. Injuries like a fragmented coronoid process in a puppy can lead to permanent damage, whereas older dogs commonly have chronic carpal (wrist) sprains.

Tennis Balls Cause Heat Stroke

That’s not the worst thing. The most common cause of collapse from heat exhaustion in dogs is playing fetch in the warm weather. It doesn’t even have to be that warm for dogs to overheat with vigorous exercise.

Dogs have been selected for thousands of years to work hard for humans, and they won’t suddenly stop now. The responsibility is with us to be their guardians.

Tennis Balls Stop The Fun

dog ball obsession
By Mdk572 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I made the mistake with Loki of playing with tennis balls when he was young. Who can resist it when it’s so much fun for the dog? The problem is, it’s so much fun that all the other fun stops. For many dogs, they get so obsessed that when there’s a tennis ball around, nothing else matters. They even stop playing or socialising with other dogs.

This happens mostly with working breeds that are by nature a little fixated, like Border Collies, Cattle Dogs (Heelers), Kelpies and yes, Jack Russell Terriers. Loki wouldn’t even eat or go for a walk, let alone come for a pat, if he knew where one was. Great if you want a good ratter, not so good if you want a happy dog.

Tennis Balls Damage Teeth

tennis ball caninesThen there’s the dental problem. Something about the fibrous coating of tennis balls causes persistent wear on the teeth, producing the characteristic flattened crowns shown. This effect is so reliable that when I see it I can predict with 100% accuracy that tennis balls are being chewed. Remarkably, this never happens with dogs that just chew bones.

With time, the tooth wear eventually exposes the root canal, causing pain, apical abscessation and tooth death.

Tennis Balls Cause Obstructions

If you’re like me you’ll find this video strangely compelling. It shows endoscopic removal of tennis ball fragments from the stomach of a dog. If these weren’t removed now, they probably would have gone on to block the intestine and cause a surgical emergency.

Tennis balls just aren’t up to the forces dogs create when they chew. Better to stick to these safer chew toys designed for dogs.

How To Play Fetch Safely

So spoilsport Andrew is saying that you shouldn’t play fetch with your dog and all fun is forbidden. Instead, here are some ways you can keep playing fetch games without doing so much damage.

  • Try playing fetch with objects that go ‘plop’ instead of ‘bounce’, like special Frisbees made for dogs or rubber sticks (never use real sticks).
  • Moderation is the key. Keep high impact activity down to 10 minutes a day, and have a clear ‘finish’ signal so your dog knows not to keep looking for more.
  • Don’t play energetic games in hot weather, or when your dog is injured. They’ll keep going as long as you ask them to, to their own detriment.
  • Use other balls, but if you must use tennis balls, don’t leave them out at home so your dog can’t chew on them or swallow them.
  • Sometimes, just like when giving treats to dogs, you have to know when enough is enough. My Loki loves balls so much that we had to stop them completely just so he could live a normal life. Let’s just say that since then, no one ever says “what an unhappy dog”.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.


By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

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One Reply to “Why I Hate Tennis Balls (And Dogs Love Them)”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Young Norman pulled off the fibrous tennis ball coating in 5 minutes. I had to pull a large wad out it out of his mouth (4 month old pup). No tennis balls after that.

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