Why Vets Hate Tennis Balls

Updated June 6, 2021

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 Cause Injuries

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 Damage Eyes

One of the most common causes of blunt trauma to the eyeball is the tennis ball. This happens when a dog runs into the path of a ball thrown for them or another dog in a busy park. The result can be internal bleeding, lens luxation, retinal detachment or even globe rupture.

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

heeler ball game
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

ball tooth damage

Then 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 – read why here).
  • 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”.

Related: The danger when  dogs play with sticks

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

4 Replies to “Why Vets Hate Tennis Balls”

  1. It is like all the foods that give you cancer just rot,our dog played with a tennis for hours at a time,the only horrible thing he did was he played so much with a kid on a road and his paws were very very sore.He loved tennis ball he would steal them.
    Every time we took him to the vet which was yearly for his needles the vet said he had the best teeth she had ever seen.He was 20 years old when he died he had no joint problems just old
    Tennis Ball were his life

  2. @Grace
    So true, It makes me laugh when one of these idiots who brings tennis balls to a off leash park and then complains when another dog steals them.

  3. I cant stand them. When I take my dog to the park you have these morons with ball flingers standing in the middle of the park making the dog obsess over a ball. Walk your dog !!! Let sniff around wee on thing and smell other dogs… let them be a dog…

  4. 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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