Each year approximately 325 million tennis balls are produced, and this endless supply directly translates into their ubiquitous presence as the arguably most common dog toy. Over the past few years, several reports have surfaced associating tennis balls with damage to your dog’s teeth, specifically enamel abrasion. We at North Edge K9 are always wary of blanket statements and thus decided to examine the issue a little closer. In doing so we quickly realized that a much more important message is actually the one needing to be told. But back to tennis balls first:
Today’s tennis balls are made from two halves of molded rubber, glued together to form a ball and filled with pressurized air to produce the desired bounce. Each ball is then dipped in glue and two bright green-yellow pieces of felt are wrapped around the ball and a heating cycle binds the two pieces of felt together. This outer felt covering is what makes the tennis ball tough enough to stand up to the back and forth play on a tennis court and also facilitates spin. Look at the close-up image of the tangled, mixed natural and synthetic fibers, which themselves are abrasive even though the fuzz feels very soft. Now imagine sand and moisture mixed in as it does when dogs chase tennis balls outdoors. The resulting scouring pad can indeed damage enamel, but it would require a significant amount of gnawing and chewing these balls over quite some time to actually cause significant damage or teeth blunting. Unless your dog is a ball fanatic and chews on one at all hours, you probably do not need to worry about dental issues.
The bigger issue with tennis balls is that large dogs can easily break them into fragments, and because tennis balls are most often associated with running and chasing such fragments can become lodged in the throat and cut off air supply. Needless to say that ingesting part or all of a tennis ball can create a life-threatening intestinal blockage.
The materials used to make tennis balls for humans and sport are subject to regulation and contain no lead or other toxic chemicals. In contrast, there are no government standards for pet toys and many are produced outside of the US, quite a few of those containing toxic substances that are more harmful than mildly abrasive tennis ball fuzz. We personally like Chuck It and Kong products as they withstand our dog’s jaw power better and the balls don’t lose their bounce as much as tennis balls do, and they maintain their bounce even when soaked in water or dog saliva. At the end of the day it really boils down to educated personal preference. Our bottom line on tennis balls made for humans is that as long as you take appropriate precautions – i.e., never let your dog chew on or play with one unsupervised – there’s no reason why you and your pet can’t enjoy a fun game of fetch, but dispose of worn out and dirty balls that have seen better days.
Now let’s close the loop and come back to the story I really wanted to tell while thinking about dogs chewing on tennis balls excessively and over long periods of time. Read on if you find yourself thinking this may apply to you and your dog:
We never leave toys available to our dogs without purpose or without having been earned first. Why is that? Imagine you would get your groceries for free, even delivered to your house, the same be true for gas, movie tickets, mortgage or rent, utilities and everything else you want and need. Would you be working to earn a paycheck? Exactly. By having dog toys strewn around your house at all times you are forcing your dog into the same position. He will self-reward whenever he feels like it, and truly listening to you becomes optional, and certainly not on your terms. Worse, the notion in the dog’s head that rewards/toys are not coming from you but instead are free will make the connection between you and your dog fall way short of what it could be. In our world, toys including tennis balls are brought out by the handler, and only if the dog has earned it first. The toy/ball is also put away by us and only made available when we decide that the dog earned the reward.