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Why you shouldn’t let your dog play with tennis balls

When you think about classic dog toys over the years, tennis balls are sure to make the list. They’re a fun, cheap option that many pet parents can stock up on just as quickly as their dog goes through them, which is good news for pups who like to chew. Still, despite their everlasting popularity, some dog lovers have stopped to wonder: Are tennis balls safe for dogs?

While it can be difficult to guarantee the safety of any pet product, you should pay special attention to your pup while he’s playing with anything you don’t completely trust. This could, and perhaps should, include low-quality dog toys or any chew item not meant for canines. Here’s what you need to know.

a golden retriever lies in their bed with a tennis ball
StockSnap/Pixabay

Should dogs play with tennis balls?

Although there’s no denying the upsides to playing with tennis balls (price, easy to find, etc.), they come with many risks you may not have thought of. The team at Animal Dental Care and Oral Surgery — or Wellpets, as their site is named — has put together some helpful reminders about the silent dangers of tennis balls.

Tennis balls harm your dog’s teeth

Sandpaper on teeth is probably a good thing only at the dentist, and even then, it’s rarely pleasant. Dogs may not realize it while they’re having a blast, but the neon yellow fuzzy material that gives the tennis ball its grip will also microscopically grip onto the enamel of your dog’s teeth (via Wellpets).

Over time, this can lead to an extra (and completely avoidable!) wearing down of your dog’s teeth. Since many dog breeds are also prone to dental problems, there’s no reason why they should be exposed to unnecessary damage like this.

Your dog can choke on a tennis ball or its pieces

Despite its decent size, dogs can still choke on a tennis ball, whether whole or in pieces. If your pup can fit the whole ball in his mouth, he, unfortunately, can also ingest it. Since dogs have such a strong bite, they can squeeze the ball hard enough to split it open.  This can lead to airway or intestinal blockage, which are both emergency, life-threatening situations.

Even small dogs who can’t completely hold tennis balls are at risk. It’s not difficult for them to strip off the ball’s yellow fuzzy coating, which can also become lodged in the mouth, throat, or intestines. Luckily, you’ve got safer options (see below) for your pup’s playtime.

Tennis balls may contain chemicals

Again, it’s important to remember that tennis balls are not designed to be chew toys for dogs; they’re designed to be used in tennis. Because of this, there are no regulations when it comes to manufacturing tennis balls, so there’s no real way to know whether one is safer than another.

In fact, there are zero safety standards or manufacturing regulations for dog toys at all. Since the mid-2000s, pet parents have been finding concerning lead levels in mass-produced toys, such as tennis balls. Dog mom Nancy Roberts discovered one in her home that contained over 336 parts per million (ppm) of lead. Today’s requirement is that children’s toys in the United States contain 100 ppm of lead or less (via CPSC).

It may seem counterintuitive, but researchers found that tennis balls made specifically for pets were more likely to contain toxic chemicals, including arsenic and chlorine. In fact, of all tennis balls tested in 2009 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, every one that tested positive for toxins was one designed for pet use.

a tricolored Jack Russel Terrier runs through the grass with a tennis ball in their mouth
Meli1670/Pixabay

Fun alternatives to tennis balls

Now that you know the hidden risks of tennis balls, you have the power to make an informed decision when it comes to your dog’s toys. While there are still no safety regulations in place, some toys were found throughout studies to be chemical-free, including many made by large and trusted brands.

For chew toys

When in doubt, try a treat rather than a toy. A large, frozen carrot can make a great teething tool for young pups or those who like to chew. As an option for a durable toy, the NylaBone DuraChew Double Action is equally amounts satisfying and safe. This product is one that tested negative for all chemicals during the 2009 study. This toy not only entices dogs with a bacon flavor but also cleans their teeth as they chew. It’s a win-win!

For fetch

If your dog is a sucker for the classic tennis ball, Kong’s Squeakair balls might be the right bet. With their dog-safe felt, these balls won’t wear down your pup’s teeth like regular tennis balls can. Kong is also a super-well-known and reputable company that did not pop up as toxic on the Ecology Center’s site.

As concerning as the findings about regular tennis balls might be, don’t worry! You’ve got plenty of safe alternatives out there, and you can always ask your vet for their advice if you’re feeling stuck. If you’re unsure about any of your pet’s products or toys, you can also search for any tests they may have been part of by typing into the search box on the Healthy Stuff Reports page from the Ecology Center. Better safe than sorry, after all. Good luck, pup parents!

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