Should you let your dog play with tennis balls?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

tennis balls for dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Tennis balls pose a choking risk for large dogs and aggressive chewers
  • The fuzz on tennis balls is abrasive and can wear down dogs’ teeth
  • Tennis balls may contain toxic substances, including lead
  • When choosing a tennis ball, look for balls made specifically for dogs out of natural, nontoxic, organic materials
  • If your dog won’t play with a tennis ball without chewing it up, choose a different form of ball, such as a hard natural rubber version (but make sure it’s too big for your dog to swallow)

Balls are a favorite toy for many dogs, providing hours of entertainment for playing fetch or simply just carrying around. At their most basic level, balls are a simple and inexpensive toy that caters to your dog’s natural instinct to chase and carry prey. At the same time, it keeps your dog both physically and mentally active.

Chasing after a ball time and time again gets your dog moving and satisfies his urge to track and catch moving objects. By throwing a ball for your dog, you also build your bond together as you both enjoy the game of back and forth. There’s a ball that’s perfect for practically every pooch, but be aware that not all balls are created equal. In fact, some balls can even be dangerous for dogs.

Are tennis balls safe?

This depends on the size of your dog and his veracity as a chewer. An intact tennis ball is unlikely to pose a choking risk for a medium-sized or small dog who’s a light chewer, but a large dog who is able to chew through the ball could easily be at risk. If pieces break off from the ball, they could block your dog’s airway or if swallowed create an intestinal blockage. Even a tennis ball bitten in half could lodge in your dog’s throat, leading to choking.

Another hazard for dogs who love to chew them is the green fuzz on the outside of the ball. It’s designed to withstand game after game of tennis, which means the fuzz is quite tough and abrasive.

Normal, everyday play with a tennis ball isn’t likely to harm your dog’s teeth, but if he’s an aggressive chewer, the fuzz could wear down his teeth over time in a process known as blunting. The fuzz can act as sandpaper or a scouring pad, wearing away the outer layer of the tooth so badly that the pulp becomes exposed, causing chewing difficulties.1 Dirt and sand on the ball can amplify the effect.

It’s also not a good idea for your dog to ingest the fuzz or any component of a tennis ball, should it break apart while chewing. Even the fuzz from a tennis ball could lead to choking or intestinal blockages.2

How to play with tennis balls safely

If your dog loves tennis balls, use them only under close supervision, such as during a game of fetch. Remove the balls when you’re not actively playing a game with them, and do not let your dog use them as chew toys.

When choosing a tennis ball, look for similar balls made specifically for dogs out of natural, nontoxic, organic materials. Typical tennis balls made for dogs can contain toxic glues, accelerant in the rubber and even lead,3 which is why finding a natural product made in the U.S. is important.

Also, give your dog access to only one tennis ball at a time, as picking up more than one at a time could lead to choking. If your dog won’t play with a tennis ball without chewing it up, choose a different form of ball, such as a hard rubber version.

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Are hard rubber balls safe?

If your dog loves balls but destroys tennis balls, a safer option may be a hard rubber ball in a suitable size for your dog. It must be large enough that it doesn’t pose a choking hazard and made from a nontoxic material that isn’t destructible, such as natural rubber.

A common cause of choking in pets is ingestion of an object that lodges in the airway, such as a hard rubber ball, so be sure to give your dog only rubber balls that are too large to go down his throat. These types of balls can work great for playing fetch, but be aware that some dogs may reject hard balls.

Why? Research suggests many dogs enjoy toys that either taste like food or that they can pull apart and destroy because they likely view toys as wolves view their prey.4

Study co-author Anne Pullen told Psychology Today that dogs most enjoy "soft, easily manipulatable toys that can be chewed easily and/or make a noise. Dogs quickly lose interest in toys with hard unyielding surfaces, and those that don't make a noise when manipulated."5

Still, for some dogs, balls are No. 1, especially when they’re being thrown by their owner for a game of fetch. You know your dog best, so if he enjoys playing with balls, choose a size that doesn’t pose a choking risk, look for those made from nontoxic, natural materials and monitor his usage so he doesn’t break the ball apart.

And no matter what type of ball or toy you give your dog, teaching him the “drop it” command is essential and ensures he’ll always drop the object at your command if it becomes a choking risk or you need to take it away from your dog for any reason. This way, you can both have fun playing.