What’s safer: a tennis ball, or a ball made specifically for dogs?

If you have an active, ball-obsessed dog, you may have concerns about how safe those tennis balls are. Are tennis balls safe for dogs, or are dog toys safer?

Dog toy safety

We have lots of different dog toys for Mort, but are they really safer than products made for humans?

You might have heard stories about how tennis balls aren’t safe for dogs. These stories may include concerns about enamel abrasion, or perhaps something about what the tennis balls are made of. You probably heard that you should stick to ones made for dogs, instead of the kind used on the tennis courts.

However, you might be surprised to learn about a potentially more serious safety concern at the pet store. That's right: just because that toy is made for a dog does not mean that it's safer.

So let’s look into tennis balls, dog toys, and safety: is that ball made for your dog really safer than the kind you find on the courts?

A tennis ball will damage your active dog’s teeth: truth or fiction?

One of the most common concerns about dogs and tennis balls (designed for humans) is damage to the teeth. A few years ago, an article emerged about dental safety and dogs. The “fuzz” used to pelt a tennis ball was said to wear down a dog’s teeth. You can avoid this damage using balls specifically designed for dogs, which are said to be safer.

Is this true?

Hey guess where we went? #stylishcanine

A photo posted by Stylish Canine | DOGthusiast (@stylishcanine) on

According to the experts, yes, the fuzz can wear down teeth (called "blunting") but it would take a lot of use to actually impact your dog’s dental health. Tony Woodward, a veterinary dental specialist, notes that "Rarely does this kind of blunting cause any problem, even among dogs that live many years and chew pretty regularly on tennis balls" (See this article for more information). Unless your dog is a ball fanatic and chews on one at all hours, you probably do not need to worry about dental issues.

This potential for abrasion is also true of other heavily used soft toys, like soft frisbees.

So if your dog always has a toy in his mouth at all hours, especially if it’s often covered in grit or sand, you may want to switch to a toy with a solid surface. This also benefits your dog as he won’t ingest as much of that grit or dirt during play (ingesting too much grit off of a toy has landed our dog Mort with some gastrointestinal upset and even at the vets once - we had to learn the hard and costly way). But what if the dog toy is more dangerous than the tennis ball?

What about using balls especially made for dogs? Aren't they safer?

So this is the one that surprised me: toys made for dogs could be worse for your dogs than the ones made for humans.

The materials used to make tennis balls for humans are subject to regulation, and toys made for dogs are not. Dog toys are often made outside of the country, and are sometimes full of toxic materials that could be more harmful than potentially abrasive tennis ball fuzz. Especially when consumed. Heading to the pet store for a dog-specific toy may therefore not be the immediate answer for finding something that’s “safe”, especially because your dog holds these toys in his mouth and may even ingest some pieces of it.

Why does it matter so much? Are toxic toys all that common?

Why should you be concerned? In a test of 400 pet products, 25% of all products were found to have lead present in the materials. The study also found that it was more likely for tennis balls intended for dogs to contain lead than ones made for humans. (source). This isn't to say all non-dog toys are OK, or all dog toys are unsafe, it's just that you need to check each product individually.

Dog in mid air

Mort flying through the air for a ball, over shot by just a bit. Sometimes flying is more fun than catching?

Therefore, you may want to bookmark the Healthy Stuff website (note that the website recently migrated, so expect the database to return soon) so you can analyze the contents of a product before you put in your shopping cart. I know I'll be checking our cupboards against this database as soon as it's back! Checking whether a product you give to your dog is toxic is particularly important for soft toys your dog may inadvertently ingest tiny pieces of. If the item is not in the database, many companies will have information about the material used on their website (noting non-toxic or similar). If not, contact their customer support for information on where and how the toys were created.

It's also important to remember that most or all toys carry some amount of risk to your dog from chewing and the potential for consumption, which is dangerous whether or not the toy is toxic. A bored dog with a destructible toy can have disastrous results. For example, even very small pieces from a toy - or the fuzz pelt torn from a tennis ball - can become lodged in or damage the intestinal tract. I've even heard of large dogs swallowing tennis balls whole. So make sure that you either monitor your dog with toys or take reasonable precautions about what toys are left with your dog while unattended.

And don’t forget to visit me at DOGthusiast: for dog enthusiasts if you want to learn more about active dogs, safety and health, and enjoy occasional unique and fun illustrations of our favorite four legged companions. Like the photos you see here? You can follow me on Instagram at @StylishCanine for many more like these featuring my dogs Mort and Tig.


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Positively Expert: Jen deHaan

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, writer, and dog person living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and training her two dogs.


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