Dogs naturally interact with objects using their mouths. One common visitor is a tennis ball! Tennis balls are used very commonly for play both indoors and out and provide fun and stimulating enjoyment for canines.
However, as with anything that enters a dog’s mouth, there is a risk it may not come back out! Some dogs love to chew. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick or even something touted as “safe” like pig ears or rawhides. If your pup is a chewer, then it won’t be long before tennis balls may be the next victim of your dog’s chewing tendencies.
The issue is, tennis balls can break down with repeated use. They then start to shed bits of fuzzy surface or rubber which are even easier to swallow. This can cause harmful effects for your pup, and may even cause a bowel obstruction, which may be life-threatening. Continue reading to find out what to do, and when you need to call your local veterinarian.
Can Eating a Tennis Ball Harm My Dog?
Tennis balls are made of synthetic materials like rubber and plastic, and these cannot be digested by the body. This means that if they are swallowed and enter the gut, they will have to come back out whole. They will come back out either via the mouth or at the other end!
Once the tennis ball or any part of it has entered the gut, it is known as a foreign body or foreign object. It then poses a risk of bowel obstruction. The gut is long and often narrow. This makes it very easy for them to get blocked and this is the main risk for dogs. Bowel obstructions are very serious and can be life-threatening.
Don’t panic, though! There are plenty of actions veterinarians can take to help your dog. And this is true, even if the whole ball is swallowed. But you must seek help at the earliest opportunity for the best outcome.
Damage to Teeth
On a side note, tennis balls are also thought to wear down a dog’s teeth as they chew on them, due to the roughness of the fuzzy surface. If your pup likes to chew, it is best to avoid tennis balls and seek out purpose-designed dog toys that will not damage the teeth.
Tennis balls should also be avoided in older dogs. The act of throwing a ball and playing fetch can put a lot of pressure on joints. Older dogs are potentially at risk of arthritis in their legs and the twists, turns, and high speed of fetch can be quite damaging on top of this. Steady and controlled exercise is best and can still provide plenty of physical and mental stimulation.
Tennis balls and other smaller balls can also pose a choking hazard to dogs. This can again be a veterinary emergency as the ball may block the airway. You’ll need to make sure you match the ball to your dog’s size so it’s not too small for them to swallow.
My Dog Ate a Tennis Ball, What Should I Do?
If your pup ate parts of their favorite tennis ball, there may not be any harm caused. This all depends on what was swallowed. Even still, there are a few steps you’ll want to take. Follow the steps below to ensure Fido has his best chance of having no impact as a result of their chewing habits.
Step #1: Remove The Ball & Any Pieces
Make sure you remove any remaining bits of the ball, or any further balls, well away from your dog. This is to ensure that no other foreign objects get swallowed while you have your back turned! If it is safe to do so, try and get any other bits of material or ball out of their mouth.
Step #2: Figure Out How Much Was Eaten
Try and work out roughly what was eaten and when. This is important, especially depending on the size of your pet. Small dogs that have eaten quite a bit of rubber may be more at risk of obstruction, simply because their intestines are smaller than a larger dog.
Step #3: Call Your Veterinarian
Make contact with your local veterinary clinic straight away for further advice. They will ask about what has happened, any background information you have, and any symptoms of distress that may be showing. Based on this they will be able to provide tailored professional advice for you and your pup.
Step #4: Follow Your Vet’s Instructions
Follow the instructions of the veterinary clinic. They will usually recommend a visit and a check over but the advice may be given over the phone in some circumstances. It is best to take their advice seriously as it will be in the best interests of you and your canine companion.
What Happens if My Dog Eats a Tennis Ball?
In the Stomach
Initially, the ball will enter the stomach. There, it will irritate the lining of the stomach and block the exit from the stomach into the intestines (the ‘pylorus’). This can cause vomiting and discomfort, and will usually cause them to stop eating. In lucky cases, the ball or its parts may be vomited back up again, but this is not always the case. These symptoms will start after 30 minutes to 12 hours.
In the Guts
If the foreign objects exit the stomach and pass into the intestines, there is a long and winding path to the outside world at the other end. The ball will irritate the lining of the gut and cause damage. And, at any stage, it may become wedged in the gut and cause a bowel obstruction. The initial signs of a bowel obstruction include lethargy, vomiting, pain, restlessness, and loss of appetite. This may be followed by diarrhea or constipation too.
Dogs show tummy pain by stretching out their body with their bottom in the air. This is known as a prayer position as it looks like they are bowing to pray. The symptoms of a gut obstruction will start 12-72 hours after eating a ball. It usually takes 2-5 days for a foreign object to come out the other end for lucky dogs. But it could get stuck at any point.
Bowel obstructions are a big problem because they put a lot of pressure on that section of the gut. This causes it to become very inflamed and lose its blood supply. As the situation progresses, the gut will start to thin, die, and can even split open. If the guts start to split open, contents will leak into the abdomen. This can rapidly cause a massive infection and unfortunately is a life-threatening emergency.
Don’t panic! At any stage with the right professional help we can intervene to give your dog the best chances of a successful outcome! It is vital to seek help early, as the sooner these problems are identified, the easier they are to fix. The longer it is left, the worse the consequences may be.
How is a Swallowed Tennis Ball Treated?
Your vet will be able to assess your dog’s risk and help you treat them as best they can. They’ll go through the risks, benefits, and costs of each option so you can make an informed decision.
Some of the risks of bowel obstruction are based on size. This means that if a big dog has eaten a very small part of the tennis ball, or if the dog has just eaten a bit of the soft fuzzy outer section, then it may be reasonable to allow this to pass through the dog. However, if a small dog has eaten a large chunk, then this is a greater danger.
This decision should only be made by a veterinarian as their professional experience is vital. Having discussed the situation with you, the veterinarian may recommend carefully monitoring your dog over the following days and allowing the object to pass through under supervision. This is never risk-free, and intervention may be needed if you see symptoms of problems or blockage.
If your veterinarian advises that the risk of obstruction is significant, then we need to intervene. If Fido has swallowed a ball or parts of it within the last 4 hours, then it may be possible for the veterinarian to give your dog a strong, reliable injection to induce vomiting and bring the objects back up that way.
This is the safest option in many cases if the problem is caught early, although it should not be attempted at home unless your vet asks you to. There is a risk it will get stuck on the way back up again, blocking the gullet (food pipe) and putting pressure on the windpipe.
If you see any symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, pain, and loss of appetite, or if more than four hours have passed since they swallowed a tennis ball, then more serious interventions are required. Your veterinarian will perform a full clinical examination and discuss the situation with you to fully understand the background and the symptoms your dog is showing.
Often, they will then recommend imaging of the tummy, usually by X-ray but sometimes also by ultrasound. This is done to try and identify foreign objects and their location. Unfortunately, foreign objects like balls do not usually show up on X-ray pictures.
However, veterinarians use experience and judgment to identify patterns within the guts that represent inflammation or blockage. In some less clear-cut cases, repeated X-rays are required over some time to look for the evolving changes in the patterns.
If your veterinarian suspects your dog has a bowel obstruction, then urgent surgery is recommended to retrieve the foreign object before it damages and breaks open the intestines. There is no other alternative.
Although this is frightening for you, these are relatively routine procedures for veterinary clinics. Dogs do like to swallow things they shouldn’t quite frequently! If the problem is quickly identified and the surgery performed early, then the blockage can be relieved before the guts are severely damaged. This is the best-case situation, and most dogs recover rapidly.
Where problems have been left and the guts are more damaged, the surgery can become more complex and carry greater risk. If the guts around the blockage are dead, then these need to be removed as well. Recovery from this kind of surgery takes longer (up to two weeks) and is associated with more problems post-operatively. All intestinal surgery carries a risk of abdomen infection (‘peritonitis’) but this is much more of a risk where guts are damaged and need removal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Swallowing a tennis ball or any other foreign object that the gut cannot digest is a potentially life-threatening risk to a dog. Tennis balls do carry risks and in general. It’s definitely worth using dog-specific, purpose-designed toys if possible. These are less likely to cause problems.
If you do use tennis balls, ensure they are too big for your dog to swallow. Regularly swap them to fresh balls, so they don’t break down into more easily swallowed chunks. If you suspect your dog has eaten a ball, or parts of one, contact your veterinary clinic without delay. Discuss the situation with them for tailored advice for your pup.