Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tennis Balls and a Dog's Teeth

Chloe is a tennis ball lover. 

If I could make a pheasant bright green and round, then Chloe would instantly become a great bird dog.

She is happiest when, while on a walk in the woods, I throw a tennis style ball as far back into the trees as I can. She will search for 10 to 20 minutes until she finds it.  It does not matter if she saw where I threw it or not.

If I heave the ball into the surf of the ocean, she will swim through the crashing waves to retrieve it.  A ball thrown across a fast-flowing river will challenge her, but she will swim hard against the current to retrieve her precious treasure.

We play "hall ball," we play catch the ball in the air, we play hide the ball. Any game with the green ball she loves.

In hundreds of pictures I have taken of Chloe, many of them have a green fuzzy ball in it. I was told when we got Chloe not to use real tennis balls because they will wear the teeth.

We heeded this advice and have gotten "Air Dogs" with squeakers inside from pet stores since day one.  She loves the noise of the squeak until her brother gets ahold of it and "kills the squeaker."

KONG Air KONG Air SqueakAIR Balls Dog Toy, Extra Small, Yellow, 3/pack

Chloe's fangs still wore down a bit.  They are blunt.

This morning I did a web search on "Tennis balls and dogs' teeth."

Here is an article I found from USA Today in January 2009 by Sharon Peters.

Tennis ball chewing is bad for dogs' teeth?

Yikes. How will Labs and golden retrievers ever have another moment of joy? What could possibly replace those delectably soggy, filthy orbs of happiness? And should owners begin the weaning process immediately?

Not to spread alarm if you haven't already plugged into this latest pet-owner panic-inciter, but concern has been expressed far and wide in recent months about the dangers of tennis ball chewing. The fuzzy texture of the ball, it is said, gradually wears down the tooth, causing all manner of problems. There are even tennis ball alternatives being rolled out to protect the canines of canines.

Rumors and urban myth spread at least as fast as utter truth in this tech age. No one ever seems to know where any of the information originated, but it gets passed on, computer to computer, mouth to ear.

When this latest worry reached me at the end of the year, I resolved to see if I could confirm (or disconfirm) the veracity of the Great Tennis Ball Fuss.

So here it is. Tennis balls do indeed wear down teeth. But usually not to a concerning level. So unless you have a 24/7 tennis ball chewer, don't worry about it.

Who says? Tony Woodward, one of 104 board-certified veterinary dentists in the world. He knows teeth. It's what he does. He became a vet, then spent nearly six more years of intense study to become a tooth specialist. His practice is in Colorado Springs.

Simply by looking in their mouths, he can identify dogs that love to gnaw on, carry around, lick and otherwise orally engage with tennis balls. The texture of a tennis ball is little abrasive, he says, and it gets much more so as it picks up dirt and grit over time. And if the dog is an "oral compulsive" — Labs, goldens and border collies often qualify — the fangs can begin to wear a little and eventually get blunted.

The progression of fang wear slows with time because the wear is no longer occurring at the sharp point, but along a wider surface as the point disappears, he says.

Rarely does this kind of blunting cause any problem, even among dogs that live many years and chew pretty regularly on tennis balls, he says. Maybe one in 200 dogs with tennis ball blunting have a problem that requires some dental attention, and those tend to be the dogs that are "obsessive fanatics" that chew practically non-stop, he says. You know if you have one of those dogs. And if you do, you should probably try to shift it to chewing on something else for at least part of the time, something pliable, something without fuzz texture.

Woodward has a couple of Labs, 7 and 11, that he calls "ball fanatics," and he hasn't felt the need to redirect them to another chewing behavior. They've each ground away 15% to 20% of their fangs, and that doesn't trouble him.

There are, in fact, chewing behaviors he finds much more worrisome, as they almost always lead to the need for some major mouth work:

• Rolling a basketball across the yard so your dog will chase it. This, he says, is "the most grinding" of ball behavior because dogs chase and chase and run their teeth over a pebbly surface, unable to actually grab it and stop it, and this wears down teeth at warp rate.

• Dogs that are crated or kenneled and chew on the wires. This wears the back side of the dog's teeth in a most alarming way.

He also advises against "any chew item that you can't bend." Most owners think hard chew items are great because they remove tartar, but in exchange for a minor reduction of tartar, he says, there's the real risk of a fractured tooth that will have to be addressed. "If you can't bend it you shouldn't give it to your dog," he says.

Woodward acknowledges that perhaps 10% of his board-certified veterinary dentist colleagues might regard tennis balls as more worrisome than he does. But he believes tennis balls have less potential to do dental harm than much of the other stuff we give our dogs.

So there you have it.

Hear that sound? It's an in-unison sigh of relief from the entire Labrador population and their chew-happy brethren.

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