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Is Playing Fetch Bad for My Dog?

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Dogs love games of fetch, but there can be hidden dangers to this favourite pastime.

Dogs love games of fetch, but there can be hidden dangers to this favourite pastime.

Why do Dogs Like Fetch?

Most dogs love to run out and fetch a ball or stick for their owner and some might even leap up for a Frisbee, but there are growing concerns about how damaging such games could be for your dog. The British Veterinary Association stated in 2016 that throwing sticks for dogs is potentially life-threatening.

Yet, so many dogs find playing fetch vastly enjoyable and this leaves people confused—why stop a game that dogs seem to love so much? Are these health warnings even accurate?

The scientific evidence for the perils of fetch is increasing and indicates that repetitively running after a ball, leaping into the air for a toy or chasing a stick can lead to joint problems or other injuries. But that does not mean fetch games should stop altogether. Many dogs are natural retrievers and love bringing objects back to their owner. There are ways to play fetch that are safe and fun for your dog, but even if you still want to chuck a ball or throw a stick, knowing what could happen will prepare you and make sure you can take the best care of your dog.

Vets see many dogs with stick related injuries and advise owners not to let their dogs play with sticks

Vets see many dogs with stick related injuries and advise owners not to let their dogs play with sticks

Why Sticks Can Be Dangerous

In 2016, the British Veterinary Association warned owners that playing fetch with sticks could lead to horrific injuries. The BVA had good reason to be concerned; information from individual vet practices has revealed how dangerous a thrown stick can be.

One vet practice in Sandbach, Cheshire, reported seeing about twenty stick related injuries a year. Vet Cameron Muir explained that typically the injuries are due to the dog impaling itself on the stick, or damaging their mouths: "It's a risky business throwing sticks. We often have to put dogs under anaesthetic to remove splinters, and sometimes have them in for repeat surgeries."

According to the UK veterinary charity PDSA, they see stick related injuries across their 51 UK practices every week. Injuries from sticks may not be immediately apparent, Smooth Collie Maya did not show any signs of distress after a walk where she chased sticks, but some time later she became subdued and wouldn't eat. According to her owner Cathy Pryde:

"We took her to the vet and they sedated her and then pulled out this long stick from her throat. We had no idea that was the problem. There had been no blood or any other clues."

The 4-inch (10cm) long stick had punctured her tongue and displaced her voice box.

Even more dramatic than Maya's accident was that which occurred to spaniel Rudi, who had to be rushed 100 miles to an emergency vet when he ran into a stick 26cm (10in) long. The stick had gone into his mouth and Rudi's owner could see the tip in his throat, what he did not know was the stick had penetrated further into the dog's body and ran down into his foreleg.

Rudi underwent a mammoth operation to remove the stick and needed 52 stitches. He was extremely lucky—if the stick had gone just one or two millimetres further either way, it would have hit a major artery and Rudi would not have survived.

The commonest way for a dog to be injured by a stick is when it is thrown and they run out for it. If the stick has not yet settled on the ground or is sticking up at an angle, they may impale themselves on it. Sticks can be as deadly as a knife when run into at high speeds and will shatter and splinter as they enter soft tissue. Usually, the injuries are to the mouth, chest or abdomen.

Chewing on sticks can be equally dangerous, as large splinters can lodge in the mouth, causing open wounds that are prone to infection. If splinters are swallowed, the throat or stomach can be damaged.

The Royal Veterinary College did a study on injuries caused by sticks and found they were as common as injuries caused by dogs running onto roads. Professor Dan Brockman stated:

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"Several dogs involved in our study died as a result of their stick injury and these deaths almost always involved resistant bacteria and infection that spread from the neck to the chest.”

The overall opinion from vets is not to throw sticks; instead try using safer alternatives, such as dog toys that look like sticks but are made from soft plastic or rubber.

Splinters from sticks can cause damage to the mouth and throat

Splinters from sticks can cause damage to the mouth and throat

Why Balls Can Be Dangerous

Many people take a ball out with them to throw for their dog. Dogs love to chase the fast-flying balls, hurtling after them, then grabbing them up, spinning around and racing back to their owner to do it all again.

Dogs are so renowned for being keen ball chasers that the pet market is now full of ball throwing choices—from ball lobbers, that assist handlers in chucking a ball a long way, to ball throwing plastic guns. There are also many types of balls that you can buy for your dog; hard balls, soft foam balls, tennis balls, tough balls, balls with holes, giant balls and even mini balls for smaller mouths. It is easy to see why any owner might think that ball throwing and chasing is the most natural activity for dogs.

While occasionally playing fetch with a ball is not likely to cause lasting harm to a dog, repetitively chasing a ball day in and day out can have consequences both to a dog's physical health and to their mental well being. The top three reasons why constant ball throwing could be detrimental to your dog are:

  1. Physical injuries and joint problems caused by rushing out to grab the ball (ie. shoulder, neck and spine injuries)
  2. Health issues due to over-exertion while ball chasing (ie. exercise-induced collapse, heat stroke)
  3. Dogs becoming too aroused from ball chasing, resulting in hyperactivity or obsessive behaviours

As each of these reasons requires some explanation, let's take a look at them individually.

Repetitive strain injuries and other chronic conditions can result from constant ball catching

Repetitive strain injuries and other chronic conditions can result from constant ball catching

Fetch and Physical Injuries

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna conducted a study on the effects of dogs carrying objects in their mouths and released the results in 2017. They found that when dogs are carrying something, they place more weight on their front legs and this could result in joint strains and injuries if the object is too heavy, if they are puppies, or if they run and jump with the item.

Dogs typically place 60% of their weight on their front legs and 40% on their hind legs. When carrying a heavy object, the dog shifts more of its weight forward to compensate and begins to run in a 'seesaw' fashion with the burden being on their front quarters.

Dr. Barbara Bockstahler, a veterinary surgeon involved in the study, explained how this impacts on the dog's body:

"[Carrying a heavy object] is comparable to a human holding a weight in his hands, who slightly tilts backwards and therefore shifts his body weight to his heels.The additional weight is physically burdensome for them."

The study used pressure plates that dogs walked over to determine how they were carrying their body weight. The test subjects were Labradors, known for their enthusiastic retrieving skills. When the dogs were asked to carry a toy that weighed about half a kilogram (1.1lbs) the dogs started to carry 66% of their weight on their front legs. When asked to carry a 4kg (8.8lbs) object, equivalent to carrying a bird or large branch, they started to place 75% of their weight on their front legs.

The impact of this weight shift could result in strains and muscular injuries according to Dr. Bockstahler:

"It is likely with the increasing speed during running or jumping, the forces acting on the joints and soft tissues will increase. In animals with existing joint, tendon or muscle disorders, this could have a negative effect. Also in young, growing animals, this could have a negative effect, especially if the weights they are carrying are heavy. Training should be performed carefully. It does not mean retrieving work is bad, but it must be performed with the knowledge that it puts stress on the limbs."

In larger breeds, carrying a tennis ball should not cause a weight shift, but in smaller dogs, it could. Equally, dogs that regularly chase and carry heavy footballs (soccer balls) will weight shift and potentially place strain on their front legs.

But it is not just carrying balls that could cause injuries. The action of charging out after a ball could place unnecessary strain on a dog's joints, leading to long-term problems such as arthritis. Veterinarian Hanna Capon is the founder of the Canine Arthritis Management website and has concerns about the damaging effects caused by ball chasing, especially when using ball throwers that launch the object a long way off:

"We need to realise we're asking dogs to run like athletes. They're going from standing still to a gallop, then throwing themselves in [the] air, braking and skidding. This might be up and down a hill or on a beach, and it's causing damage to their joints and trauma to muscles and cartilage. But because the dog is so excited, they carry on through the pain. For the many dogs who might have injuries or mobility problems, we're making these even worse, meaning pets need to be on medication. This can take years off their life expectancy."

The real issue is the way that many dogs are encouraged to repetitively chase ball after ball, with the intention of tiring them out. Say you throw a ball ten times during a walk, over seven days that is seventy throws, seventy times the dog has charged out, twisted or jumped to grab the ball and powered back. Over the course of a year that is 3,640 high impact runs your dog has done, and over a ten-year lifespan, that would be over 30,000 and each of those throws has placed a strain on the body.

Wrist, shoulder, neck and spinal injuries are a common result of intensive ball throwing sessions as Lynn Wetenhall discovered when her terrier cross Smudge developed two serious injuries—hyper-extended carpal (wrist) joints and strained lower back muscles, which were suspected to have been caused by chasing balls. Smudge's injuries were fortunately found before they caused permanent damage and with physiotherapy he made a full recovery. Lynn has a simple message for other dog owners: "Don't use ball flingers. Do not throw balls up in the air for your dog."

Some dogs are so obsessed by ball chasing, they don't know when to stop

Some dogs are so obsessed by ball chasing, they don't know when to stop

Fetch and the Dangers of Over-Exercise

One of the more subtle hazards of playing lots of fetch is that your dog can start to suffer from over-exertion, yet because of the excitement generated by chasing balls, they will not stop. As mentioned above, ball chasing produces such a buzz of adrenaline that dogs will continue with the game even when in pain. If a dog plays fetch for too long and pushes past a point where their body is actually exhausted then it can result in health complications.

One under-recognised condition that can result from over-exercise is Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC), there are a few forms of the condition and they can vary by breed. In Labradors there is a specific form that was first identified in 1993 and is believed to be hereditary. Dogs with the condition will collapse after 5 to 10 minutes of intense exercise, such as ball chasing.

While the majority of dogs will recover within 30 minutes after collapsing, it is possible for a dog to die as a result of EIC. EIC is also known to affect collies and spaniels. It is likely more breeds will be discovered to have EIC as the problem is better recognised, but it tends to be more noticeable in high-drive breeds. Dogs with EIC should not be encouraged to chase after balls.

Another danger of ball chasing comes in the warmer months when people mindlessly throw a ball for their dog in hot temperatures. Because the owner is usually static, they fail to realise how hot their dog is becoming in the pursuit of the game. Every summer in the UK and US, dogs are rushed to their vets suffering from heatstroke. Sadly, some do not recover.

One of the common triggers for heatstroke in dogs is ball chasing on a sunny day. The very act of running out fast for the ball raises the dog's body temperature, then they carry the ball in their mouths, preventing them from panting. The owner immediately chucks out the ball again once it is brought back and the dog's body does not have a chance to cool down. If this carries on for too long, then heatstroke sets in.

Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • Heavy panting and drooling
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhoea
  • Dark red tongue and gums
  • Staggering, weakness and collapse
  • Increased pulse and heartbeat
  • Seizures

Heatstroke is a killer. When a dog's body overheats the cells begin to die, the brain swells which results in seizures and dehydration leads to irreversible kidney damage. Scarily, this can all happen in a matter of minutes. The solution is plain: don't play fetch in hot weather.

Obsessive ball chasing can be bad for a dog mentally, as well as physically

Obsessive ball chasing can be bad for a dog mentally, as well as physically

Fetch and Its Effects on the Brain

The reason dogs love chasing balls is because it feeds into their innate prey drive. The action of running and catching the object releases adrenaline and some experts now believe that this can lead to the release of the powerful chemical cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that influences mood and is part of the 'fight or flight' mechanism. In a dangerous situation, cortisol helps a dog have the energy to either run away or fight, but prolonged exposure to the chemical can negatively impact on health.

In humans, it is known that overexposure to cortisol can result in anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, trouble sleeping, weight gain and issues with memory or concentration.

Many animal trainers and behaviourists are concerned that overexposure to cortisol can result in behavioural changes. Canine behaviourist Sindhoor Pangal, who has suffered severe anxiety herself, believes that ball chasing can lead to a spiral of stress caused by the release of cortisol:

"When an animal hunts in the wild, after that adrenaline rush, he sits down to eat his meal and lets the hormones wear off. But when we throw the ball, we throw several times each session. Imagine bungee jumping several times over. Imagine taking that many shots of steroids, every day."

Repetitive ball games can cause a dog to become over-aroused due to the excitement of the game. Dog trainer Sara Reusche believes that an over-aroused dog is actually an extremely stressed dog:

"If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hyper-vigilant."

Many people believe ball games will help their dog burn energy and calm down, but in high-drive or obsessive dogs, the opposite can easily be true. They become more and more hyper as the game goes on, and have trouble calming down afterwards. If this happens every day, they end up never able to fully relax, especially if they are being walked three times a day and have balls thrown for them during each walk. The result is a restless, stressed dog that cannot settle, and owners respond by doing more ball throwing to try to tire them out, only to end up worsening the problem.

Jumping and twisting for a frisbee can result in serious injuries

Jumping and twisting for a frisbee can result in serious injuries

What If I Switch to a Frisbee?

Some owners don't throw balls, they throw Frisbees. The advantage of a Frisbee is that it flies a long way in a straight line, and many dogs like to leap up and grab it. There is even a sport called Disc Dog or Frisbee Dog. Frisbee throwing can produce the same problems as mentioned above with ball throwing, but there are also additional issues associated with the game. One is known as 'Tongue Bite'—this is when an excited dog who is panting hard bites down on a Frisbee and catches their tongue in the process.

But the greatest concern with Frisbee throwing is when dogs leap to grab the disc. They often twist their bodies at acute angles and land on their hind feet first, rather than their front feet. This is not the way dogs are designed to jump, and their back legs are not as good at absorbing the impact of the leap as their front legs.

In 2014, a pet show in Cumbria decided to remove a Frisbee throwing contest after concerns about the impact it could have on the dogs involved. Tony Lywood, one of the show organisers, explained his decision: "In shows elsewhere there have been occasions where dogs have jumped high and twisted their back, and there was one where the dog had to be put down."

The Kennel Club backed the decision, stating:

"The Kennel Club encourages fun sports and activities for dogs in order to keep them fit and healthy. But it has concerns about the game of Frisbee, particularly in its more extreme forms. While it can be safe in controlled conditions, if it is thrown at great heights or awkward angles, leading the dog to jump and twist, it can cause strain and injury on landing so care should always be taken."

While most injuries dogs suffer catching a Frisbee are due to strained muscles, it can result in damage to the discs in the spine and in some cases has caused a dog to become paralysed in their back legs. In fact, in terms of injuries, you would be better sticking with a tennis ball.

How Can I Make Fetch Safe?

Many of the injuries resulting from fetch are due to people pushing their dogs too hard and, with a few modifications, you can make fetch a safe game for most dogs to enjoy. Here are some ways to make fetch stress-free.

  • Never play fetch with sticks.
  • Don't use a ball thrower, always throw from your hand.
  • Roll the ball or Frisbee on the ground, or allow it to come to a stop before you send your dog to get it (this prevents them from jumping in the air and twisting to grab it).
  • Limit sessions to just a few throws (no more than five) and break them up with walking or other games.
  • Don't play fetch every day, and if you go for multiple walks daily, only play fetch on one of those walks. This gives your dog a chance to mentally and physically rest from the game.
  • Don't play fetch in hot weather—it is just not worth it.
  • Try hide and seek games with a tennis ball or toy, where your dog has to search for the ball in a bush or under a park bench. This has them use their nose and is much better for tiring them out than simply chasing.
  • Avoid throwing a ball high so your dog leaps up to catch it.
  • Get moving, a walk means you walk as well as your dog, don't rely on a tennis ball to exercise your dog.
  • If your dog becomes obsessive or over-aroused over fetch and struggles to calm down after a game, it is better to avoid this game altogether.
  • If your dog ever collapses during a game of fetch, even if they recover quickly, always seek veterinary advice.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Sophie Jackson

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