Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tennis Balls, My Liege

photo © Geonni Banner
OK.  Tennis balls. I read somewhere recently that “All Tennis balls are made in China.”  This seemed to be meant to convey that they must be evil, because they were made in China.
Well, OK.  Wait a second.  Although there have been recalls of pet products – edible and otherwise – from China due to toxicity problems, (and products for human use and consumption too) “made in China” does not necessarily equate with dangerous.  If it did the Chinese people would probably be a lot sicker and/or more damaged than they appear to me to be. 

Let’s start with whether the claim that all tennis balls are made in China is true.  From what I can tell, it sort of depends on who you talk to.  
One “Buy US Made Stuff” website,, asserts that you should buy Penn brand tennis balls, as they are made in the USA.  Of course, this was based on labeling info from a 2003 product. 

The video below features a tutorial on how Penn tennis balls are made.  The machinery is huge and impressive, and the people running it all appear to be Asian, as are writings on the factory machines and walls.  Hmmmm.   

The same website wars you to watch out for Wilson tennis balls, as some of them are made in Indonesia.  But Wilson has a video too. 

Theirs was posted to YouTube in 2012, and though it’s quality is grainy and the sound a bit muddy, the workers in that factory appear to be composed of African Americans and Caucasian people.  Any labels or signs on the machines I saw were in English.  Again I say, hmmmm.

Now it’s certainly possible that all tennis balls currently being manufactured are made in China, but I have to reserve judgement on that one.
When I buy tennis balls, I get them at a local chain of pet supplies chains called Pet Food Express.  I have found their staff to be knowledgeable, helpful and friendly.  One of their people once told me that they test all the dog toys they sell for toxins before offering them for sale.  The Pet Food Express website echoes this.  It says: 

“Our company is being especially proactive about issues in a way that is literally unheard of in the pet retail industry: We are studying ingredients and voluntarily banning the ones that we feel are questionable in quality and safety; we're testing for lead in all of our dog & cat toys and food bowls before they hit the shelves, in spite of manufacturer standards and we’re continuing to be the pet retail company leaders in providing the most diligent recall information available.”

So what about the tennis balls, discarded by tennis players, that you can pick up for free at, or adjacent to your local tennis courts? Should you pick those up and start heaving them around for your dog?  Here’s a couple of opinions on that:

Yes, tennis balls can be dangerous, but let's examine why:
  • Some dogs like to pull the felt off of tennis balls. It's so tempting; why wouldn't a dog like to? But, it's not safe. Eating foreign objects isn't an uncommon thing for dogs to do, but getting spent felt, or anything else that's dangerous, stuck in their tummy isn't good.
  • Tennis balls are made from rubber. Large-breed dogs are especially fond of chewing on them and squeezing them in their very capable jaws. Bruiser is an avid chewer and loves to do this, and would do it literally all day if he could. I know of a Jack Russell Terrier who can fit one in her much-smaller mouth and do the same thing. Because they are so flexible, they can easily break in half and get lodged in the throat, or fragments can get stuck in a pooches' stomach.
  • Large breed dogs can easily fit two tennis balls into their mouth, leading to a choking hazard as well.
The jury is split on the effects of mouthing on tennis balls has on a dog's dentition, but one veterinary dentist clarifies any qualms that pet owners might have about offering up the most fun toy ever to their four-legged friends. 

In a USA Today article, Tony Woodward, a board-certified veterinary dentist in Colorado Springs, Colo. notes that yes, the felt is abrasive and does wear down the teeth (or blunting, as it's called in professional circles), but not so much that there is a cause for great concern over the life of a dog.

Their teeth will be able to function fully well into their senior years if they enjoy playing with the toys. In fact, tartar build-up is more of a concern than any damage that a tennis ball could inflict.

If your dog is an obsessive chewer, though, Woodward suggests giving them a toy that they can gnaw on safely without the fuzz, like a Kong.

One interesting finding: despite the myth that everyday tennis balls that are made for playing the actual game are toxic, and that those marketed specifically for our furry friends are safer — the opposite was found to be true in a study done by a Michigan company. The reason? The ink used to mark the toys contains dangerous amounts of lead.

Several reliable sources make it clear: tennis balls are a safe, fun choice for your dogs, so don't sweat it. But do so with care by doing the following:
  • Supervising play
  • Discarding split, weak tennis balls or fragments
  • Not alllowing you dog to tear off the felt with their teeth
  • Discouraging your pooches from having two tennis balls in their mouth at a time
  • Sticking with good, old-fashioned tennis balls from the sporting goods department
Dogs everywhere can now breathe a sigh of relief.

photo byWikimedia User User: Mdk572

...and this from:

“All that made me think about what’s in my dogs’ toys,” recalls Rogers, who now has three Shelties. “It also didn’t seem right that I had lost two eightyear- old dogs and we didn’t know why. I was doing this [testing] personally for the safety of my dogs and only tested for lead because that’s what they were finding in the toys from China.”

But others in the pet industry downplay the need for chemical standards in these products, saying they aren’t aware of any studies linking lead in dog toys to canine-related health problems. They also say many companies that make pet toys now follow the federal standards for lead in children’s toys— or the European standards, which limit lead levels to 90 ppm.

“It may sound like standards make sense and they may make consumers more comfortable about buying a pet toy, but there are no indications that there is a real risk to pets [from lead and other toxins] in their toys,” says Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “We have 1,000 members and we’ve heard no reports of dogs or cats having any ill effects from playing with any pet toy because of the lead or the plastic in the toy.”

But recent tests of hundreds of pet toys, tennis balls, beds, collars and leashes reveal that many contain what researchers call “alarming levels” of lead and other harmful chemicals. The tests were run in September 2009 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization that analyzes toxins in children’s toys and other consumer goods; results are posted on the Ecology Center’s research-based website, While the site explains that the project’s screening technology “cannot identify the presence and concentration of every chemical of concern” (Bisphenol A, for example), some key findings are worth noting:

• From the more than 400 pet products tested, 45 percent had detectable levels of one or more hazardous toxins, including arsenic, chlorine and bromine. Studies have linked those chemicals to reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, liver toxicity and cancer.

• Of the tennis balls tested, 48 percent contained detectable levels of lead. Researchers discovered that tennis balls made specifically for pets were more likely to contain lead than “sports” tennis balls. The lettering on one “pet” tennis ball, for example, contained 2,696 ppm of lead and 262 ppm of arsenic, a known human carcinogen. None of the “sports” tennis balls tested contained any lead.

• While one-quarter of all the products had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of all pet products had lead levels higher than the 300 ppm allowed in children’s toys. Nearly half of the pet collars tested had detectable levels of lead; 27 percent had lead levels that exceeded 300 ppm.

“Pets are involuntary canaries in the coal mine in terms of chemical exposure,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. “Pets, like children, have higher exposure to chemical hazards, and our data show that pet products are far more likely to have hazardous chemicals than children’s toys.”

Not all the dog toys tested, however, contained harmful chemicals. Researchers discovered more than a dozen “chemical-free” toys—including the Air Kong Squeaker, the Hartz Flexa-Foam Round About Elephant and the Nylabone Double Action Chew. Despite these “green” findings, Gearhart says his organization’s tests illustrate why chemical safety standards are needed for chew toys and other pet products. The standards would not only protect pets, he says, but also young children who might put dog toys in their mouths. “For lead, the standard that applies for children’s toys is appropriate for pets,” Gearhart says. “I’d say the standard for children’s products should at least be a starting point for those levels.”

A veterinary toxicologist with the ASPCA supports similar guidelines. “Dogs are part of the family,” says Dr. Safdar Kahn, director of Toxicology Research at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “They are as important as our kids or other family member. And if we feel that way about them, then we should give them things that won’t affect their health.

“So yes, there should be standards for [chemicals] in pet toys,” Kahn adds. “Just like there are guidelines for children’s toys, there should be guidelines for [toxins] in the toys being sold for pets.” Dr. Kahn isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of lead poisoning in dogs caused by a pet toy, but he warns that long-term, excessive exposure to the heavy metal could cause health problems in our four-legged friends.

“Dogs like to chew on things, lick things, carry toys in their mouths, and if there are excessive amounts of lead in a toy, then they can get overexposed to lead,” he says. “And lead can do a number of things to dogs, depending on how much they’re exposed to and for how long.” Some health problems associated with canine lead toxicity include vomiting, weight loss, anemia, seizures and permanent neurological damage.

“Depending on how much exposure there is, and the duration, it can affect multiple organ systems,” Kahn says, adding that dogs who chew or ingest such products as fishing sinkers, curtain weights and old paint can develop lead toxicity.

Remember the “pet” tennis ball that contained more than 2,000 ppm of lead and more than 200 ppm of arsenic? “They are considered higher than the maximum tolerable dietary levels in dogs,” says Kahn.

Photo by Matthew McGraw

But the levels of other toxins found in the pet toys tested by the Ecology Center—including traces of chromium, antimony and up to 166 ppm of the flame-retardant bromine—do not alarm Kahn. “Those are not expected to be a concern at these levels,” he says.

Years before concerns of harmful chemicals in pet toys became a hot topic, the Maine company Planet Dog started making nontoxic toys and other products for dogs. Since it opened its doors 12 years ago, Planet Dog has embraced strict hazardous material standards. Many are self-imposed, including the company’s decision to follow the lower European standards for lead in children’s toys of 90 ppm.

“We want to make sure everything we are producing is completely safe,” says Jeff Cloutier, Planet Dog’s manager of sourcing, quality assistance and product development. “All our molded toys are 100 percent safe. We also do our own third-party testing to ensure all the products we make and sell meet our standards.” Cloutier would still like to see national standards for lead and other chemicals in chew toys and pet products. There’s just one caveat: Those standards must be fair.

“The problem is there are so many different standards and tests out there for kids’ toys and clothes, but there is nothing for pets,” Cloutier says. “There needs to be something. This is a huge industry, and who knows what some companies are making.”

PetSmart says dog owners don’t need to worry about the safety of the pet toys and other products on its store shelves. The nationwide retailer claims all its products meet strict federal and other regulatory guidelines. “We use the same standards established for human safety,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Ericsson, “and we continue to receive successful test results on our products, and believe there is no cause for concern related to the products we sell.”

The company routinely tests samples of its imported pet products, Ericsson says. “We also hire an independent company to conduct a variety of quality- assurance tests on representative batches of [pet] toys, including tests for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium,” she says. “We take the safety of our products very seriously.”

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) says its members are just as vigilant about the safety of dog toys and other pet products. The trade group says many of its members have adopted their own chemical standards, using the European lead levels or the 300 ppm in the United States as baselines.

“There is a kind of informal standard going on now,” says the association’s Ed Rod. “Some of our members have also found that large retailers impose their own standards. But some members have run into difficulties because those standards are not always the same. Retailers set their own standards. One company may have one standard and another retailer may have another one.”

photo © Geonni Banner

Do APPA members agree that national standards for toxins in pet toys should be adopted? “There is discussion in the industry about whether some sort of voluntary standards are appropriate,” Rod says.

“We’ve met with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about getting some standards.

But the CPSC has no jurisdiction over pet toys, and they are underfunded and overworked. They have no interest or inclination unique to pet toys. They’re looking at children’s toys. So going to the CPSC and getting some standards for pet toys is not an option.”

Rod says members of his organization understand dog owners’ concerns and frustrations about toxins in their pets’ toys. “People saw Mattel recall toys for lead and heard about the lead problems with the Thomas the Tank Engine toys,” he says. “The next connection was, understandably, ‘What’s in my pet’s toy?’”

But there isn’t a consensus among APPA members that chemical safety standards are needed, Rod says. “I’m sure there are two points of view. It’s convenient to say that there are standards for children’s toys and if those are good enough for kids, they should be good enough for dogs.

“On the other hand, it’s hard to establish a baseline. And there is no science showing any ill effects from the lead or plastic content in a chew toy for animals. Therefore, we have no basis for evaluating any lead or plastic content standards unique to pet toys.”

At least one worried dog owner says she’d consider APPA members “heroes” if they’d spearhead a campaign to establish standards for toxins in pet toys. “We need standards and we need to know what levels are okay to expose our pets to,” Nancy Rogers says. “I still think the Pet Products Association should lead that effort. This issue matters because pets are part of our families.”

Lisa McCormick is an award-winning investigative reporter whose stories have appeared in Dogs for Kids magazine, The Kansas City Star, and the national consumer news website,; she has written 12 nonfiction children's books.