Is Fetch a Safe Game for My Dog?

Britt
by Britt
Photo credit: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock.com

It’s a classic game enjoyed by dogs and owners everywhere over the years, but have you wondered if the endless throwing and chasing involved in a game of fetch is putting extra strain on your dog?


Experts are now warning about the potential dangers of fetch for dogs.


This article will explore the potential benefits and hazards of this beloved game. Plus, I’ll share ways you can tailor a game of fetch to suit your dog’s breed, age, and overall health, ensuring you can both enjoy playtime worry-free.


Keep reading to learn how to make fetch a safe and rewarding activity for you and your dog.


Why Do Dogs Like Playing Fetch?


Experts believe dogs enjoy playing fetch for several reasons. At the most basic level, the game mimics hunting prey, tapping into dogs' instincts. When the stick, ball, or toy is thrown, the movement of it flying through the air represents their prey on the run (or flying). They then take off after their “prey” to hunt it down.


Another instinct a game of fetch could trigger is the desire to retrieve, which has been bred into some dogs, like Labrador Retrievers and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers. These dog breeds have been carefully bred over generations to be skilled at finding and retrieving game during a hunt. Even if your dog has never been hunting, the instincts may still drive this response.


Perhaps the most heartfelt explanation is the purpose of fetch as a form of play. As dogs have been domesticated, they began to form close bonds with their humans. An interactive game of fetch is an excellent bonding opportunity; your dog knows it!


Is Fetch Good Exercise for Dogs?


Yes! When done correctly, paying attention to the risks that we will discuss next, fetch can be an excellent way to keep your dog active and healthy. It encourages exercise in a way that is enjoyable for the dog and accessible for most people, even if they don’t have the physical ability to go for long walks or hikes.


Increased activity helps prevent obesity and the many health-related struggles that come with it. These struggles include:

  • Arthritis and other joint issues
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure
  • Some forms of cancer


Why Fetch is Bad for Dogs?


Have you heard the recent warnings from veterinarians, dog trainers, and other pet-related experts about the risks of playing fetch? If so, you may wonder, what is bad about playing fetch with your dog? While the game isn’t guaranteed to be a dangerous or unsafe activity, some elements of how we usually engage in the game could lead to accidents, injuries, or long-term damage.


Repetitive Motion Injuries


One of the most understated risks associated with a traditional game of fetch is the physical injuries that can occur from the quick and demanding movements it requires.


When you first throw your dog’s ball or toy, they must propel themselves forward, instantly moving from standing still to a full run. When they reach the ball, they must slow down or “put on the brakes” on a dime, often twisting their body (sometimes in odd or harmful ways) if it’s bouncing to catch it. They then have to take off once again to run back to you. These movements create several opportunities for injury.


These movements are hard on your dog’s joints. From the physical demands of pushing off from their hind quarters to run from a complete stop to the impact of trying to stop on a dime, this can cause injuries at the time or, over time, contribute to conditions like arthritis and worsening hip dysplasia.


Other physical injuries that can come from these repetitive moments include:

  • Cruciate Ligament tears (CCL tears)
  • Jammed or broken toes
  • Ripped or damaged paw pads
  • Muscle strains
  • Slip and fall injuries


Dental Damage


Another injury that can occur because of a game of fetch is damage to your dog’s teeth. This happens when playing fetch with a hard or unforgiving toy, like a plastic ball, that contacts your dog’s teeth when trying to catch it. The result is often cracked, chipped, or broken teeth. This is not only expensive to treat but also incredibly painful for your dog.


Risks of Fetch with Sticks


A favorite “toy” for a game of fetch is a basic stick found on the ground. While this may appear to be a budget-friendly way to exercise your dog at first glance, the resulting vet bills from a stick-related injury far outweigh the savings of not buying a suitable fetch toy.


A growing number of veterinarians and veterinary surgeons are warning dog parents about the risks of stick injuries in dogs, including:

  • Slivers or splinters in their mouth or between their teeth
  • Splinters causing internal damage if eaten
  • Sticks getting lodged in the throat when being caught
  • Impalement to the chest or throat
  • Choking on small pieces of wood and bark
  • Intestinal blockage if these pieces of wood and bark are ingested


These injuries range from minor inconveniences to potentially life-threatening conditions.

Water Intoxication or Sand Impaction


Fetch is a common activity on the dog beach, with dog parents throwing toys for hours along the sandy beach and into the water for their pups to retrieve. However, there are some additional risks related to playing fetch in these environments.


Water intoxication occurs when a dog swallows too much water, diluting the electrolytes in their body. When playing fetch, this happens because your dog swallows a little water each time they grab their toy. Over time, the water ingested adds up. In more severe cases, this can be fatal.


Sand impaction is a blockage in the digestive tract resulting from ingesting large amounts of sand. When playing fetch on the sand, many toys collect sand that enters your dog’s mouth when they pick it up. This is especially common with the felt on the outside of tennis balls. Similar to the risk of water intoxication, gastrointestinal obstructions can be fatal.


Heat Stroke or Exhaustion


Like any outdoor activity, there is the risk of heat stroke or exhaustion during the hottest summer months. Dogs love playing fetch so much that they will often push past feeling sick or uncomfortable to continue the game.


As dog parents, it’s our job to supervise our dogs and enforce safe boundaries. This includes setting limitations on how long they are allowed to play before taking a break, finding cool areas to relax, providing plenty of fresh water, and diligently watching for signs they may be overheating.


Hyper-Arousal and Compulsive Behaviors


Playing fetch for long periods can decrease your dog’s impulse control. This means they are no longer able to regulate their arousal, leading to them being overexcited and wanting to play all the time. While high-energy dogs are manageable, even dogs with impressive energy levels, like the Australian Cattle Dog or Belgian Malinois, still have to learn to show some self-control and stay calm.


Some experts also warn that playing fetch frequently can lead to compulsive behaviors, with your dog needing (not just wanting) to fetch their toy at all hours. However, I have yet to see any scientific studies that prove a connection between fetch and Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD), a severe psychological disorder. Instead, it’s more likely that experts are seeing the result of hyper-arousal related to their dog’s favorite game.

Photo credit: Carlo Prearo / Shutterstock.com

The Benefits of Interactive Fetch Play with Your Dog


If a game of fetch can introduce so many potential risks, why is it such a common and loved activity? There are also many benefits that you can enjoy from playing fetch with your dog. Here are a few that influenced my decision to continue to incorporate this game (with a few minor changes, as outlined below) into our daily routine:


Increased Exercise


As I mentioned earlier, fetch is not just a game; it's a crucial form of exercise for your dog. With dog obesity rates on the rise, it's more important than ever to ensure our furry friends get the physical activity they need.


Are you giving your dog enough opportunities to run, play, and burn some energy? If not, a game of fetch is a fun, entertaining, and easy activity for dog parents to enjoy in nearly any setting – from intense games of fetch in large fields with ball launchers or throwers to more laid-back games indoors on a rainy day.


Fun Bonding Opportunity


Dogs are highly social animals, meaning they need to connect and engage with others—be it dog friends, other pets in the home, or (arguably the most important) you. Games that allow you and your dog to play and connect with one another help strengthen your bond while also meeting your dog's social needs.


Meeting Your Dog's Instinctual Needs


Do you have a dog bred for hunting but don’t hunt yourself? Not working your dog in the way they were bred to perform doesn’t mean their instincts go away. Instead, it can lead to stress and anxiety when their needs aren’t being met. This doesn’t mean that you must start hunting tomorrow to be a good dog owner – but you should find an alternative activity that allows them to “retrieve.” This is where fetch really shines for many dogs.


Improve Essential Skills


Do you have a dog that struggles with basic coordination, spatial awareness, or agility? These skills are essential but can suffer if they aren’t practiced and exercised regularly. Running, jumping, and tracking in a game of fetch creates an opportunity for your dog to work on many skills. You can also introduce new elements to the game to introduce other skills as needed. For example, a dog without awareness of their surroundings could be asked to navigate safe obstacles to get to the ball.

How to Play Fetch Safely


If you want to enjoy playing fetch with your dog, there are ways to do so safely. These include changes to how you play, what you ask of your dog, the location of your game, and the toys you are playing with.


Choose Safe Fetch Toys


A safe game of fetch starts with choosing toys your dog can catch or retrieve safely. You want to find a toy that is soft enough to avoid impact injuries like broken teeth while also durable and free from pieces that can be broken off and swallowed, leading to obstructions. Furthermore, you should consider the shape of your dog’s fetch toys and whether they could pose a choking risk from being swallowed or lodged in their throat.


My dog Lucifer loves playing fetch, so I have searched and tried many different toys to find the best option for our playtime. There are two toys we rely on most for safe fetch games: the Chuckit! Air Fetch Ball and the Duraforce Durable Woven Fiber Boomerang.


Choose a Safe Location


Take a moment to survey the location where you plan to play. Ensure it’s a flat surface free from potential tripping risks like holes in the ground or obstacles they could trip over. Another consideration for a safe game is the surface you are playing on. Rough, sharp rocks will increase the risk of damaged paw pads. Hot sand during the summer can lead to burns.


Warm Up First


Before you start an intense game, take time to warm up a little. A gentle walk can help warm up the muscles. Slowly increase the activity level to increase their heart rate and prepare for the game ahead. If you know your dog is predisposed to injury or is working through previous injuries, consider asking your dog’s veterinarian for recommendations.


Incorporate Training


One of the reasons so many experts speak out against fetch is that it is often nothing more than a dog owner mindlessly throwing a ball over and over. Instead, use fetch in combination with training to incorporate a mental enrichment element.


For example, you could ask your dog to perform a given command and reward them with fetch. This breaks up the physical activity to lower the risk of injuries. It’s also a great way to strengthen your relationship and incentivize training and obedience, especially if you have a play-driven dog.


Practice Self Control


One of the concerns associated with playing fetch is a loss of self-control or hyper-arousal. So, why not spin the game to turn it into an exercise to improve your dog’s self-control? Have your dog sit and place them in a stay. Throw the ball and wait before giving them the okay to retrieve it. This also eliminates the risk of injuries from stopping on a dime, as the ball will already be settled on the ground for them to seek out.


Take Breaks


Of course, the best way to prevent injuries resulting from exhaustion or overheating is by taking regular breaks. Your dog isn’t going to enforce this. Instead, you’re going to have to be the one to pay attention to how long you have been playing and force your dog to rest when it’s time. If you have been playing on a hot day, consider finding a shady, cool spot for this rest time.


Watch for Warning Signs


We can take all the precautions to keep our dogs safe and still end up in a situation where they are overheating or experiencing a medical emergency. Pay attention to signs of trouble, such as:

  • Excessive panting or drooling
  • Rapid pulse
  • Labored breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weakness or collapse


If you suspect your dog may be at risk, take a break and assess the situation more closely. In more severe cases, when you can see your dog is clearly struggling, contact your veterinarian to discuss the best next steps.

Final Thoughts: To Fetch or Not to Fetch


While the game of fetch does introduce some risks, there are also many benefits to consider. Rather than eliminating the game from your routine, consider making minor changes to make playing fetch both enjoyable AND safe. This includes choosing the best toys for fetch, choosing a safe location, incorporating training and self-control to add mental enrichment to the game, taking regular breaks, and watching for signs of trouble.


Now, grab your dog's favorite (safe) toy and head out for some fun!


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Britt
Britt

Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs – Indiana and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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