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It’s A Fun Game… Until The Dog Swallows It

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If I told you that a tennis ball could kill, would you roll your eyes or laugh in my face? What if I showed you this?

X-ray of tennis ball obstructing esophagus

X-ray of a tennis ball caught in a dog's esophagus, courtesy of Carlson Animal Hospital in Oak Park, IL

Like a cork in a bottle, a fumbled tennis ball in an innocent game of fetch can lodge in a dog’s esophagus with the unfortunate consequence of asphyxiating your pup. Aw, c’mon! Tennis balls? You never let me play with anything fun! Sorry, pooch. It’s true.

So why am I posting this on a science art blog? As science communicators, we are charged with finding ways to translate science-speak into messages with broader appeal. Knowing that people respond to emotions more readily than to statistics makes a well-chosen image a great vehicle for opening up a dialog about safety. Don’t you think this image on the wall of your vet’s office would spark a conversation and ultimately set you straight?

Special thanks to Dr. Swindell at Carlson Animal Hospital in Oak Park, IL, and to Nic and his owner for allowing me to post their x-ray.

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Buzzskyline 9:46 am 05/15/2013

    That’s horrible, and I feel bad for the animal and the owners. But what are the actual odds of this happening? Millions of dogs play catch with millions of balls every day (I’m estimating). How many die this way each year? Are we talking a one in a billion chance of injury or death in a year? Should we modify our behavior based on freak accidents? Posting this image without some statistical context is irresponsible.

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  2. 2. 1:43 pm 05/15/2013


    I’m not surprised you yearn for the stats on this. I do, too. Maybe that’s why we read/contribute to Scientific American – because we are some of the few people who seek out statistics when measuring risk!

    My point was merely that we should find striking images like this to relate important information to the general public. Carlson Animal Hospital gets a steady stream of animals that have ingested inappropriate toys, household objects, etc. and I’m guessing they’re not unusual in that respect. They can tell their patients all day long to think about what they leave lying around, but don’t you think a poster with this image would make the point much more effectively and succinctly?

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  3. 3. beatrice 1:57 pm 05/15/2013

    That’s awful! I know someone whose dog ate so much non-food stuff, she had her digestive tract completely blocked. Her stomach was full of socks, plastic bottle caps, and hair. Groooooossssss.

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  4. 4. 2:06 pm 05/15/2013

    check out this link via @szescstopni of all the crazy $#!% (mostly) dogs ingest!

    They Ate What?! Pet X-Ray Contest Winners 2012

    Grand Prize? A fishing pole! OW!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Noadi 12:51 pm 05/18/2013

    I think this is a case of needing to match the toy to the dog to prevent injury. I’d imagine this is far more likely to happen with a larger dog like a rottweiler than a smaller dog like a jack russell terrier. It’s like when my dog is visiting my parents they put all their dog’s toys away because they have a tiny dog and my coonhound could swallow all her toys quite easily.

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