Some years ago, I heard from my friend Betsy who lives in Italy with her husband Roberto and Joe the German shepherd dog. Their beloved, albeit, high maintenance dog, nearly died while on vacation in the Alps. 

Joe, a gorgeous, long-haired, big smoochy boy was Betsy’s first dog. Generally, I would not recommend this breed to those uninitiated to the way of dog. But Betsy and Roberto jumped right in, read the right stuff, worked with the right dog people, industriously studied learning theories and lovingly incorporated Joe into all of their activities.

Then, Joe went on a holiday trek in the Alps with Betsy and Roberto. In an email, Betsy related their mishaps – chased by cows, falling off mountain trails, getting lost, oh, and yes, forgetting Joe’s vital medicines. But, judging by the beautiful photos and all those smiles, they had an idyllic vacation with Joe, their new family member and sidekick. They had such a great time that they returned to the Alps again the next year.

Then, Joe almost died.

Here is a portion of Betsy’s email detailing the horror:

“One day we all had ‘jelly legs’ from having climbed down a mountain about 3,500 feet (Joe had ridden up the ski-lift with us to the top first!!!!)… so we decided to drive high up into the Alps right on the border with Austria to the tip-top of a valley that is always really cool and where there is a soccer field no one ever seems to be using and that we use each year to play a game of ball tossing and chasing with Joe on days when we don’t feel like hiking…

 I always use big balls – grapefruit size – since Joe is so big… but like an idiot I bought an orange tennis-ball-sized ball thinking it would be easy to find in the grass…

Well, I tossed four big balls for about ten minutes, then got out the small ball and he ran and caught it… then didn’t spit it out as he had been doing with all the big ones… and I didn’t see that, and tossed one of the big balls.

He jumped up and caught it, but I guess the big ball knocked into the smaller one in his mouth and it got ‘shot’ back down his throat, and got stuck there!

It was absolutely horrible!!! We tried desperately to help him – even put him upside down but it was lodged so tightly it was impossible to move.”

My hands began sweating as I continued to read her email.

“We were about 30 minutes from the nearest small town – and we had to drive down a mountain road that was horribly steep… and where roadwork was being done – and the road was blocked for several minutes!!! We telephoned the operator
for the phone number of the vet in the nearest town, but they didn’t have it – they sent a text message with the phone numbers and addresses of four local vets in the next town up the valley – another 15 minutes farther away – but only got
answering machines with messages I couldn’t understand, in GERMAN (the Alto Adige region has German as its native language). 

Joe was gasping and foaming at the mouth, scared out of his wits and just barely getting any air at all…

When we FINALLY got to the town at the valley floor, we drove through the pedestrian area off limits to traffic to the tourist info office we knew about and I jumped out of the car and ran in… I had been told two days earlier that there was a famous vet in the village and thank heavens there was – the wonderful girl at the desk whipped out a map and highlighted the streets and gave me the number to call if we got lost – I begged her to call and say we were arriving – I was too scared that office might be
closed too – so she called and we rushed there…

Joe was barely able to stand when we rushed in to the vet’s… and in seconds she had evaluated Joe, shaved his leg, disinfected it, stuck in an IV needle and given him a first dose of anesthetic… within 30 seconds he was on the operating table and with a second shot asleep… We were sure he would have to have his throat sliced open to get it out – and the vet said she tried five times,  then steeled her nerves and tried one last time and miraculously got the damn thing out, using whelping forceps.”

Betsy and Joe were told that Joe should survive.

“We did a mighty lot of hand-wringing and beating ourselves up during the four hour wait while Joe was kept under observation – we picked him up in late afternoon. The next day we drove up into the mountains to a cool shady park and let Joe sleep under a tree while we sat and read books and stroked him.

What a nightmare!!

We are now SOOOO glad to be back home – all three of us together safe and sound – the thought of Joe dying from such a stupid accident still gives me the shivers now.

I would never have thought a tennis ball could get stuck in his throat like that…what an idiot!!!!”

What a chilling narrative. Joe did fine but Betsy was still shook up. She said she never thought a tennis ball could get stuck in a dog’s throat. Well, why would that thought have occurred to Betsy? Just about every store I walk into, that has a pet supply section, has tennis balls for sale. How could they sell them if they weren’t safe? Wouldn’t there be a warning label? No, there doesn’t have to be anything. The pet industry is wildly unregulated…

  1. Size DOES count – I consider the basic Kong to be one of the best interactive toys around. But, the Kong Company makes various sizes and hardnesses – some are fine for Yorkies but deadly to Mastiffs. 
  2. Materials – No toy – no matter what the manufacturer claims – is indestructible. My dogs love plushy toys with squeakers. In just a matter of minutes they perform squeakerectomys. They then attempt to dig them out of the plushy and try to eat them. Know your dog – know your toy. Steer clear of vinyl and plastic. There are a slew of cheap, soft, latex balls and toys on the market. In some circles they are called ‘crack balls’ as dogs just can’t get enough of these squeaky, squishy toys.  Because they are so malleable and get very slippery from dog saliva, they can be easily ingested. Is your dog’s toy decorated with lead paint – it’s done with baby toys, why not dog toys? 
  3. Tennis balls – I know, most dogs go gaga over tennis balls. There are a few problems with them though. There is the ‘size counts’ issue. Most dogs can swallow a whole a hunk of meat the size of a tennis ball. Tooth wear is another issue. A dog slimed tennis ball will gather sand and dirt on the fabric which then acts like sandpaper wearing down dog teeth. Tennis balls are not very tough. They are made to play the game of tennis and not intended for powerful dog jaws. Ingesting foreign substances, like chunks of tennis balls, can be fatal. Another issue is the poison potential. Who made the tennis ball? What is that powder inside? Some tennis balls are touted to be pet safe. Don’t believe it. 
  4. Toy Checks – Every now and then, make it a practice to inspect dog toys for wear and damage. Don’t take a chance, toss them away if they start looking worn out.
  5. Balls – Most dogs just love balls. And dog parents just love to play ball with their dogs. Basketballs can be fun. They do have the potential to wear down teeth though. Depending upon the brand name, my dog can ‘fang’ and deflate one pretty quickly.  They like them like that because they are fun to ‘shake and kill.’ Be sure that they do not get so damaged that the dog can eat chunks of them. Soccer balls (available in all several sizes) – ditto, read above. I don’t play ball/fetch with any type of hard balls like baseballs, softballs (that aren’t really soft) rugby ball, or handballs. They can crack teeth.
  6. Rope Toys – Real ambitious chewers can rip these to shreds and ingest strings which can lead to trouble in the intestinal tract. I like to use them as tugs but I don’t leave them around as a chew toy.

I highly recommend that everyone learn Dog CPR and the Dog Heimlich maneuver. I have taken several K9 First Aid classes, presented by vets, and no on-line course can take their place. Ask your vet or dog training facility to form a class. Check with your local Red Cross.

AND, before you leave for vacation with your K9 pal, do an internet search of local vet clinics, particularly emergency clinics – print out all needed contact information including detailed driving directions and hours of operation.