I want to stop obsessing about my dog’s obsession, but I can’t.
– Lexi Grant
That’s just the way I see it. No disrespect intended to your dog, or to my buddy Paco.
When Kelly was young, I introduced her to the pursuit of Frisbees. As you may know, many border collies are quite skilled at that activity. Kelly wasn’t interested. Not in the slightest.
That’s because she was a tennis ball enthusiast — a natural-born, passionate devotee of all things fuzzy and yellow.
Kelly adored tennis balls. She loved to chase and retrieve them, chew on them, and bat them with a paw around the living room like a hockey player. She always kept a few handy for idle gnawing. They were soggy, drippy, nasty things that I tolerated, but avoided.
Except when time came to “play ball.”
For Kelly and me, playing ball was a daily routine. For years, the minute I got home from work, our ritual was to go outside for a rigorous session of throw and retrieve.
It was Kelly’s favorite activity in all the world. To her, a game of catch was the greatest pleasure in life — better than a morning on the trail, better than treats. She approached the game with the intensity and concentration of a border collie working sheep: eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring.
The ritual was always the same. We went outside to an open area, Kelly carrying a ball in her mouth. She dropped the ball at my feet. When I picked it up, she went into a crouch, ready to run.
Then I reared back and threw the ball with all my strength, in an arc designed to achieve maximum distance. When the ball left my hand, Kelly took off like a rocket in pursuit.
Each time without fail, she caught up to the ball and, as deftly as a major league infielder, snagged it in her mouth on one bounce. Never more than one bounce.
Triumphantly, she returned in an easy canter and dropped the ball at my feet, ready for more.
A typical session consisted of about 10 such repetitions. By then, both of us were tired. Kelly was ready for supper. I was ready to wash my left hand, which was sticky with a mixture of dirt, grass, and dog drool.
In the summer of 1991, Kelly’s tennis ball obsession finally caught up with us.
One morning when we awoke, she seemed unusually lethargic. I could tell she wasn’t her normal self. She was listless and droopy-eyed and wouldn’t eat her breakfast.
I’ve always heard that when dogs are sick, they eat grass. A little later, when Kelly was outside on her rope, I saw her grazing away. It was time to call the vet.
Two hours later, Kelly was lying on the examination table, still sluggish, having her tummy poked and prodded by the vet.
The vet said Kelly was bloated, and she guided my hand to Kelly’s underside. Sure enough, Kelly’s stomach was, as they say in these parts, as tight as a tick.
The vet ordered x-rays and sent me to the waiting room.
Half an hour later, she called me back to the exam room to show me the results. On her face was a look of both satisfaction — for having diagnosed the problem — and amusement — for understanding its cause.
She pointed to the x-ray and tapped on a dark, elongated mass inside Kelly’s stomach. Instantly, I had a sinking feeling in my own stomach.
“See that dark stuff right there?” she said. “That’s grass. Kelly has been eating grass because she feels sick.”
I said with relief that I thought she had cancer.
The vet laughed. “No, not cancer. Something less complicated.”
She pointed to the x-ray again. “See that object there?” It was an odd-shaped something, smoothly curved on one side, ragged on the other. It looked like a large chunk of orange peel.
The object, said the vet, was something Kelly had swallowed. It was wedged at the bottom of her stomach, blocking the exit. The grass, along with everything else, had no place to go.
Then it dawned on me what the vet had already figured out: the object was a chunk of tennis ball.
I had never known Kelly to chew up a tennis ball and swallow the pieces, but the proof was right there on the x-ray.
The vet said the blockage was a freak occurrence. Except for one large chunk, Kelly had chewed the tennis ball into tiny, harmless bits. But that chunk was big enough, and positioned just right, to bring Kelly’s inner working to a halt.
Kelly needed immediate surgery. They wheeled her away on a gurney, and I was sent home to fret.
A few hours later, the vet called. Kelly was out of surgery. She was still sedated, but all was well. The chunk of tennis ball, along with a pound or so of grass, had been removed with no complications. Kelly’s inner parts has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and she could come home in a couple of days.
Kelly recovered and healed quickly, and life soon got back to normal. However, right after the surgery, the vet and I talked about how to deal with Kelly’s tennis ball obsession.
We knew that if Kelly ate a tennis ball once, she probably would do it again. We needed a plan to avoid that eventuality. Gastric surgery is expensive.
In the end, we settled on a simple strategy. The tennis balls remained where they were, strewn around the house, and our daily games of catch continued as before. I simply had to monitor the collection of tennis balls for damage.
As long as a ball was intact, it could stay. Once Kelly punctured it, which she eventually did to all of them, into the trash it went.
The strategy was a success; no more tennis balls were consumed.
That was in 1991. Kelly lived for 12 more active and happy years. When she died in 2003, I was living in Monroe, Georgia. After a brief period, I gathered up her chew toys and tennis balls, intending to throw everything out.
But at the last minute, I weakened. I saved two tennis balls and tossed them back onto the carpet. They stayed there until I sold the house and moved to Jefferson in 2006.
And naturally, I brought them with me. They’re still on my living room floor today.
The cleaning lady knows not to disturb them.