Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote: The Seven Factors that Determine How Long Your Dog Will Live
I’m back with bestselling author Ted Kerasote for part two of our three-part interview series. You can see part one here. We’re discussing Ted’s latest wonderful book, which hit bookstores last week, called Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.
Many of you will remember Ted’s amazing book, Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. The new book is about the dog Ted has now, Pukka. Interestingly, the book didn’t start out titled Pukka’s Promise, so I asked Ted to share with us how and why the name changed.
Ted explained the original title for the book was Why Dogs Die Young, and What We Can Do About It. He came up with the name because, as we discussed last week in part one and in our discussion last year, after Merle’s Door was released, he received many inquiries from readers asking, “Why do our dogs die so young?” So it seemed natural to Ted to title the book in response to those questions, and in fact, Why Dogs Die Young was the working title for four years.
But when Ted’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt held a meeting last year with sales reps for the new book, they all stated that they loved the content, but hated the title. They called the title “a downer and a bummer.” So over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, Ted came up with the new title, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest For Longer-Lived Dogs.
The #1 contributor to early death in dogs: poor breeding.
In Pukka’s Promise, Ted outlines seven key variables that he and other experts agree contribute to the longevity of pet dogs. These variables include breeding, nutrition, vaccinations, environmental pollutants, spaying/neutering, the animal shelter system in North America, and the amount of freedom dogs enjoy.
Ted feels that breeding is at the top of the list of contributors to how long a dog lives. He gives the example of short-faced dogs (brachycephalic breeds), who typically suffer breathing difficulties. Those dogs may not live as long as dogs with longer muzzles.
Another example are dogs bred with abnormally long spines and therefore, inherent back problems. Those dogs, as well, are probably not going to live as long as dogs whose bodies are in better proportion.
Ted makes the point that dogs who are highly inbred and have just a few common ancestors are also at risk of early death. He cites the example of Golden Retrievers bred in North America, 61 percent of whom die of cancer. Why? One reason is that they have very few common ancestors and consequently lots of recessive genes -- the kind that can lead to genetically transmitted diseases. With these genes now spread far and wide throughout the Golden Retriever population, they frequently meet, causing health problems and shortening the lives of these dogs.
Ted says he knows of only one breeder who, over a long career, has selected her breeding stock for longevity as well as for how her dogs look or work. Health is not at the top of the list for most dog breeders.
Next on the list: nutrition, vaccinations, and environmental pollutants.
The next most important variable according to Ted is nutrition, and of course I certainly agree.
As Ted pointed out in part one of our discussion last week, it’s expensive to feed our dogs well. But there are ways to do it, including cooking meals at home – or buying a high quality kibble instead of raw food.
Third on Ted’s list is actually vaccinations AND environmental pollutants, because they are similar in terms of their potential toxic effect on pets. In both cases, we’re exposing our dogs to unnatural substances, and while vaccinations are useful for protecting our own pets and others from parvo, distemper and rabies, dogs certainly don’t need the number of vaccinations currently recommended by many veterinarians.
Dogs, like children, have smaller bodies than adults, so environmental pollutants and substances injected into them have a greater effect. And our dogs are low to the ground -- their feet and noses are right down in those chemicals in many cases. As Ted points out, environmental toxins are one of the easier things to help our dogs avoid. We don’t have to use lawn chemicals. We can remove formaldehyde-filled carpets from our homes. It’s not necessary to expose our dogs to some of these very common but dangerous chemicals.
Skiing the mountains of Wisconsin … or, the importance of exercise for dogs.
Ted also puts exercise at the top of the list for its value in giving dogs healthier lives. Most dogs just don’t get enough exercise.
Ted, of course, has a slightly different definition of exercise than most of us do --especially city dwellers. Ted lives in a very small village in Wyoming at the edge of Grand Teton National Park, and a regular workout for him is skiing uphill for an hour or so in an afternoon and much longer workouts on the weekend. Meanwhile, I have to get on a treadmill because I live in the Chicago area!
Ted tells the funny story that when he was driving on Interstate 90 from O’Hare airport for our interview, he saw a billboard that said, “Ski the mountains of Wisconsin,” under a picture of what looked like the Jackson Hole, Wyoming ski area. He says he almost drove off the road thinking, “Mountains of Wisconsin?” (There are hills in Wisconsin – no mountains!)
Ted realizes most people don’t live in the Rockies. But dogs are still dogs, whether they live in the Rockies or in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City. They still need exercise, and so do their owners. And a little stroll outside isn’t really sufficient to get a dog’s heart pounding – it’s not aerobic exercise.
Ted thinks off-leash dog parks can be a good substitute. At least the dog, if not the owner, is getting some physical activity. In an off-leash, fenced-in dog park, dogs can really be dogs. They can sniff, smell, and move at “dog speed,” as Ted discusses in Pukka’s Promise.
Of course, there are also plenty of city dwellers that are lean, and so are their dogs, because unlike many suburbanites they don’t drive everywhere they go. They walk to the grocery store. They walk to do errands. And they bring their dogs along.
So the idea is to get creative regardless of your living situation, as Ted discusses in his book.
Why are DVMs in the U.S. and Canada trained ONLY to spay or neuter, when alternative sterilization methods are "Quick, easy, and effective?"
I next asked Ted to talk about his interviews with veterinarians while he was doing research for Pukka’s Promise. Being a veterinarian, I’m certainly aware that the profession has some blind spots.
Ted thinks that this is a result of the way veterinarians are trained. There are about 30 veterinary schools in the U.S. and another four or so in Canada. These are old institutions and, like many institutions, they suffer from inertia. They do things the way they’ve always done them, until something really shakes things up.
Ted says one of the best examples of this concerns spaying and neutering. He and I have discussed the fact that tubal ligations and vasectomies are another means of achieving sterility in dogs. He didn’t entirely believe me at first, so he did his own research and found over a dozen citations, dating back to the mid-1970’s, that describe these less-invasive procedures as “Quick, easy, and effective. Complications, rare.”
So he called every vet school in the U.S. and asked if tubal ligations and vasectomies were taught there. Not one school said they were. So Ted naturally wants to know why there’s such a disconnect between what the veterinary literature says and what is being taught in veterinary schools. He says it’s obvious either they’re not reading their own peer-reviewed literature, or there is a mindset against teaching alternative sterilization procedures.
Ted thinks what has happened is the veterinary profession and the animal shelter community joined forces in the 1970s to try to solve what has been called the “pet overpopulation problem” in the U.S. And, at the time, the quickest, cheapest, most effective means they hit on was spaying and neutering, which have now become a mantra in this country – we need to spay or neuter every dog, even though there are alternative procedures that prevent pregnancy.
I absolutely agree with this, and these alternative methods of sterilization are also actually faster, less risky, and maybe less costly.
But to Ted’s point, they’re not being taught to veterinary students. And when he has asked fourth-year students about it, their response has been, “Oh, we can’t do that. We didn’t learn that.” When he talked with Dr. Robert McCarthy, a veterinary surgeon at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. McCarthy just laughed ruefully and said, “The reason they’re not being taught is habit. Spaying and neutering were taught a hundred years ago, and so we continue to do it that way today.”
Ted poses the question, “What will it take to make the veterinary profession change?” The answer is veterinary clients, and veterinary students. Dog owners need to speak up and say, “Hey, we’d like better dog food,” and “No, we don’t want a vaccination every year. I’ve read on Dr. Karen Becker’s website that we don’t need vaccinations every year. And you know, maybe my dog would be better off with a vasectomy so he can keep his testicles and the hormones they produce.”
Tainted tennis balls and other toxic toys.
According to Ted, another area where public pressure and consumer demand could change things for the better is with dog toys.
Ted includes an interesting little section in Pukka’s Promise about toxic dog toys. I asked him to share how he came to learn about the problem, because I honestly wasn’t expecting to see anything about it in his book.
Ted explained that when he brought Pukka home, everyone he knew sent him gifts. Tons of gifts. They all went in a huge wicker basket, and Ted would look over and see Pukka ripping apart the toys, chewing on the polyester and spitting it out. And he started to wonder, “Hmm … is that good for him to have in his mouth?”
Ted knew children’s toys had been vetted and we now have legislation that stipulates what cannot go into kids’ toys. Since children are about the size of dogs, he wondered if Pukka should be mouthing all that stuff – ripping and tearing at it. And Pukka, like many dogs, destroyed tennis balls. In a matter of minutes he would be gnawing on the guts of the ball. So Ted wondered also about whether tennis balls were safe.
And guess what? He couldn’t find anyone who could tell him about the safety of dog toys. Not a soul. The manufacturers, of course, wouldn’t tell him. They’d respond to Ted’s inquiries with, “Oh, that’s proprietary information. We can’t divulge that.”
So since Ted’s goal was to make his book rigorously researched and thorough, he began sending dog toys to an environmental testing laboratory that tests children’s toys. And he learned that lo and behold, the polyester in one of Pukka’s stuffed toys contained antimony, a suspected carcinogen, and the amount in the toys was 10,000 times the maximum level recommend for drinking water by the World Health Organization.
Pukka’s retriever dummies, as it turns out, contained a phthalate that is prohibited in children’s toys. And tennis balls have an accelerant in the rubber that is poisonous. Whether this toxin is bioavailable from the tennis ball no one could say – not even the best toxicology minds in the country could say.
As tennis ball manufacturers told Ted, “We don’t make tennis balls for dogs, but for people playing the game of tennis.” So for Ted there was an easy solution – no more tennis balls for Pukka. Instead, he got non-toxic balls that are designed for dogs. They’re made by Planet Dog, and Ted knows they’re non-toxic because he had them tested as well!
I’m pretty sure that Ted is one of the very few people who has sent dog toys to a lab for testing, and I love that he included the information in Pukka’s Promise. He was able to find only one other test of dog toys, done in Germany.
Ted's pet peeve: treating dogs as "just dogs."
Ted explains that one of his pet peeves is how we treat dogs with less respect than they deserve, excusing our behavior by saying that they’re “just dogs.” He says that we’d never take this approach with people, and especially children. We’d never practice human medicine the way we practice veterinary medicine, with such little oversight and allowing M.D’s to dispense drugs (other than samples) out of a cabinet in a back office, as veterinarians do. Human patients have to go to a pharmacy to fill their prescriptions, so the doctor isn’t making money (presumably) off the sale of drugs.
But veterinarians are allowed to sell drugs for their animal patients out of their offices, which perhaps makes it more appealing to write too many prescriptions. Ted’s point is that there is far less rigor when it comes to the health care of our pets than we would tolerate in human health care.