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Why Dogs Live Such Short Lives

In part 2 of this 4-part series, Dr. Becker continues her interview with Ted Kerasote, bestselling author of Merle’s Door and several other wonderful books.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

In part 1 of my interview with Ted, we discussed how he and Merle, a stray Labrador retriever mix he met on a trip to the San Juan River in Utah, became a team. Ted also shared with me how much he learned about the canine nature from the well-seasoned, nature-smart Merle.

We also discussed the unique challenges faced by city and suburban-dwelling dogs, and how their relatively inactive lives can create stress-related behavioral and immune system problems.

Dogs as Underlings in Relationships

When we left off last week, we were discussing the lack of freedom most dogs have today to explore and go on doggy adventures as Ted's Merle was able to do. The problem this lack of freedom -- or inequality as Ted sees it – creates is an increase in stress hormones. An overabundance of stress hormones in the bloodstream presents a health risk.

And science has also uncovered another physiological result of stress in animals (including humans) -- it causes a shortening of telomeres (the caps at the end of chromosomes), which is a precursor for chronic disease and lack of longevity.

Our discussion picks up today with Ted pointing out that when we talk about what makes the dogs of today sick, it's a combination of factors. And it's not just over-vaccination, or biologically inappropriate food, or environmental pollutants, or poor genetics. There's another debilitating factor at work, and it's that dogs are always the underlings in their relationships with humans.

Ted's theory, which he began testing with Merle and now continues with Pukka, is that for optimal health and well-being, dogs need to be treated more like peers or equal partners by their families. In other words, they need to be able to make more of the decisions on where they go and what they do each day.

And Ted reminds us again that he lives in 'dog heaven' – a small village in Wyoming – where it's reasonably safe to let dogs roam outdoors on their own. Merle's dog door, now Pukka's, gives Ted's dogs the ability to make their own decisions about when and where they go and what activities they pursue.

Tracking Pukka

Of course, giving this immense freedom of choice to his dog doesn't mean Ted chooses not to know what his four-legged buddy is up to when he's off gallivanting!

In Merle's case, Ted was pretty much in the dark about the dog's away-from-home explorations and adventures. Merle would take off out his dog door, be gone three or four hours, and when he got home, he of course couldn't communicate to Ted (though he tried) where he'd been or what he'd seen.

At times Ted would try to follow Merle around. He'd sort of sneak around behind him, and as soon as Merle was onto him, the dog would walk with him rather than head off to do his own thing.

With Pukka, though, Ted came up with an ingenious idea. He bought him a GPS collar designed for hunting dogs.

The collar has a separate tracking unit with a screen which Ted keeps on the desk where he does all his writing. The first thing Ted did when he bought the collar was to walk around his little village and program in waypoints, otherwise known as Pukka's regular haunts.

He added the homes of Pukka's friends AJ and Burly (a golden retriever and a yellow lab), Cooter (a pug), and Buck (another yellow lab). He added in the location of the mule and the rabbits Pukka visits. He programmed in the creek where Pukka cools off, and so forth. And he named the little dog graphic on the screen Pukka, of course.

So now Ted can sit at his desk while he's working and track Pukka's movement when he's away from home. He watches him visit the village and the post office. And sometimes Ted goes up to the second floor of his house with binoculars and is able to locate Pukka in the distance based on his movements on the little GPS screen.

Ted goes on to explain that recently he was sitting at his desk working, and Pukka was hanging out on the porch. Suddenly, the dog got up, left the porch and walked in the direction of the road.

Ted kept an eye on his little GPS screen and soon he noticed the red lines indicating Pukka's movements going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth on the screen. Curiosity got the better of him, so Ted went out onto his porch to have a look.

Pukka, it seems, had encountered two carloads of tourists taking pictures of the Tetons, and they were throwing the dog a stick to fetch. So Pukka was fetching the stick and returning it – back and forth, back and forth, back and forth!

I asked Ted if all Pukka's trips away from home are social in nature.

Ted responds that while the waypoints he's programmed into the GPS unit are primarily social stops for Pukka, there are times when he'll make a stop between the programmed stops. When the GPS detects 'hunting dog' Pukka has stopped at an unprogrammed location, the screen will read, 'Pukka is on point.' If he stays in that location over three minutes, Ted will be alerted that 'Pukka has treed quarry!'

Ted would love to know what his dog is doing on these 'stops between stops.' Did he smell something interesting? Is he digging out a rodent? Is he sitting still watching a moose? Ted doesn't know, and he thinks next he'll need to attach a video camera to Pukka's head to see what he's looking at and doing on his unprogrammed stops!

Grieving for Merle, Looking to the Future

The next thing I wanted to talk about with Ted was what he learned through the death of Merle, how long he waited before looking for Pukka, and what if anything he wanted to do differently with Pukka.

Ted responds that almost five years passed between Merle's death and Pukka's arrival in his life.

The first three years after Merle's passing, Ted didn't even think about a new dog. He wrote Merle's Door as a way to assuage his grief. Writing the book was very cathartic for Ted, as he recounted every tender detail of Merle's life.

Once the book was published and Ted was on his book tour, he was finally able to think about the possibility of getting another dog in the future. He feels he always knew, intellectually, he would get a new pet, but the idea didn't take form in his heart until Merle had been gone three years.

Ted remembers exactly where he was when the thought came to him that he was going to write a new book, and it would be tied to a new dog and Ted's interest in learning about canine health.

He explains it was October 2007 and he was in Monroe, Louisiana on his book tour. He'd taken a walk in the morning and returned to his hotel to check the hundreds of emails he received each day in response to Merle's Door. People emailed him and asked, 'Why do our dogs have to die so young?'

Ted had questioned in the book why dogs don't live as long as, say, parrots or turtles.

And people wrote to ask why their dog had to die of cancer at one year old, or two or three years old. Or, 'Why did five of my golden retrievers die of cancer?'

Ted had the same questions and concerns as many of the dog lovers who wrote to him. Merle had a couple of friends that died young, from cancer. And though Merle lived to be 14, he also died of cancer.

Ted explains that after pondering those emails on that October morning in 2007, he immediately began doing some Internet research in his hotel room. He spent about four hours that first day and came away with the realization there are four factors he could quickly identify that influence the longevity of dogs:

  • Genetics
  • Over-vaccination
  • Nutrition
  • Environmental pollutants

He then wrote a précis (a short summary) to his agent, telling him he had an idea for a new book. He talked about the four factors affecting canine longevity. And he shared that he wanted to get a new dog and would use his research into dog health issues to try to find the healthiest dog possible.

That became the model for Ted's new book, which will be out in October 2012. It will cover how he moved through the grief of losing Merle. He will tackle the question of why from an evolutionary standpoint, dogs live such short lives. He'll investigate the life spans of different species. And he'll discuss his search for Pukka.

The Challenge of Finding and Raising a Healthy Dog

Ted started his search for another dog with shelters. Many people wrote to him expressing their hope he was planning to rescue another dog rather than purchase a purebred. And he was aware that about two million (or more) healthy, adoptable dogs are killed each year in shelters.

Ted searched shelters across the country as he was doing his research, but he never located a dog with the special qualities he saw in Merle.

So he decided to see if there might be breeders with litters of pups similar to Merle's mix, which was lab, hound and golden retriever. As you might guess, he had no luck finding that particular mix of breeds in his search.

Next he searched for labs with Merle's qualities, both physical and personality-wise. This was all in his quest to find a genetically healthy dog. Ted feels there are a host of DNA tests the parents should have to insure the puppies aren't destined to acquire genetically transmitted diseases.

Also, different breeders feed different diets to their dogs. They socialize puppies differently, and so on. Ted acknowledges it's much harder to buy a dog than to buy a car. There are no 'consumer reports' for dogs. Prospective parents have to do the legwork themselves. Ted explains it took him a year and a half to find a set of dog parents he really liked when he met them, along with a breeder he really liked.

He intended to be present for Pukka's birth, but his mom, Abby, delivered a bit prematurely. So Ted met Pukka when he was one day old. His new book opens with his introduction to Pukka, and moves through questions about vaccinating, diet, and so forth.

Ted generously credits and our personal conversations for helping guide his research and decisions about how to care for Pukka.

He makes the very valid point that unfortunately, there is a lot of controversy in the world of veterinary medicine about the healthiest and most appropriate way to raise a dog. In researching his new book, Ted has landed right in the middle of the controversy.

He says it has been very interesting to see well-meaning veterinarians with diametrically opposed views about how to nurture a healthy dog. What Ted has tried to do is look at the science supporting the various opinions. But in the canine world, some of that science doesn't even exist.

So Ted has had to rely on human medical literature for some of the science, and then he tries to make analogies from those studies that apply to the dog world. He has spent a lot of time sitting at his desk at home reading scientific studies and reports, and trying to piece together for readers a picture of the healthiest way to raise a dog in the face of so much conflicting advice out there.

Ted's New Book, Available October 2012

I shared with Ted that his groundbreaking research is much needed and eagerly anticipated. The book he's working on now, Why Dogs Die Young, will be out in October 2012, and I can't wait to read it.

I asked Ted if he's still doing research or if he's done with that and is into the writing now.

Ted says he's been writing for awhile now and the book is, by his estimate, about two-thirds complete. He's in the midst of the cancer chapter, and has completed chapters on vaccination, environmental pollutants, and genetics.

According to Ted, one of the interesting things about writing a book in the ever-changing age we live in is that information is coming out so quickly he's had to go back several times already to revise chapter content. He'll get an email from some scientist saying, 'That stuff I told you last year? Well, I just completed a new study and I need to change some of what I told you.'

Stay tuned for the next installment of my interview with Ted. We'll discuss how his world travels have helped him in his research for his new book due out next year, When Dogs Die Young. We'll also discuss the touchy topic of spay/neuter, as well as breeding healthy dogs.

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