In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
Ted Kerasote: In the United States, Wayne Cavanaugh at the United Kennel Club is making an effort to change breed standards, encouraging breeders to select for function. He has taken to heart the efforts of the Swedish and Finnish Kennel Clubs —hip and genetic testing, and standards that highlight function over form—and has begun to apply them in the U.S. Next, the American Veterinary Medical Association has started recommending triennial vaccinations. That’s still too often, but a move in the right direction. I also hope the Rabies Challenge Fund is successful; its researchers are working to prove that duration of immunity for the rabies vaccine is at least five and possibly seven years. Finally, pet food manufacturers are starting to offer grain-free dog food in response to consumer demand.
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
TK: One, breeders continue to breed for looks, despite a great deal of evidence that many of their dogs are unhealthy. Two, many breeders do not use genetic tests—for example, in Labrador Retrievers, they do not test parent dogs for PRA (progressive retinal atrophy), centronuclear myopathy (a muscle-wasting disease) and exercise-induced collapse. Three, some vets, when confronted with a lump on a dog, still say, “Let’s just watch this,” instead of doing a low-cost aspiration or biopsy, or at least recommending one and letting the client decide. Four, no one has yet conducted long-term tests on genetically similar dogs to assess the health benefits of grain-based kibble versus raw food. Such a study would show us which group of dogs has more chronic diseases, and the time of their onset. It would also tell us which group lives longer. Without such a study, there’s no way to say, definitively, whether grain-based kibble or raw food is better for our dogs. It’s not a difficult test to create, which should tell us that the pet food industry probably doesn’t want to know the answer.
But the most disturbing thing I saw was dogs being killed in a Los Angeles shelter. It was particularly hard because I could have saved any one of those dogs. But which one to save? It was my own “Sophie’s choice.” I did get one dog out—Chance—but I still think of the ones I didn’t choose. That was the hardest single day of the five years I spent researching the book, and my saddest memory.
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
TK: If looking for a puppy from a breeder, don’t buy one whose parents have not been genetically tested, or one who’s been bred with little thought to function. For example, many breeders of short-muzzled dogs are creating dysfunctional dogs who cannot breathe. I wouldn’t say don’t buy such a dog, but instead, look for those who retain their historical appearance; at the end of the 19th century, many of these dogs actually had snouts.