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The Future of Dogs
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
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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.

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Submitted by Anonymous | February 1 2013 |

I love this article. I have an adopted lab mix who has had nothing but health problems since the day I brought him home from a no-kill shelter. He does tell me exactly what he needs. We are so in-tune with each other, he also knows what I need! After extensive illness and traditional vetrinary medicine that wasn't working, I consulted a genious alternative vet named Dr. Wessner in Ocala, FL. He has a tremendous gift for diagnosis and turned Barney's life around. Finally, at 10 years of age, he got healthy, gained weight and never felt better. He is on a grain-free diet and for about 6 moths, has been on a frozen raw-food diet. I think our biggest challenge as pet owners is the REQUIREMENT of vaccines. Dr Wessner has done extensive research as well and it has been proven that dogs don't need many of them at all and the few that may be needed are only neeeded every 7 years. My biggest dilemma is wanting to adopt my next pet from a shelter but I know he'll have been over-vaccinated by the time I can save him. The vaccination laws MUST be changed. Thanks!!

Submitted by Diana | February 2 2013 |

Having dealt with tumors in my golden retriever and losing her to cancer, I am hyper-aware of what I feed my adopted shelter dog, check her body regularly for any lumps and take her for off-leash walks at least 5 days a week. But I still feel our environment contributes to the early death of our dogs. I don't trust dog food companies and dog toy maunfacturers. Although my vet is great, I wish I didn't have to have my dog injected with vaccinations but I don't dare not do it especially since I live in a small town where dogs must be leashed or contained. I cried when I read Merle's Door but I don't think I could have kept Merle alive as long as the author did.

Submitted by Amanda Dimov | August 22 2013 |

In reading the interview with Ted Kerasote, I was baffled by not only the author’s comments about animal shelters but also his stance on spay/neuter. First, he states that he was disturbed to see “dogs being killed at a Los Angeles shelter,” yet he purchases a dog from a breeder. Second, he chooses not to neuter his dog. Millions of animals are euthanized every year in the United States alone because so many end up in shelters. Even if there are health concerns with spay/neuter, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Submitted by Kristin Bauer v... | August 22 2013 |

I have no doubt that Ted Kerasote loves dogs and does so much good, but one of the things that I find disheartening is people who have loved a rescue, seen the state of shelters, yet continue to buy rather than adopt. How does one see suffering and forget? And the even worse question: How will suffering ever end if kind-hearted, intelligent people who care promote the act of conscious forgetting? To see someone with Ted’s reach and Ted’s voice purposely turn away saddens me. How will we survive if we don’t see that we need to evolve completely?

Submitted by Toby Sue Shaw | August 22 2013 |

I believe Ted Kerasote makes some valuable points in Pukka’s Promise. Although I do not agree with him about leaving his dog “whole,” I do wonder about the value of not totally removing the organs that produce sex hormones. I do believe we have to look at that. I also believe that for now, and until further research is in, spaying and neutering is the way to go to prevent pet overpopulation.

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