By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Odd conclusions emerge from quest

In 1991, while rafting on the San Juan River in Utah, author and outdoor enthusiast Ted Kerasote came across an irresistible pup running wild along the river. Their subsequent friendship, which lasted until the dog died in 2004, became the subject for a book he wrote called “Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog.”

For me, having a dog share my life for 13 years would have been acceptable. That is, for most of us, a good, long life for a dog. Of course, it’s too short. Of course, saying goodbye is terribly painful. But most of us don’t question the fact that compared to humans, dogs are relatively short-lived animals. We accept as a fact of life that our dogs will die before us, no matter how dear they are.

Not so for Kerasote. His parting with Merle after too short a time launched him into a quest to learn how to help dogs live longer. He absorbed an amazing amount of research, sought the opinion of many, many experts, drew thoughtful conclusions — some of which are highly controversial — and this year published a book called “Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.”

I have to confess, I have not read either “Merle’s Door” or “Pukka’s (rhymes with duck-ah) Promise” cover to cover. I read about the latter book in BARK magazine, saw the phrase, “Can they live longer?” and imagined that someone had somehow uncovered a canine fountain of youth. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, and there is no magic elixir that will keep our beloved pooches alive beyond their allotted years. But Kerasote does ask a lot of questions, and reaches some fairly radical conclusions, on how we can prolong a dog’s life. The problem for me was that a couple of them seemed really wacko.

The book is 438 pages long and this column is not, so trust me when I say I am not doing justice to the exhaustive research this man has done. I just don’t like some of the ideas he came up with.

But I’ll start with the one conclusion on which we can probably all agree. If you want your dog to live a long life, don’t get a giant breed. Seventy-five percent of St. Bernards die before they’re 10; 83 percent of Great Danes.

However, it is not at all unusual for miniature poodles to live well into their late teens. The cause of that discrepancy is, apparently, a gene called IGF-1, which affects insulin levels in an adverse way if a dog has too much, which I guess giant breeds do.

I’m getting well beyond my comfort level explaining genetic science; Kerasote is much more articulate, if you’re interested.

He arrives at two other conclusions that, frankly, have me rattled. One is to not spay or neuter your dog.

What? How does this make sense? We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel in regard to ending dog overpopulation, and this guy comes along arguing that we should keep dogs intact because then they’ll live longer?

Plus, all the research I’ve read up until now points to spaying/neutering as a way to avoid often fatal cancers of the reproductive organs, plus behaviors such as roaming that put your dog at risk for accidents.

Mark Twain wrote, “There’s lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He may as well well have said, “There’s lies, damned lies, and research.” Kerasote has found some studies (“Long-time Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter in Dogs,” Laura J. Sanborn, May 14, 2007) that indicate intact dogs have fewer adverse reactions to vaccines, a lower incidence of some cancers, fewer problems with endocrine dysfunction and fewer orthopedic injuries.

The second conclusion that Kerasote writes about, which also raises my ire, is that to prolong your dog’s life, you should not vaccinate him on an annual basis against diseases like distemper.

Now, I have to admit there is a tiny bit of truth to this. After they are out of their puppy stage, many dogs develop immunity to these diseases that lasts beyond a calendar year. And it is quite rare, but some dogs, like some humans, do have adverse reactions to vaccines.

An alternative to having annual boosters is to have a titer done on your dog’s blood, to determine the amount of immunity he has and whether or not additional vaccinations are necessary. Titering, by the way, is more expensive than the annual vaccination.

I broached this with my vet long before “Pukka’s Promise” came along. Her reply was that, yes, a regular titering is as good a way of insuring immunity as annual vaccinations. But the added cost was prohibitive for many. And the annual vaccine in her practice is accompanied by the well dog check of ears, eyes, heartbeat, lumps and bumps, which may easily help discover health problems before they become severe. A lot of people might not avail themselves of these annual check-ups without the regular vaccinations.

And another thing. Kerasote really fried my bacon by implying that vets insist on annual vaccinations for pets because there’s a huge profit to be made on them. I would like him to take note of all the time, skills, expertise, and medical supplies our vets donate to needy and homeless pets in our county and then tell me they are out to make a buck. I’m sure any markup on vaccines only helps balance those other not-for-profit sacrifices.

OK, I feel better now. The author and I do agree on a few things. One is that some purebred dogs are being bred toward a breed standard that favors appearance over health.

For example, today’s lovable pug, compared to pugs of even 20 years ago, barely has a nose because the breed standard now calls for that so-ugly-it’s-cute pushed-in face. Those drastically shortened snouts cause breathing problems in many pugs and can shorten their lifespan. Additionally, some breeders of purebred dogs do not screen carefully enough for genetic diseases, which can result in early death or, at the very least, years of discomfort.

I admit I am defensive towards Kerasote’s suggestions. But here’s the thing: Most of us lovers of dogs also have to hold down jobs, raise children, do our laundry and run our errands. I am not comfortable trying to manage all this and the unpredictability of an intact dog. And I am not all that thrilled at the thought of living in a community where people don’t spay/neuter their pets and/or don’t vaccinate them. It seems to me like a giant step backward.

In his defense, though, you don’t have to read many pages of “Pukka’s Promise” to feel the love this man has for his dogs. It may be purer, less distracted and more selfless than how I love mine. At least I have to admit to that possibility.

And his book surely got me thinking. You may want to read it.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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