Wish Your Dog Could Live Forever? Ted Kerasote Has Some Ideas About That

The author of "Merle’s Door" shares his tips for helping dogs lead longer, happier lives.


After my sweet senior dog Sheba passed away, I looked at my canine younguns and renewed my resolve to do all I could to extend their lives to the fullest. Dogs are perfect but for one tragic flaw: They don’t live nearly long enough.

Few understand this better than best-selling author Ted Kerasote, who immortalized his beloved dog — and translated his thoughts into compellingly readable dialogue! — in the unforgettable Merle’s Door. After Merle died and Kerasote adopted a pup named Pukka, he was inspired to write a new and different book: Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. Presenting the latest research from vets and other experts, this title is an invaluable reference tool for dog owners to make informed health choices.

Kerasote paused during his cross-country book tour to talk with Dogster about dogs and longevity, and what we humans can do to help canine family members enjoy their happiest, healthiest lives. On his tour, the author is stopping in numerous big cities, but he and Pukka live in the greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming, in a village far from the urban pollution that prematurely ages canines and humans. Yet gritty city residents might be surprised to learn that the country grass isn’t quite as green as we thought.

“We are indeed far from industry and lots of traffic,” Kerasote allows. “But we have our own challenges. Grand Teton National Park annually sprays for spotted knapweed, an exotic invader, with what is supposedly benign chemicals. People also spray their lawns and trees. Our ground water has lead in it, so I filter it. But, in general, there are fewer pollutants in Jackson Hole than in a big city. Will this contribute to a longer life for Pukka, I simply don’t know. My hope is yes.”

The author has this advice for city-dwelling Dogsters: “Make sure that your dog gets enough exercise, not merely a walk on the leash, but aerobic play with other dogs in a green place. Three times a week should be the minimum. More would be preferable. Keep your dog off herbicide-treated lawns and parks. There is good evidence that herbicides increase the incidence of lymphoma in humans, and dogs get the very same form of cancer.”

Even out in the country, Kerasote warns that indoor hazards, including toxic chemicals in home furnishings and pet products, can shorten a dog’s life. “Keep a dog away from environmental pollutants like formaldehyde-treated carpets (formaldehyde is a known carcinogen), dog beds that contain fire-retardant fillers (they’re endocrine disruptors), and plastic water bowls, which contain phthalates, also endocrine disruptors. Use stainless steel or glass bowls instead.”

My Mom and I have this long-running debate: She says each of my best friends wants to be the “only dog,” and I say the canine kids love being part of a pack. Is being an only dog good or bad for longevity? Pukka has many dog friends, but he doesn’t suffer stress from sharing Kerasote’s undivided attention at home and on the many expeditions they undertake together.

“Dogs are like humans: Some are introverts, some extroverts,” Kerasote says. “They also have their preferences in who they want to spend time with, as do we. Pukka loves having Buck, his mentor and ‘uncle,’ in the house. Other dogs he doesn’t want around at all. He also likes having [his dog buddies] A.J. Burley and Goo visit, but many times he prefers just having the house to himself. Trying to figure out what each dog wants is worth the effort.”

Are there a few things you wish you’d done differently with any greatly missed dogs who now await you at the Bridge? If so, join the club: “Merle’s vets recommended that he receive yearly vaccinations, and he did, 95 vaccines in total over his lifetime,” Kerasote laments. “Pukka got only his core vaccines as a puppy (parvo, distemper, adenovirus-2, and rabies) and now is titered every three years to make sure that he still has immunity. This is because vaccines are not benign –- they can cause adverse reactions. It is also now known that the duration of immunity for the core vaccines is seven to 15 years. So why overload a dog’s system with vaccines it doesn’t need?”

Like many of us who learned about the health drawbacks of grain-based kibble, Kerasote cringes to think he fed it to Merle. “Pukka eats a grain-free, high-protein diet containing green leafy and yellow-orange vegetables,” he says.

“He eats elk, which we hunt, as well as upland birds like grouse, pheasants, and chukars. He also eats a commercially prepared AAFCO-certified frozen raw food diet that contains meat, ground bones and organs, plus organic vegetables and fruits. When we’re traveling, Pukka eats a grain-free kibble containing some of the above meats, as well as a dried raw food diet made from ranched elk.” The plucky pup also takes a key dietary supplement: “He gets DHA, an omega-3 that’s been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties.”

February is Pet Dental Health Month, so we had to know how Pukka’s pearly whites stay polished. “He gets a raw, foot-long turkey neck almost every day at lunch. It’s about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. The ligaments, tendons, and bones act as doggie dental floss and clean his teeth. He also gets a couple elk or bison bones a week, usually the head of the femur with meat and ligaments on it.”

Now, here’s a wellness tip that’s sure to raise controversy: Kerasote’s research has converted him to the anti-spay/neuter camp, purely in the interest of extending canine longevity.

“When Merle and I met, he had been neutered,” the author says. “But I’ve kept Pukka intact. During the last decade, evidence in the veterinary literature shows that spayed and neutered dogs have more adverse reactions to vaccines, more urinary incontinence, more endocrine dysfunction, more ACL injuries, are in general more obese, and are at greater risk for developing osteosarcoma, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and hemangiosarcoma. If your dog has not been spayed or neutered, consider giving it a tubal ligation, hysterectomy, or vasectomy. These options don’t remove the ovaries or testes and thus preserve a dog’s beneficial sex hormones, which are important in forestalling or preventing these nasty health conditions.”

To learn more about Ted Kerasote and find out when his tour will bring him to your neck of the woods, visit his web site.

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