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Part 3 of Dr. Becker’s Interview with Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote: Fixing America’s Broken Animal Shelter System

Story at-a-glance
  • Today, in the final segment of a three-part interview with best-selling author Ted Kerasote about his latest book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, Dr. Becker and Ted discuss the problem of homeless pets in North America and the need for shelters to transform themselves into no-kill facilities.
  • Ted also discusses three-and-a-half-year-old Pukka’s life as a healthy, athletic, free-roaming dog, and the benefits and risks of the lifestyle Ted has chosen for him.
  • Finally, Ted discusses two fascinating new projects – one he has just put the finishing touches to, and another he’s currently working on.

By Dr. Becker

I’m back with bestselling author Ted Kerasote for the final installment of our three-part interview. You can see part one here and part two here. We’re discussing Ted’s wonderful new book just out in bookstores, called Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.

The problem of homeless pets.

One of the huge, complex topics Ted takes on in Pukka’s Promise is the “crisis” situation in North American animal shelters. I worked in a shelter as a teenager, and Ted’s treatment of the subject in his new book has caused me to view the situation in a very different light.

I asked Ted to talk about his research into how unwanted pets are handled in other parts of the world vs. in the U.S.

Ted said he’d first like to address the use of the word “crisis” to describe our homeless pet situation. While it’s true about 1.5 million animals are killed in shelters each year in the U.S., 40 years ago we were killing 20 million per year.

The point is, progress has been made, and Ted believes credit is due the organizations that have worked so hard to bring that number down so dramatically.

How dogs are cared for in Western Europe vs. North America.

As to the question of differences between how North America treats homeless animals vs. other areas of the world, Ted explained that he traveled extensively in Europe to see how the situation was handled over there. He says you don’t see stray dogs roaming all over Western Europe, as happens in some parts of the U.S.

And the assumption is that because Western Europe is so highly urbanized, it can’t have free-roaming dogs. Everyone by necessity must control his or her dog, which is why there’s no so-called pet “overpopulation” problem. But Ted says that actually, there ARE free-roaming dogs … in Hyde Park … at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris … the Villa Borghese in Rome … and the Englischer Garden in Munich. In all these places there are free-roaming, off-leash dogs running about, under the voice-control of their people, and they’re not spayed or neutered, either.

To the casual observer, this seems risky at best. After all, everyone knows how quickly a male dog can mate with a female dog, right? So, why aren’t countless unwanted puppies being killed in shelters? The answer is that in Europe, people sequester their female dogs when they’re in heat. It’s just what they do, because it’s their tradition.

The Europeans carefully manage their female dogs when they’re in season. The dogs stay at home – in the barn or the kennel. They are walked only on a leash. There’s no way you don’t know when your female dog is being mounted by a male dog, if she’s at the end of a four foot leash and you’re holding the other end.

Ted explained that like most Americans, prior to his fact-finding trip to Europe, he didn’t really comprehend that there’s a way to have intact dogs and not have litter after litter of puppies.

Ted further explained that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is number 27 out of 31 countries with respect to overall poverty and the amount of social justice its citizens enjoy. In Scandinavia, for example, there are no dogs killed in animal shelters. They have a very secure social services network that takes care of citizens “from cradle to grave.” Of course, taxes are high, but everyone’s taken care of, including pets.

By contrast, in the U.S., most dogs are killed in counties with low median incomes. It’s absolutely true that you can’t determine the number of dogs killed in a shelter by the amount of money per capita that is spent in that shelter. Some shelters spend $6 per capita and kill a lot of dogs. Others spend $1.50 per capita and don’t kill that many dogs. But it’s also true that for the most part, poor communities kill more dogs in their shelters.

No-kill solutions every shelter can (and should) embrace.

So the question becomes, how can we help the shelter system work better? Better social services across the board might help. Eliminating poverty might help. Those are long-term goals. Ted says that in the meantime, there are many people working on helping shelters operate better. There’s the No Kill Advocacy Center, whose solution involves hiring compassionate shelter directors who are committed to implementing ideas that have worked all over the country to reduce the number of shelter deaths.

Some of those ideas include keeping shelters open at least one day on the weekend. Keep them open in the evening – employed people aren’t available to come see adoptable animals during the workday. Implement a foster care program to reduce the number of kittens and puppies who are killed. Send the little ones out to foster families so they can grow up to be adoptable pets.

Other ideas include partnering with local pet stores to stop selling purebred dogs from breeders and instead feature shelter pets ready for adoption. The stores make money, a percentage goes to the shelters, and the animals find homes. It’s a win for everyone.

Another idea is to do outreach programs where the shelter takes adoptable pets to places like PetSmart and Petco for adoption events. The shelters that have implemented these techniques have low kill rates. But according to Ted’s research, many, many more shelters need to adopt these ideas.

Ted also mentioned Maddie’s Fund, which helps shelters and animal welfare organizations that are trying to reduce the kill rate. Maddie’s Fund sponsors a massive ad campaign, The Shelter Pet Project, to convince prospective pet owners to adopt a shelter animal. In addition, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, told Ted that ”a no-kill nation must be one of the greatest aspirations of this organization.” But according to Nathan Winograd, the head of the No Kill Advocacy Center, out of 3,500 shelters across the country, only about 200 have become no-kill, meaning 90 percent of the dogs and cats who come into the shelter are adopted, fostered, or find other suitable living arrangements.

Ted believes that ever so slowly, we are working on the problem of homeless pets. In my opinion, it boils down to how committed and passionate each shelter is to becoming a no-kill facility.

Pukka’s life as a young, athletic, free-roaming dog.

Next I wanted Ted to talk about the role of genetics in helping dogs live healthier lives, and specifically, how he has applied the principles of his research to his own dog, Pukka, who is now almost four.

I asked Ted if he has encountered any challenges with Pukka’s health he wasn’t expecting. Ted said that overall, Pukka is a vibrant, thriving dog, who according Ted, just happens to beat himself up a lot – he’s hard on his body. He’ll jump off something, and the next day he won’t be quite as fast when he runs. He’s like many young athletes in that he doesn’t know his own limits.

Ted went on to explain that when Pukka was two, he almost died from a self-inflicted wound. He was running with a stick in his mouth, and he jammed it into the ground going full tilt. The stick broke and its jagged end pierced his tongue, severing his sublingual artery. Pukka came into the house gushing arterial blood.

Ted got the dog in his car and drove about a hundred miles an hour to the animal hospital in Jackson, Wyoming. He had stuffed a dishtowel in Pukka’s mouth, but he was still spraying blood all over the car. At the animal hospital, the vet staff clamped off the artery, but they had some initial difficulty finding the injury because there was just so much blood.

So Pukka is a healthy, athletic youngster who injures himself from time to time. Other than that, what worries Ted most is Pukka’s potential exposure to chemicals in the area where they live. Grand Teton National Park and Teton County are sprayed with chemicals every spring to control spotted knapweed. During those times, Pukka is confined to the house and walked under Ted’s supervision, even though all the literature on those sprays claims they are non-toxic.

Ted believes that Pukka, like most dogs, was exposed to many potentially harmful toxins as a puppy, for example, by chewing on dog toys. And he’s exposed to environmental pollutants just as we all are. Ted explained that he’s tried to create a non-toxic house, but Pukka also roams around the village where they live, so it’s impossible to say what he might be exposed to.

People say to Ted, “You should fence Pukka. You should lock him up.” But for Ted, that’s not an option. He’s willing to assume certain risks so that Pukka can live as a free-roaming dog.

Fortunately, Ted has a very unique situation in that he lives in a small village that provides an almost picture-perfect environment for dogs to live independently and free and to make their own choices. Of course, not all of us are fortunate enough to have such an amazing living arrangement.

Ted explained that there are nonetheless risks associated with living where he does, and they are unusual, for instance, grizzly bears … mountain lions … and wolves, the wolves posing the greatest threat to dogs in northwestern Wyoming since wolves will kill domestic dogs. They consider them interlopers in their territory. When Ted and Pukka are hiking during the summer months, or mountain bike riding, Pukka is often a half-mile ahead, doing his thing. If he runs into a pack of wolves, it could be the end of him. But Ted explained that he’s willing to take those risks so Pukka can have his freedom.

What Ted is doing now.

Ted has put the last five years of his life, heart and soul into researching and writing Pukka’s Promise. Now that it’s out in bookstores, I asked Ted what’s next. He responded that he breathed about a five-minute sigh of relief after he finished the book, and then he went back to one he started years ago, before he met Merle, about a young jaguar named Jorge, who lives in Central America. He’s just putting the finishing touches on it now. The title is The Jaguar Who Ran.

As Ted’s story goes, Jorge the jaguar doesn’t like where he was born, because he can’t run in the jungle. He’s always running into trees and slipping in the mud. His mother tells him, “Listen, jaguars slink and crouch and hide. They don’t run.” Jorge responds, “But dad ran when he went up to the land of the Still Star,” which is what the jaguars call northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Jorge wants to run. So he goes to the land of the Still Star and gets into loads of trouble, but manages to persevere. It’s a story for all of us who dream of living a life different from that of our families and cultures.

Ted said he’s also working on a book about street dog management in developing areas of the world, where extermination has traditionally been used to reduce the incidence of rabies transmitted to people. This has not worked. Nor can adoption work since people in such places don’t have enough money to adopt and care for a dog. Since the 1990s a different approach has been tried. It was pioneered in India. Street dogs are captured, sterilized, vaccinated, and then released in the exact location where they were captured. This strategy has been very successful and has reduced both the number of street dogs without harming them, while also reducing the incidence of rabies transmitted to people.

Ted explained that he has met some very interesting veterinarians doing this kind of work all over the world. He thought their story would make a good book and might be applicable to some extent here in the U.S. because we also have a large stray dog problem in some areas. Depending on whose numbers you believe, there are 5,000 to 50,000 stray dogs in Detroit. There are stray dogs in Watts, in Baltimore, St. Louis, and on Indian reservations. The Navajo reservation is home to a couple hundred thousand stray dogs.

What typically happens is we capture these dogs, put them in shelters, and kill the majority of them. Ted wonders if it might not be a better idea to capture them, sterilize and vaccinate them, and turn them loose again – especially if they’re healthy.

My sincere thanks to Ted!

I want to thank Ted Kerasote for joining me for this three-part interview.

I’m very excited about the release of his new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, and I’m so thankful I was able to get an advance copy to read. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I know our listeners and readers here today will as well.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry … you’ll be informed and inspired by Pukka’s Promise.

Related:

Part 2 of Dr. Becker’s Interview with Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote: The Seven Factors that Determine How Long Your Dog Will Live

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, by Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote – Available in Bookstores This Week!

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs

Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Pukka: The Pup After Merle

StemPets and StemEquine – Stem Cell Enhancers for Pets

If I Should Die Before My Dog…

February 18, 2013 Posted by | Animal or Pet Related Stories, Animal Related Education, Dogs, Dogs, Holistic Pet Health, Just One More Pet, Man's Best Friend, Pet Friendship and Love, Pet Health, Pet Nutrition, Pets, responsible pet ownership | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Part 2 of Dr. Becker’s Interview with Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote: The Seven Factors that Determine How Long Your Dog Will Live

Story at-a-glance
  • This is part two of Dr. Becker’s captivating three-part video interview with bestselling author Ted Kerasote, author of a brand new book just released last week called Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.
  • Today, Dr. Becker and Ted discuss the seven variables that he and other experts believe most influence a dog’s health and longevity. These factors include breeding, nutrition, vaccinations, environmental pollutants, spaying and neutering, the animal shelter system, and the amount of freedom dogs enjoy.
  • In his discussion with Dr. Becker, Ted also touches on such wide-ranging topics as the importance of exercise for dogs, why veterinary schools seem stuck in a time warp, how he discovered most dog toys contain toxins … and his pet peeve when it comes to the health care of dogs.

By Dr. Becker

I’m back with bestselling author Ted Kerasote for part two of our three-part interview series. You can see part one here. We’re discussing Ted’s latest wonderful book, which hit bookstores last week, called Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs..

Many of you will remember Ted’s amazing book, Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. The new book is about the dog Ted has now, Pukka. Interestingly, the book didn’t start out titled Pukka’s Promise, so I asked Ted to share with us how and why the name changed.

Ted explained the original title for the book was Why Dogs Die Young, and What We Can Do About It. He came up with the name because, as we discussed last week in part one and in our discussion last year, after Merle’s Door was released, he received many inquiries from readers asking, “Why do our dogs die so young?” So it seemed natural to Ted to title the book in response to those questions, and in fact, Why Dogs Die Young was the working title for four years.

But when Ted’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt held a meeting last year with sales reps for the new book, they all stated that they loved the content, but hated the title. They called the title “a downer and a bummer.” So over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, Ted came up with the new title, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs..

The #1 contributor to early death in dogs: poor breeding.

In Pukka’s Promise, Ted outlines seven key variables that he and other experts agree contribute to the longevity of pet dogs. These variables include breeding, nutrition, vaccinations, environmental pollutants, spaying/neutering, the animal shelter system in North America, and the amount of freedom dogs enjoy.

Ted feels that breeding is at the top of the list of contributors to how long a dog lives. He gives the example of short-faced dogs (brachycephalic breeds), who typically suffer breathing difficulties. Those dogs may not live as long as dogs with longer muzzles.

Another example are dogs bred with abnormally long spines and therefore, inherent back problems. Those dogs, as well, are probably not going to live as long as dogs whose bodies are in better proportion.

Ted makes the point that dogs who are highly inbred and have just a few common ancestors are also at risk of early death. He cites the example of Golden Retrievers bred in North America, 61 percent of whom die of cancer. Why? One reason is that they have very few common ancestors and consequently lots of recessive genes — the kind that can lead to genetically transmitted diseases. With these genes now spread far and wide throughout the Golden Retriever population, they frequently meet, causing health problems and shortening the lives of these dogs.

Ted says he knows of only one breeder who, over a long career, has selected her breeding stock for longevity as well as for how her dogs look or work. Health is not at the top of the list for most dog breeders.

Next on the list: nutrition, vaccinations, and environmental pollutants.

The next most important variable according to Ted is nutrition, and of course I certainly agree.

As Ted pointed out in part one of our discussion last week, it’s expensive to feed our dogs well. But there are ways to do it, including cooking meals at home – or buying a high quality kibble instead of raw food.

Third on Ted’s list is actually vaccinations AND environmental pollutants, because they are similar in terms of their potential toxic effect on pets. In both cases, we’re exposing our dogs to unnatural substances, and while vaccinations are useful for protecting our own pets and others from parvo, distemper and rabies, dogs certainly don’t need the number of vaccinations currently recommended by many veterinarians.

Dogs, like children, have smaller bodies than adults, so environmental pollutants and substances injected into them have a greater effect. And our dogs are low to the ground — their feet and noses are right down in those chemicals in many cases. As Ted points out, environmental toxins are one of the easier things to help our dogs avoid. We don’t have to use lawn chemicals. We can remove formaldehyde-filled carpets from our homes. It’s not necessary to expose our dogs to some of these very common but dangerous chemicals.

Skiing the mountains of Wisconsin … or, the importance of exercise for dogs.

Ted also puts exercise at the top of the list for its value in giving dogs healthier lives. Most dogs just don’t get enough exercise.

Ted, of course, has a slightly different definition of exercise than most of us do –especially city dwellers. Ted lives in a very small village in Wyoming at the edge of Grand Teton National Park, and a regular workout for him is skiing uphill for an hour or so in an afternoon and much longer workouts on the weekend. Meanwhile, I have to get on a treadmill because I live in the Chicago area!

Ted tells the funny story that when he was driving on Interstate 90 from O’Hare airport for our interview, he saw a billboard that said, “Ski the mountains of Wisconsin,” under a picture of what looked like the Jackson Hole, Wyoming ski area. He says he almost drove off the road thinking, “Mountains of Wisconsin?” (There are hills in Wisconsin – no mountains!)

Ted realizes most people don’t live in the Rockies. But dogs are still dogs, whether they live in the Rockies or in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City. They still need exercise, and so do their owners. And a little stroll outside isn’t really sufficient to get a dog’s heart pounding – it’s not aerobic exercise.

Ted thinks off-leash dog parks can be a good substitute. At least the dog, if not the owner, is getting some physical activity. In an off-leash, fenced-in dog park, dogs can really be dogs. They can sniff, smell, and move at “dog speed,” as Ted discusses in Pukka’s Promise.

Of course, there are also plenty of city dwellers that are lean, and so are their dogs, because unlike many suburbanites they don’t drive everywhere they go. They walk to the grocery store. They walk to do errands. And they bring their dogs along.

So the idea is to get creative regardless of your living situation, as Ted discusses in his book.

Why are DVMs in the U.S. and Canada trained ONLY to spay or neuter, when alternative sterilization methods are "Quick, easy, and effective?"

I next asked Ted to talk about his interviews with veterinarians while he was doing research for Pukka’s Promise. Being a veterinarian, I’m certainly aware that the profession has some blind spots.

Ted thinks that this is a result of the way veterinarians are trained. There are about 30 veterinary schools in the U.S. and another four or so in Canada. These are old institutions and, like many institutions, they suffer from inertia. They do things the way they’ve always done them, until something really shakes things up.

Ted says one of the best examples of this concerns spaying and neutering. He and I have discussed the fact that tubal ligations and vasectomies are another means of achieving sterility in dogs. He didn’t entirely believe me at first, so he did his own research and found over a dozen citations, dating back to the mid-1970’s, that describe these less-invasive procedures as “Quick, easy, and effective. Complications, rare.”

So he called every vet school in the U.S. and asked if tubal ligations and vasectomies were taught there. Not one school said they were. So Ted naturally wants to know why there’s such a disconnect between what the veterinary literature says and what is being taught in veterinary schools. He says it’s obvious either they’re not reading their own peer-reviewed literature, or there is a mindset against teaching alternative sterilization procedures.

Ted thinks what has happened is the veterinary profession and the animal shelter community joined forces in the 1970s to try to solve what has been called the “pet overpopulation problem” in the U.S. And, at the time, the quickest, cheapest, most effective means they hit on was spaying and neutering, which have now become a mantra in this country – we need to spay or neuter every dog, even though there are alternative procedures that prevent pregnancy.

I absolutely agree with this, and these alternative methods of sterilization are also actually faster, less risky, and maybe less costly.

But to Ted’s point, they’re not being taught to veterinary students. And when he has asked fourth-year students about it, their response has been, “Oh, we can’t do that. We didn’t learn that.” When he talked with Dr. Robert McCarthy, a veterinary surgeon at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. McCarthy just laughed ruefully and said, “The reason they’re not being taught is habit. Spaying and neutering were taught a hundred years ago, and so we continue to do it that way today.”

Ted poses the question, “What will it take to make the veterinary profession change?” The answer is veterinary clients, and veterinary students. Dog owners need to speak up and say, “Hey, we’d like better dog food,” and “No, we don’t want a vaccination every year. I’ve read on Dr. Karen Becker’s website that we don’t need vaccinations every year. And you know, maybe my dog would be better off with a vasectomy so he can keep his testicles and the hormones they produce.”

Tainted tennis balls and other toxic toys.

According to Ted, another area where public pressure and consumer demand could change things for the better is with dog toys.

Ted includes an interesting little section in Pukka’s Promise about toxic dog toys. I asked him to share how he came to learn about the problem, because I honestly wasn’t expecting to see anything about it in his book.

Ted explained that when he brought Pukka home, everyone he knew sent him gifts. Tons of gifts. They all went in a huge wicker basket, and Ted would look over and see Pukka ripping apart the toys, chewing on the polyester and spitting it out. And he started to wonder, “Hmm … is that good for him to have in his mouth?”

Ted knew children’s toys had been vetted and we now have legislation that stipulates what cannot go into kids’ toys. Since children are about the size of dogs, he wondered if Pukka should be mouthing all that stuff – ripping and tearing at it. And Pukka, like many dogs, destroyed tennis balls. In a matter of minutes he would be gnawing on the guts of the ball. So Ted wondered also about whether tennis balls were safe.

And guess what? He couldn’t find anyone who could tell him about the safety of dog toys. Not a soul. The manufacturers, of course, wouldn’t tell him. They’d respond to Ted’s inquiries with, “Oh, that’s proprietary information. We can’t divulge that.”

So since Ted’s goal was to make his book rigorously researched and thorough, he began sending dog toys to an environmental testing laboratory that tests children’s toys. And he learned that lo and behold, the polyester in one of Pukka’s stuffed toys contained antimony, a suspected carcinogen, and the amount in the toys was 10,000 times the maximum level recommend for drinking water by the World Health Organization.

Pukka’s retriever dummies, as it turns out, contained a phthalate that is prohibited in children’s toys. And tennis balls have an accelerant in the rubber that is poisonous. Whether this toxin is bioavailable from the tennis ball no one could say – not even the best toxicology minds in the country could say.

As tennis ball manufacturers told Ted, “We don’t make tennis balls for dogs, but for people playing the game of tennis.” So for Ted there was an easy solution – no more tennis balls for Pukka. Instead, he got non-toxic balls that are designed for dogs. They’re made by Planet Dog, and Ted knows they’re non-toxic because he had them tested as well!

I’m pretty sure that Ted is one of the very few people who has sent dog toys to a lab for testing, and I love that he included the information in Pukka’s Promise. He was able to find only one other test of dog toys, done in Germany.

Ted’s pet peeve: treating dogs as "just dogs."

Ted explains that one of his pet peeves is how we treat dogs with less respect than they deserve, excusing our behavior by saying that they’re “just dogs.” He says that we’d never take this approach with people, and especially children. We’d never practice human medicine the way we practice veterinary medicine, with such little oversight and allowing M.D’s to dispense drugs (other than samples) out of a cabinet in a back office, as veterinarians do. Human patients have to go to a pharmacy to fill their prescriptions, so the doctor isn’t making money (presumably) off the sale of drugs.

But veterinarians are allowed to sell drugs for their animal patients out of their offices, which perhaps makes it more appealing to write too many prescriptions. Ted’s point is that there is far less rigor when it comes to the health care of our pets than we would tolerate in human health care.

Stay tuned next week for the final installment of my 3-part interview with Ted Kerasote. We’ll talk in-depth about what his research reveals about what has been called the "pet overpopulation problem" and the operation of animal shelters in the U.S. We’ll also talk more about Pukka, and what future surprises Ted has in store for us.

Related:

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, by Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote – Available in Bookstores This Week!

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs

Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Pukka: The Pup After Merle

StemPets and StemEquine – Stem Cell Enhancers for Pets

If I Should Die Before My Dog…

February 14, 2013 Posted by | Animal or Pet Related Stories, Animal Related Education, Dogs, Holistic Pet Health, Just One More Pet, Man's Best Friend, Pet Friendship and Love, Pet Health, Pet Nutrition, Pets, responsible pet ownership | , , , , | 16 Comments