Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Agri Leader

Lupine heritage ensures short longevity of dogs

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It's just a fact: most of us outlive our dogs. Indeed, for people who are dog owners throughout their lives, a lot of grieving is guaranteed. Fido No. 1 dies, is replaced by Fido No. 2 who also dies, and so on down the long line of dogs in our households.

I was reminded of how short a dog's life is compared to ours when I read Ted Kerasote's book, "Pukka's Promise." Kerasote is the best-selling author of "Merle's Door," a book about the relationship he had with a mixed breed dog named Merle. At the end of that book, Merle died of cancer. After an interval of a few years, Kerasote got a purebred puppy he named Pukka.

As Kerasote explains, dogs don't live for a long time because they are basically wolves, and wolves are short-lived. In the wild, wolves tend to live only three or four years because they prey on animals that can injure and kill them. Because of the difficult conditions of their lives, wolves breed earlier than animals like grizzly bears, and they have more offspring each year.

The domestic dog, which is a wolf in friendlier clothing, follows this same pattern, reaching sexual maturity rapidly and having litters of squirming puppies that may number eight or 10. What works as a survival strategy for wolves as a species guarantees us dog-lovers that we will grieve for the death of our canine companions at multiple times during our much-longer lives.

But not all dogs are created the same. Different breeds of dogs have different longevities. In general, the giant breeds like the Great Dane live shorter lives than smaller dogs. And because they avoid certain genetic problems, mixed breed dogs (the honest mutts that fill dog pounds from coast to coast) tend to live longer than their purebred counterparts of the same weight.

So far, so good. But can we say more about specific expectations of canine lifespans? Enter Dr. Kelly Cassidy, the curator of Washington State University's Conner Vertebrate Museum. In her free time and as a hobby, Cassidy has considered the longevity issues of dogs. She made a study of sources that list how long different breeds live versus what breeder surveys report about their own dogs. Surveys like that aren't the hardest of scientific evidence, but they do give some data for us dog-lovers to look at.

Cassidy's work suggests that quite a number of dog breeds don't appear to live as long as people like to believe. For example, German Shepherds are often said to live about 13 years. But Cassidy's reading of breeder surveys indicated a more realistic number might be a bit less than 10 years.

"That's really quite a difference," Cassidy told me.

Selective memory and wishful thinking may result in the difference between expectations of a dog's life and what actually is likely to unfold for Fido.

In any event, the wolf heritage of dogs guarantees they won't live as long as we'd like. That's the basic fact we all know, and it's the bottom-line I take away from Kerasote's book and from talking with Cassidy.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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