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North Hills Monthly

What Kind of Dog Do You Have? DNA Testing Helps Discover Pets' Roots

Nov 30, 2018 12:23PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

As sequencing technology has improved and costs have dropped, the genetic (DNA) testing industry has boomed in recent years. 

And it's not just humans that we’re learning about. Our four-legged friends are also discovering their roots. If you have ever been curious about the breed of your dog or about their ancestry and health, several companies now advertise direct-to-consumer tests that can screen your companion animals for more than 150 genetic diseases including heart disease, kidney disease, and epilepsy. 

Deanna Purvis, veterinarian and medical director of VCA Northview Animal Hospital, is finding that more and more owners truly believe that genetic sequencing will help save their animals’ lives. “DNA testing kits are turning into something very interesting, because we have a world of knowledge at our fingertips, which makes us more knowledgeable and curious,” she explained.

DNA testing your pet involves a simple swab of the inside of their cheek which you send back to the company through the mail. The testing company promises quality testing that provides a detailed assessment that could reveal health conditions for which your dog may be at risk, along with a summary of your dog's origins, breed background, and complete ancestry. Some kits even provide valuable information about how to take better care of your dog.

But, as Dr. Purvis warns, what most pet genetic testing companies fail to make clear is that genetic testing is riddled with uncertainty. 

“I consider it a piece of the genetic wellness puzzle. It’s good information for us as doctors to know the breed(s), in case the animal might develop a disease. But not all pets that test ‘clear’ for a disease are truly safe from that condition, and pets that test ‘at risk’ may never actually develop it. 

“We want our clients to be as educated as they can be, but we wouldn’t want them to worry either,” she added.

Heather Pappas, hospital manager at VCA Northview Animal Hospital, said that she sees DNA testing as a fun way to curb curiosity and solve the mystery of mixed breeds. 

“We adopted a rescue who was relocated to Pittsburgh after a hurricane. My son is very interested in heritage and DNA for our entire family, including the dogs, so we plan to give him the results of a dog DNA kit as a Christmas gift so that we can finally learn more about Larry, who we refer to as a border collie/shepherd mix. It will be fun to see if we’re even close!” 

But Pappas understands the importance of consulting a veterinarian about the results, if the test reveals any concerns. “These tests are offered with no regulatory review and they are not subjected to scientific standards, so it’s best to use it just as additional information,” she said.

Using DNA for….other reasons

Some cities including Boise, Indianapolis and Miami are following Europe’s recent crackdown on irresponsible dog owners by using DNA tests to determine which neighbor left dog poop in the yard. One such company taking pet waste to a whole new level is PooPrints. The company, which works mostly with apartment complexes and Parks and Recreation departments, uses DNA testing to find the offending dogs and their owners. 

The process involves having each resident with a pooch perform a routine cheek swab with one of the pet DNA kits before moving in, in order to provide the dog’s DNA. This sample is then sent to a company like PooPrints. When property managers see unscooped feces, they take a sample and send it off to the DNA-testing company and, a few days later, the mystery is solved and the management company can confront the offender.

“I can’t say that I’ve heard of this practice in our area,” Dr. Purvis laughed. “While the one unspoken rule all dog owners should follow is picking up after your pooch, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised some landlords are turning to using this technique! It’s certainly better than using it as a way to discriminate against certain breeds, though, which I have unfortunately seen.”

For those interested in finding out your furbaby’s breed, Dr. Purvis personally recommends Wisdom Panel, which is one of the largest dog and cat breed DNA testing groups in the nation, having tested more than 1 million dogs for both breed and health. According to their website, its database has more than 250 breeds and varieties plus 1,800 genetic markers for more than 150 diseases and traits. 

There are other companies that sell similar kits, including Embark and HomeDNA, while others, such as 23andMe, offer just a breed kit which is a little less expensive. The kits range in price from about $68-$200 depending on the type you get.