Photo (cc) by The U.S. Army
How often do you gaze at your mutt and wonder what breeds make up this pup? Many dog owners are curious enough to get their dog’s DNA tested.
Scientists began unraveling and cataloging human DNA sequences some 40 years ago. Back then it was expensive, slow work.
Now, with newer, faster methods and technologies, human DNA testing already is used for many purposes. Examples include identifying genetically carried diseases and searching for treatments, and exonerating people who’ve been wrongly convicted of crimes and imprisoned. DNA blood tests let pregnant parents learn if their child has a genetic abnormality like Down syndrome and scientists are using DNA from prehistoric human remains to piece together the long-ago history of the human race.
These newer, faster methods and technologies make it cheap enough even to get a DNA test for a dog. But what should you expect from these tests? And are the tests worth even the relatively low cost — about $60 to $100?
The answer, in short, depends on the test you use and on how realistic your expectations are for your results.
Why test a dog?
A relatively new use for DNA sequencing is helping farmers, breeders and other animal owners learn about the origins and potential medical problems of pets and livestock. Several companies offer a variety of testing products. Dog DNA tests vary so, if you are in the market, think about what you want from the DNA and read the product descriptions and uses to be sure it’ll deliver the information you want.
Dog DNA tests may be used to:
- help breeders and owners spot breed-specific diseases.
- guide breeders who want to ensure genetic diversity. (Testing companies don’t typically certify purebred dogs, however).
- prepare owners for a puppy’s eventual size, temperament, exercise requirements and medical issues.
- satisfy an owner’s curiosity about a pet’s origins.
- satisfy co-op or homeowners association requirements. (Some associations ban certain breeds.)
- help animal shelters find homes for animals by giving potential owners an idea of what mix of breeds they are adopting. “The Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, began DNA tests earlier this year, using the slogan “Who’s Your Daddy?” reports Mother Nature Network.
How it works
Dog breeds have distinctive markers. Companies selling DNA tests use databases containing genetic characteristics for many breeds. The company’s lab decodes your dog’s DNA sample, comparing it with profiles in their database and identifying your dog’s markers that correspond to certain breeds. You’ll find Dog DNA test kits online and at many pet supply stores.
Popular tests include Wisdom Panel products, DNA My Dog, Canine Heritage Breed Test and DDC Veterinary. Wisdom Panel’s 3.0 Canine Genetic Test, for example, costs $85. According to the manufacturer, the DNA is compared with a database of 250 dog breeds, types and varieties; the results show a pet’s likely ancestors back to the great-grandparents, predict the dog’s likely adult weight and show whether the MDR1 genetic mutation is present; a dog with that trait is likely to have a severe reaction to some drugs.
The typical test kit contains swabs and directions. You use the swab to collect skin cells from inside the dog’s cheek, packaging up the swab and quickly mailing it to a lab. It may take several weeks to receive results, usually by mail or email.
Can you trust the results?
It’s a fun, exciting process. Realize, though, that the results may not be as conclusive as you’d like. Or even inadvertently misleading.
Here’s why: Even though a company’s database contains many breed-specific genetic profiles, it may be missing others of the many breeds worldwide. Even a database of 200 or more matches does not have all of the many hundreds of possibilities that exist.
Your DNA test results will only show matches contained in your test company’s database. You won’t know if your dog’s DNA might have other more-precise matches because of the limits of your company’s testing program.
So, a test may narrow in on your dog’s breed or breed combination but not identify it with pinpoint precision, explains Canine Journal:
… while the DNA testing center may not have a specific breed on file, they will likely have a similar breed from the same class of dog. To give a simple (albeit unlikely) example: a testing center that has a Jack Russell terrier breed profile, but does not have a Parson Russell terrier on file may classify your dog as being of Jack Russell ancestry. While this information is not entirely correct, it still indicates a specific group of traits that are common to this class of terrier.
Also, bacterial contamination from your dog’s mouth can add confusion to the results.
This video from Wisdom Panel explains more about how dog DNA testing works and what to expect.
The bottom line: Do test your dog’s DNA for fun but realize that the results could be less than precise.
To increase the chance of accuracy, read a test’s package to learn how many breeds are contained in its database. The larger the database the better for identifying uncommon breeds. Testing your dog’s DNA against 250 possible matches is better than testing it against 70 or 120 possibilities. Tests that use larger databases typically cost more, says WebMD, which compares three tests.
Are you curious enough about your dog to pony up for a DNA test? Share your thoughts in comments or on our Facebook page.