DNA Testing May Be the Key to Unlocking Your Dog's History & Health Outlook
The popularity of dog DNA testing has increased alongside the rise of human DNA testing services like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Many dog owners have turned to dog DNA tests to learn more about their pup's history, genetic makeup, and possible medical predispositions. If you're wondering if a dog DNA test is worth the price, or if it might help you better understand your dog, read on to learn more about the pros and cons of canine genetic screening and how it's used for health screening and breed identification.
What is a Dog DNA Test?
You know your pet better than anyone. Which flavor of his favorite treats gets the best recall at the dog park, the precise time he wants to go for a walk each night, and just how he likes to snuggle into the couch. But beneath the surface of that furry little face is a wealth of genetic knowledge that can tell you so much more about your canine companion—and it all starts with a single cheek swab.
Most at-home dog DNA tests use a saliva swab to collect DNA from your pup, which is then sent to a lab to be analyzed. How much detail the DNA test will examine varies by test kit, but some of the information it can uncover might include your dogʼs breed, health, traits, ancestry, and even relatives.
DNA tests from Embark Veterinary, for example, offer a comprehensive look at your dog's health and history and can link your dog's genetic profile to hundreds of thousands of markers. Those markers then form a profile for your dog and can contain info on their breed makeup, specific traits, health, inbreeding, and family links to other dogs, says Adam Boyko, PhD, a co-founder and chief science officer of Embark and an associate professor of biology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University.
How Dog DNA Testing Works
Typically, you'll order a DNA kit from a company's website. From there, you'll receive a kit containing a cheek swab or a buccal swab to collect saliva, instructions on how to use the cotton swab to collect DNA from your dog, and a return mailer so you can send the swab back to a clinical lab for DNA extraction. From there, your dog's DNA is genetically analyzed in a process called "genotyping."
"All of that raw genetic data gets fed through algorithms that are going to determine [answers to questions like] 'Is there a disease predisposition? Are there any relatives of this dog in the database? What is the composition of the dog you know?' And then all sorts of traits, like how big this dog is likely going to grow up to be," Boyko says.
It can take anywhere from two to four weeks to get your results. The Embark DNA test takes about two to three weeks for the results. Once the genotyping is complete, customers can then view their results online and even email a PDF of the results to their vet. Another dog DNA testing company, DNA My Dog, can take up to four weeks to provide breed identification and full genetic screening results.
How to Collect Your Dog’s DNA
Generally speaking, each DNA test comes in the mail with a cotton swab meant to collect your dog's saliva (though the DNA My Dog service also allows blood samples to be sent by your vet if you'd prefer). For the cheek swab, Embark recommends holding the cotton swab in your dog's mouth for a minimum of 30 seconds, if your dog allows. Although it's advised to mail back the sample quickly, the tube also has a stabilizing fluid that keeps DNA fresh for several weeks if you can't make it to the post office ASAP.
If you're having trouble getting your pup to play nice, Boyko has a fail-safe trick for pet owners to try. "We recommend waving a treat in front of the dog's nose to get the saliva flowing," Boyko says. Because if all else fails, bribery is always on the table!
What Dog DNA Testing Can Tell Pet Owners
Dog DNA testing can provide pet owners with a wealth of information about their dog. Many of the tests can help determine breed types, and some tests can even determine your pup's genetic predisposition to certain diseases and traits like body size or coat color. Embark and Wisdom Panel both have databases of more than 350 different types of dog breeds to use as a reference pool, and can even tell you the percentage of your dog's breed breakdown. For instance, if your dog is a Labradoodle, the test can determine if the dog is three-quarters Labrador and one-quarter poodle, or vice versa.
Many genetic conditions can be identified through DNA testing, including issues like exercise-induced collapse—where dogs are sensitive to exercise, particularly in the heat. Another condition that can be identified through DNA testing is progressive retinal atrophy, a degenerative disease of the retina that can eventually cause blindness. Genetic abnormalities can even cause some dogs to be more likely to have bladder stones. If you're aware that your pup's history and breed type could mean he's predisposed to a particular condition, you can be more proactive about his health, and in the case of bladder stones consider feeding him a special diet to help prevent them.
If you think your pup is extra special (and who doesn't?) and just might be more than man's best friend, DNA My Dog even offers kits that test for wolf and coyote hybrids. The company also has kits to help project your pet's longevity, test for allergies, or test your dog's breed makeup after he dies.
That said, the tests can only predict so much. Just because your dog is predisposed to a certain condition doesn't necessarily mean he'll develop the condition. And DNA tests don't have the ability to identify which dogs are likely to develop cancer or have hip dysplasia, both of which can afflict several breeds of dogs as they get older.
"Some disorders are highly predictive. We would say 'penetrant' in genetics, so that that test result is a really strong indicator that at some point in the dog's life it's likely to develop this disorder. Other times, it's a risk factor, but it's not determinative. Of course, to get a diagnosis, you need to go to your vet. But giving your vet that genetic information a lot of times makes the diagnosis easier and cheaper, and you don't have to do unnecessary tests," Boyko says.
Costs of Dog DNA Testing
While Embark may boast some of the most cutting-edge science among the dog DNA tests on the market, it's also one of the most expensive. The Embark DNA test is able to examine more than 200,000 markers in the genome (more than twice as many as any of the other tests), and enables pet owners to get results for almost 200 different health conditions and different traits, like coat color and coat type and body size. But all those capabilities can add up, with kits starting at $139 for Embark's Breed Identification kit, and $149 for Embark's Breed + Health kit.
Wisdom Panel DNA tests offer a slightly lower entry point, with kits ranging from $100 for the Essential Dog DNA Collection Kit, to $160 for the Wisdom Panel Premium (which also screens for conditions related to drug sensitivities, vision, weight, mobility, and more than 200 health tests).
A more affordable option is DNA My Dog, with test kits starting at $69 for the DNA My Dog Breed Identification Test, and up to $189 for the DNA Breed Identification Test Plus Full Genetic Screening, which screens for more than 100 common breed diseases.
But for many pet owners, the peace of mind that comes with knowing if your dog is at risk for health issues is priceless, and can help determine what preventative action can be taken early on to keep your pet healthy.
Why DNA Testing is Important
Certainly, DNA testing can offer pet owners more information about their dog's health and history—and illuminate potential dietary or medical needs that can arise due to their genetic disposition. But testing can also help breeders make future generations of dogs healthier. For starters, breeders can use DNA testing to prevent inbreeding (the breeding of dogs that are closely related) since inbreeding can potentially cause more harmful recessive traits or certain genetic conditions to be passed down to puppies. Breeders also can use results from DNA tests to produce desired dog traits like coat color, coat length, and low shedding.
If you'd like to help scientists improve the health of dogs in the future, you're in luck. Embark allows dog owners to have their dog's data used for research purposes with the goal of reducing genetic conditions and eliminating some health issues from the dog population altogether. Boyko says sharing information about your dog's health and any diagnosis if and when they occur helps researchers increase the sample size, so they can tackle big disorders like cancer in the near future.
Boyko says the dog owner surveys have already made an impact, and that people love sharing information about their dog—which has helped power a lot of research that's already been published.