Discovering Your Pet’s DNA

by Gillan Ritchie

It had been almost two years since Lauren Kime and her family lost their canine companion. Loki, their 15-year-old rescue dog, was struggling with muscle and bladder control, and the family decided it was time to put him to sleep. 

In December 2020, Kime’s 6.5-year-old daughter started begging for a new dog and the family realized that they were ready to welcome a new four-legged member into their home. Kime logged onto and found a 6-month-old female puppy available for adoption at their local shelter. They decided to head to the shelter to see if the puppy would be a good fit for the family.

“We saw her in the puppy room and they took her out to the room for a meet and greet,” Kime said. “She just was so friendly and licking everyone.”

A week after meeting with the puppy, Kime and the family brought her home. Kime’s daughter decided to name the puppy Ginger. 

“[My daughter] thought she looked like a gingerbread cookie and we thought ‘Ginger’ was appropriate with the holiday timing and her somewhat ginger coloring,” said Kime. 

DNA Testing Boom

DNA testing in dogs has been quietly happening for more than two decades–researchers were using methods to examine certain conditions in canines. But the industry took off in 2005 when scientists mapped out dog genes and then published the results. 

According to The Harvard Gazette, an international research team, led by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, decoded the DNA of the domestic dog. Results of the study, published in the Dec. 8, 2005, edition of Nature, show genetic similarities between dogs and humans, and could lead to discoveries that improve the health of both species. 

If you have a mixed breed canine in your family and you’ve always wondered about their breed, then a doggie DNA test may be for you. Here’s the low-down on DNA test kits for your furry, four-legged friends.
Are dog DNA test kits regulated?
No. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate testing kits for animals the way it regulates DNA tests for humans (think 23andMe or Ancestry). 
What are the costs associated with these kits?
Depending on the brand, test kits can range from $60 to $200. Basic kits will only include breed information; more expensive kits can include other information such as health risks and family trees. 
What companies offer dog DNA test kits?
· Wisdom Health Genetics: Wisdom Panel™ Essential, Wisdom Panel™ Premium and Wisdom Panel™ Complete for Cats
· Embark Veterinary Inc.: Breed ID, Breed + Health, and Purebred for pet owners; Breeders Standard and Breeders Package; and Veterinarian Kits
· DNA My Dog: Breed Identification, NEXTGEN Breed Identification and Genetic Age Test, Breed Test PLUS Wolf – Canid/Hybrid Test, Deceased Dog DNA Breed Testing, and Allergy Test My Pet Canine Allergy Test

Wisdom Health Genetics–maker of Wisdom Panel™ Essential, Wisdom Panel™ Premium and Wisdom Panel™ Complete for Cats and a business unit of Mars Petcare–has tested more than 3 million cats and dogs worldwide. The Essential DNA test includes breed, traits and 25+ actionable health tests. The Premium includes everything Essential offers pet parents, and includes a health analysis made up of more than 250 health and trait tests. 

According to Mars Petcare, part of Mars, Incorporated, the company’s DNA tests can detect contributions from 350 different breeds, types, and varieties. The Wisdom Panel™ Essential and Wisdom Panel™ Premium tests are the only ones in the marketplace that features MDR1 gene mutation screening. Developed by Washington State University, the screening can detect medication sensitivities in dogs. 

Embark, Veterinary, Inc., another well-known company in dog genetics, announced its first-ever canine health discovery at the beginning of March. Scientists at Embark found a genetic mutation in the EPS8L2 gene which is associated with early-onset adult deafness in Rhodesian Ridgebacks. The research comes after a decade of collaboration between breeders, scientists, and dog breeders. The study was conducted on more than 185 Rhodesian Ridgebacks and used more than 220,000 genetic markers.

“When we started this research over 10 years ago, we knew a discovery in early-onset adult deafness – one of the most common disabilities in humans and dogs – could provide valuable tools for life science companies using regenerative medicine to develop therapeutics for childhood hearing disorders,” said Dr. Mark Neff, Embark senior director of scientific discovery, in the press release from March 2. 

Uncovering the DNA

Most dogs in a shelter or at a rescue, like Ginger, are considered a mutt–a dog that is made up of several different breeds rather than one identifiable breed. At first glance, Kime thought Ginger was an American Staffordshire Terrier and Boxer mix. The family’s veterinarian recommended that they do a pet DNA test such as Wisdom Panel or Embark. 

We used [the] Wisdom Panel brand as it was highly recommended by our vet. We wanted not just the DNA results, but also the medical complication screening they offered.

Lauren Kime

To Kime and her family’s surprise, Ginger’s DNA results showed that she was a mixture of American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier. The test also showed that Ginger was not at risk for any chronic or terminal illnesses. According to the test, Ginger is at risk for hip dysplasia, like Loki, which is common in older dogs. 

Kime and her family are not the only people that have tested their four-legged friend out of curiosity. 

Allison Palestrini’s parents, Ted and Lynne Bayer, adopted Gabe and Annie Rose separately from Ruff Dog Rescue of Milton, Ga., in early 2020. In 2019, Ted and Lynne lost Palestrini’s grandfather at the age of 96 and then shortly after, they suddenly lost their dog Heyward on Thanksgiving.

“He [Heyward] had a heart issue that was a total surprise,” Palestrini said. “He was great one day, sick and dying on their stairs with a rush to the vet the next [day]. My parents’ house got very quiet and they knew they needed puppy energy back in so they started looking at rescues for a dog to get.”

After Ted and Lynne Bayer adopted Gabe and Annie Rose, Palestrini and her siblings gave their parents dog DNA tests as birthday gifts to learn about the new fur babies. According to Palestrini, the family came together during the pandemic to have a doggie DNA reveal party in August 2020.

During the reveal party, the family spent time guessing the breeds, eating from newly purchased dog bowls, a dog-themed music playlist, dog-themed treats and trophies. Palestrini’s mom carried the test results around in a dog-shaped tote bag until it was time to reveal Gabe and Annie Rose’s DNA and family trees.

Palestrini joked that the reveal resembled the Oscars.

“There were [child] tears when my nephew, Cameron, swept the wins for both dogs while randomly guessing their breeds,” Palestrini said. “I actually brought my old test results for Punky [my dog] to try to guess Annie’s mix since they sort of look similar. So much for strategy. All in all a memorable, fun way to pass the time and reveal dog breeds…”

Beyond Curiosity

The majority of DNA tests ordered by pet owners are done to satisfy curiosity about breed identification. But others, like Kris Chapman of Marietta, Ga., use DNA tests with specific intent. Chapman, a volunteer at Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, has used test kits on foster puppies to identify the breed and help market the puppy for adoption since potential adopters may search for certain breeds or avoid others. According to Chapman, she also uses the test to help rule out breeds that are restricted on a potential adopter’s lease.

Chapman used Wisdom Panel twice and Embark once to test three foster puppies–Ragsdale, Thanos, and Henree. The test showed that Ragsdale was more than 35% Labrador Retriever, Thanos was a mixture of Saint Bernard and German Shepherd, and Henree was 50% Boxer and 16% Bulldog. The DNA test found that each puppy had three or more different breeds in their family trees.

“Identifying a dominant breed helps you know how to work with them as well as making sure you find a home that is a good fit,” Chapman said. “For example, you may know the size that they will grow to be, whether they will be super active or working dogs and may need a fence or large yard, or might not be the best ‘starter’ dog. Of course, the results do not predict every dog’s future, but it can serve as a guide.” 

Thanos found his furever home with Chapman. 

Flaws of Testing

DNA tests offered by Embark and Wisdom, along with other companies such as DNA My Dog, give dog owners the chance to understand everything from personality traits to family trees to allergies.

Despite Wisdom Panel and Embark’s growing databases and resources, DNA testing for dogs and cats is relatively new. Some scientists argue that the accuracy of these tests–or their ability to predict health outcomes–are not validated. Canine and feline genetic tests are also not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and could potentially be misinterpreted by veterinarians or pet owners that don’t understand the limits of testing. Without regulations or peer-reviewed publications reviewing these tests for accuracy, there are risks of potential breed misidentification or misinformation on illnesses.

If you have any concerns about your pet’s health or risks for potential diseases, pet owners should always talk to their vet. The DNA tests are fun and can provide some insight but should be taken with a grain of salt.

This article ran in the April 2022 edition of HOME Magazine.


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