Finding out about Fido: The ins and outs of dog DNA tests

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Finding out about Fido: The ins and outs of dog DNA tests
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By Kim Gilliam

Nearly one million pets were adopted from U.S. animal shelters and rescues in 2021, according to Adopt-a-Pet.com, representing the highest adoption rate in the past six years. With 58% of these adoptees being dogs, many new owners found themselves wondering about their pup’s breed composition. This caused the sales of dog DNA test kits to more than double during the pandemic. You might be ready to invest in one too, but how do these tests work and how accurate can you expect the results to be?

While genetic testing for humans has been around for several years, allowing people to discover their ancestral roots and check for genetic disorders, dog DNA tests are relatively new. Breed detection tests are only made possible due to the broader Dog Genome Project in the early 2000s, inspired by similar efforts to map human DNA. Breeding standards have separated dogs into “distinct genetic clusters.” This means dog breeds can be defined at the molecular level – only small bits of DNA are needed to identify them.  

These tests are sold at a cost of under $100 up to almost $300 based on how comprehensive the testing is. Owners just looking for breed identification pay less whereas those looking for insight into their pet’s genetic ancestry and health traits – where some tests screen for more than 200 genetic disorders – will pay more. These kinds of tests are also available for cats.

How does it work?

The kits contain a swab that you use to collect a sample of your pet’s saliva and cheek cells; this is then placed into a tube for shipping. Once it arrives at the lab, a technician extracts and amplifies the DNA from the sample for analysis.

The technology used is identical, regardless of which test you buy, and replicates the tests veterinarians have been using for the last 15 years. The tests look for markers in the DNA and compare them with a database of DNA taken from dogs with confirmed pedigrees and a library of anywhere from 250 to 350 unique dog breeds. From there, these companies use an algorithm that looks at the number and types of these genetic markers to determine your dog’s breed makeup, similar to how human DNA tests analyze ancestry.

What can you learn?

These tests identify the presence of breed types as low as 1% as well as genes that give information on your dog’s temperament – you can gain insight into your dog’s breed behavior quirks – and appearance, including their ideal weight range. And how cool is this: Embark, a dog DNA test provider, now offers a Doggy DNA Relative Finder where you can connect with other dogs that are related to your pup based on the percentage of DNA they share.

Depending on the test, you can also screen for a number of genetic disorders too, a selling point for those concerned with early detection and treatment of any illnesses their pet may have. Like humans, dogs can also be at risk for congenital conditions. So, while the owner of a purebred dog might not feel the need to confirm their pet’s pedigree, they might still be interested in screening for common genetic conditions for which their dog might be at an elevated risk. For example, there are various cancers with genetic causes common in Golden Retrievers, Sick Sinus Syndrome is common in Silver Schnauzers and mitral valve disease is common in King Charles Spaniels.

How accurate are they?

The answer to this question isn’t clear. The testing manufacturers claim 90% accuracy or higher, however these claims are not independently verified. Some veterinarians and genetic experts aren’t ready to stamp these kits with a seal of accuracy, in large part due to the lack of peer-reviewed research regarding the processes used.

Experts advise that most reliable information they provide is around the genetic disorders, since these tests are related to specific, easily identifiable mutations. Whether or not they are 100% accurate, it certainly makes for a fun conversation starter at the dog park!

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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