Dog DNA testing takes off, and debate ensues

More than a million dogs have been tested in little over a decade

Murray, a mixed-breed dog, lies on a sofa in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Rennie Pasquinelli via AP)

As people peer into DNA for clues to health and heritage, man’s best friend is under the microscope, too.

Genetic testing for dogs has surged in recent years, fueled by companies that echo popular at-home tests for humans, offering a deep dive into a pet’s genes with the swab of a canine cheek. More than a million dogs have been tested in little over a decade.

READ MORE: Who’s the daddy? Surprise in Swiss orangutan paternity test

The tests’ rise has stirred debate about standards, interpretation and limitations. But to many dog owners, DNA is a way to get to know their companions better.

“It put some pieces of the puzzle together,” says Lisa Topol, who recently tested her mixed-breed dogs Plop and Schmutzy. Plop was the top-scoring mixed-breed, and Schmutzy also competed, in Saturday’s agility contest at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show . Judging toward the coveted best in show prize began Monday.

A test by Embark — which this fall became Westminster’s first DNA-testing partner — confirmed Topol’s guess that her high-octane pets are more Australian cattle dog than anything else. But Schmutzy’s genetic pie chart had surprise ingredients, including generous amounts of Labrador retriever and Doberman pinscher.

Huh? Topol thought at first. And then: Maybe Schmutzy’s love of water and fetching is her inner Lab coming out. And doesn’t she walk a bit like a Doberman?

“They are the dogs that they are … They’re unique, and they’re special,” said Topol, a New York advertising executive. But the testing “makes me understand them better.”

Canine DNA testing for certain conditions and purposes goes back over two decades, but the industry took off after scientists mapped a full set of dog genes and published the results in 2005.

Wisdom Health, part of pet care and candy giant Mars Inc., launched a breed-identification test in 2007, added a health-screening option a few years later and says it has now tested over 1.1 million dogs worldwide. Numerous other brands are also available.

Mass-market tests have fueled research and helped animal shelters attract adopters by providing more information about prospective pets. DNA can back up purebred dogs’ parentage and help breeders try to eliminate certain diseases.

The technology has been used to identify dogs whose owners don’t pick up their droppings, to pursue accused biters and to free a Belgian Malinois from dog death row after he was accused of killing a Pomeranian in Michigan. And some veterinarians feel DNA testing enhances care.

But qualms about the dog DNA boom spilled into the prestigious science journal Nature last year.

“Pet genetics must be reined in,” a Boston veterinarian and two other scientists wrote. Their commentary opened with a troubling story: a pug being euthanized because her owners interpreted DNA results to mean she had a rare, degenerative neurological disorder, when in fact her ailment might have been something more treatable.

“These (tests) should be used in a limited way until we get a lot more information,” says co-author and vet Dr. Lisa Moses.

One concern is that tests can show genetic mutations that are linked to disease in some breeds but have unknown effects in the breed being tested. It also may be unclear how often dogs with the mutation ultimately get sick.

That means tests, in themselves, can’t necessarily tell pet owners how much they should worry. Or tell breeders whether a dog shouldn’t reproduce. Some in dogdom fear that DNA test results could keep animals from passing on otherwise good genes because of an ambiguous possibility of disease.

“The risk for overinterpretation is great,” but DNA testing can be useful along with other tools, says veterinarian Dr. Diane Brown, the CEO of the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. It has invested almost $20 million in genomic and molecular research and supports an international effort to promote standardization for dog DNA tests.

Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Candidates face questions on Nanaimo doorsteps about supportive housing and crime

Federal candidates asked about social issues on campaign trail

Review: Polish your language skills with The Foreigner

It’s all gibberish, but Charlie Baker’s personality receives a revamp in Chemainus Theatre production

Art studio takes over former St. Joseph’s School space in Chemainus

Public invited to a grand opening on May 1 to see what’s transpired

Lavigne possesses crooner qualities, to be Frank

Island tour starts this week and concludes in Chemainus with two shows May 11

First Nanaimo-Ladysmith all-candidates’ meeting is tomorrow

Six candidates expected to debate issues Thursday, April 25, at the Beban Park social centre

VIDEO: Killer whales hunt for seals in Vancouver harbour

Bigg’s killer whales feed on marine mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins and even other whales

VIDEO: B.C.’s waving granny gets incredible send-off from school kids

Tinney Davidson has been waving at students on their way to school for over 11 years, but is moving in a month

Struggling B.C. adoption agency elects new board that intends to keep it open

The previous board announced that Choices would close May 31

Island-born Snowbirds pilot enjoying homecoming in skies over Comox

Logan Reid once stood clinging onto the fence outside the Comox Air… Continue reading

Attack on student in Courtenay ‘way more than bullying’, says mom

A Comox Valley mother said “it was way more than bullying” at… Continue reading

Vancouver man, 19, charged in human trafficking case involving teen girl

The 16-year-old girl was reported missing and later discovered in Vancouver

Blaine, Wash. inn owner, charged with smuggling people into B.C., granted bail

Robert Joseph Boule ordered to turn away anyone indicating a plan to enter Canada illegally

Most Read