DNA Testing

A gift idea for the mongrel who has everything…

So, your dogs have all the fancy collars, food bowls and sweaters they can use. Your vet has put them on diets so you can’t stuff their stockings with Pup-peronis this year. The shopping days till Christmas are ticking away, whatever are you going to get for those four-legged friends?

For the mutt who has everything, maybe a chance to fill in his lost family tree is just the ticket. DNA testing for dog breeds has been a hot item for several years now. It’s easy, relatively inexpensive at $60 to $75 and a great topic for conversation. If you’ve been wondering why your dog has crazy short legs on a Labrador-type body, this may be a way to solve the mystery – or not.

DNA analysis is a fascinating area of science that is helping to cure disease, solve crimes and establish hereditary patterns for everything from Alzheimer’s risk in humans to coat colours in purebred cats. According to veterinary specialists, the science behind dog-breed DNA analysis is sound, unfortunately the results are not always reliable or useful.

Testing for breed analysis is done on samples of cells from dogs’ mouths, obtained using special swabs from kits available at major pet stores and online. The sampled DNA is compared to a database representing specific breeds and any matches are weighted for the dog’s “pedigree”. Results might read, “50 per cent beagle, 25 per cent rat terrier, 25 per cent undecipherable sneaky neighbour’s dog”.

Accuracy of the results is variable. Cases have been reported in which repeated tests on the same dog gave different results. In some tests of dogs with known ancestry, the dominant part of the pedigree was recognized, with mixed results on the rest. Some breeds, such as Australian shepherds seem hard to identify due to diversity in their gene pool. The more inbred a line of dogs is, the easier it is to ID.

In the United States, the Mars company’s Wisdom test kits dominate the market, largely due to patent restrictions. Wisdom kits are available here in Canada in several formats, including a “professional” model to be used in conjunction with a veterinarian. Mars’ DNA database represents upwards of 190 breeds, significantly more than the few competitors out there. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Wisdom test will be right, but it seems to have a better chance.

Described by genetics experts as a consumer-driven “novelty”, breed testing has been likened to analysing the components in a complex food dish to reconstruct the recipe. You may come up with some of the ingredients, but it’s not likely to taste much like the finished product.

Similar test kits are being sold for people interested in lost family trees. With a cheek swab, you can seemingly trace your roots back for generations, to civilizations around the world. These ancestry kits seem as inexact as the doggy versions. Likewise, if you don’t begrudge the cost and won’t put too much store in the results, they sound like harmless fun. My dear Mum does have all the fancy sweaters she can use and the shopping days till Christmas are tick, tick, ticking by…

A more in-depth look at breed-testing is available from the Veterinary Information Network’s news service here: Dog breed genetics testing

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital, Trenton/Quinte West
December 2012