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I’ll be honest – when I first heard about DNA testing my dog, I was a bit skeptical.
What would it tell me? What would it cost? And is it actually legitimate? Those were just a few of the questions circling my mind.
Well after testing my little guy and seeing the results, I can tell you that it was totally worth it. This article will break down everything you need to know about testing your dog and recommend the best testing kits on the market today.
Why DNA test your dog?
Let’s start with the question most of you are probably asking – why do a DNA test on your dog?
Well, there are several reasons.
It might be just for fun or curiosity, or it could be something more. It could even save you a lot of money and heartache in the long run.
For many people, curiosity is the only reason they need to have their pet tested.
Genetic testing can tell you a lot about your dog and its background. This can be true whether your canine pal is a purebred or a mutt.
DNA history reports are not only going to tell you what breed or mixture your dog is, but will also supply you with a history of the breeds themselves, where they come from, and when, how, and why they were developed.
Purebred, designer, or mutt
Is your dog a purebred? Is it a planned mix, like the recently popular Labradoodle?
Or is it so mixed up that you can’t even begin to guess which breeds its ancestors were?
DNA testing can tell you with a great deal of precision just what breeds have contributed to your pet.
Even if you know what breed your dog is, you might find a few surprises mixed in a few generations back.
And if you don’t know the exact breed, as could well be the case with a rescue dog, DNA testing may be your only way to find out.
You may even find out that your dog has a strong percentage of wolf or coyote ancestry!
It is important to understand, though, that even if your dog’s DNA shows that it is a purebred, DNA testing cannot currently be used to establish American Kennel Club (AKC) registration. That still requires documentation of pedigree.
However, in some cases, DNA testing can be used to confirm a pedigree if it is questioned.
Weight and size prediction
How much is that doggie in the window going to end up weighing? How long and tall is it going to be?
For a purebred, you can make a pretty good guess, but for a mixed breed, there are a lot of variables.
DNA testing can help you determine just how large your puppy is going to get as an adult.
It can also give you an idea whether your adult dog is significantly overweight or underweight compared to a predicted ideal weight, indicating it might need a change of diet or exercise.
We all know that certain breeds are prone to certain behaviors.
Just how friendly, calm, quiet, shy, loyal, or trainable they are depends a lot on how they are raised and treated, but a lot is based on genetics, too.
A DNA report may be able to point out potential behavior problems and needs early on.
That can help you identify more effective training techniques and gives you plenty of time to address those behaviors before they become an issue.
Long hair or short hair (or no hair!), hair curliness, coat color, the presence of dew claws, even the shape of your dog’s head are all traits determined by its DNA.
The size of your dog, whether it is likely to have a natural bobtail, even its ability to perform well at high altitudes, can all be determined from a DNA test.
Genetic health issues
Each breed has its own set of known health issues, but exactly which ones your pet has inherited, especially if it is a mixed breed, is unpredictable.
A DNA test can help.
Some DNA tests for dogs (but not all) include a health screening that will check for well over a hundred genetic markers associated with diseases.
Having this information up front can be incredibly helpful in planning preventative medical care for your canine friend.
It allows your vet to be on the lookout for certain symptoms during visits and lets you and your vet take preventive measures.
That can not only extend your pet’s life, and improve its quality of life, but save you thousands of dollars in the long run by avoiding costly surgeries, treatments and medications.
One important gene that DNA tests look for causes multidrug sensitivity, impacting the way that many prescribed medicines will affect your pooch.
A few of the other potential health issues tested for include hemophilia and other blood disorders, glaucoma and other eye-related problems, kidney, bladder, and heart diseases, metabolic and immune issues, and many more.
It is important to keep in mind that the DNA health screening only tells you that these conditions are more likely than usual.
Only your vet can make a medical diagnosis.
But you can use the DNA results to help you, and your vet keep an eye out for signs and symptoms so you can catch problems while they are still early and treatable.
How to choose a testing company
You have more than one choice when it comes to canine DNA testing, so how do you pick one?
There are several things you should take into consideration:
Number of genetic markers tested
Not all DNA tests are the same.
DNA strands are incredibly long, so each test only looks at certain specific points, called markers.
These markers are the ones that have been identified as being useful in determining breeds, traits, and potential health risks.
The more markers that are checked, the more accurate the test is going to be.
Even though they tend to be more expensive, tests that look at the largest number of markers are going to be the most accurate and give you the most useful information.
Number of breeds in database
There are currently 190 dog breeds registered by the American Kennel Club, but most DNA tests do not include them all.
In fact, some tests provide results for as few as 84 breeds.
Be sure to take a close look at the breed list when choosing a test. If it’s short, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Remember that a DNA testing company will compare your dog’s DNA to those in their databases. So the more breeds in the database to test against, the better.
Range of genetic health risks
Some DNA tests for dogs look at 140 to 160 or even more genetic health risk factors.
Those tests are going to give you the detailed information you need to discuss your dog’s current and future health with your vet.
Obviously, the more risks the test checks for, the better.
On the other hand, some tests don’t actually check any genetic markers for health risks.
They just give a vague, general report based on your dog’s breed. If you really want to know how to keep your unique pet healthy, those reports are almost worthless.
Physical traits report
DNA tests for dogs also vary in how detailed their physical traits reports are.
As with health screening, some companies report traits based on your dog’s breed rather than its specific DNA.
Beware of those tests!
Look for companies that actually use your dog’s unique DNA profile to create a useful, detailed traits report. These tests are more expensive but well worth the cost.
Recommended testing companies
There are not as many companies that offer DNA testing for dogs are there are for humans.
Of those, only two really stand out as providing high quality, detailed DNA reports for your canine pal, Wisdom Panel and Embark.
Wisdom Panel offers several tests to meet your needs at a reasonable price.
The three designed for pet owners are the Wisdom Panel 3.0, Wisdom Panel 4.0, and Wisdom Panel Health.
All three tests look at your pet’s ancestry going back three generations:
They are the most comprehensive on the market today when it comes to breeds, identifying more than 250 different breeds, including nearly every breed recognized by the AKC plus many more.
They also all check for drug sensitivity, an important factor in keeping your pet healthy. If this is all you want to know, then the Wisdom Panel 3.0 is the right test for you.
The Wisdom Panel 4.0 test includes everything that the 3.0 test does.
Also, it identifies and analyzes a wide range of traits as well as tests for exercise-induced collapse, a potentially life-threatening condition.
The Wisdom Panel Health test includes everything above.
It also checks for more than 140 genetic health risks, letting you plan ahead with your vet ways to keep your animal companion healthy.
On the plus side, all of the Wisdom Panel tests are less expensive than Embark’s test.
They also have a quick turn around time, with your results arriving back in only two to three weeks.
However, the Wisdom Panel test checks many fewer genetic markers, meaning it may not be as accurate, and it does not check for as many genetic health factors.
Embark offers only one DNA test for dogs, but it is very comprehensive, looking at more than 200,000 genetic markers, over 100 times more than any other test on the market today.
It is a scientifically proven test that identifies breed, traits, and three generations of ancestry.
Also, it looks for more than 160 known genetic health risks found in canines, about 20 more than Wisdom Panel’s health screening.
A detailed vet report is included with the test results, helping you and your vet plan for the long-term health and care of your pet.
As an added bonus, Embark has partnered with researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, working together to perform ongoing research in canine genetic testing.
That not only improves your results but contributes to health research that can impact many dogs.
You even have the option of sharing your dog’s DNA results for use in that research.
Embark receives very positive customer feedback, and provides email and live chat assistance to interpret your test results, as well as a blog and newsletter.
On the negative side, Embark’s test takes longer than other tests, about six to eight weeks to get your results.
It also groups a few closely related breeds together. As a result, it only tests for 175 out of the 190 AKC recognized breeds.
Because it is so comprehensive, Embark’s test is also the most expensive on the market right now.
But if you can afford it, it is definitely well worth it.
And as always, be on the lookout for sales or discounts to bring the price down.
There are a few other companies that offer canine DNA testing, including DNA My Dog and PetConfirm.
Both of these tests are less expensive than Embark or Wisdom Panel, but they offer fewer features, too.
In fact, both tests do little more than basic breed identification, and even there, they check for fewer than 100 of the most common breeds.
Unless you just want the bare bones at the lowest possible price, you are better off picking one of the other tests.
Testing your dog
The actual process for all of these tests is the same.
Order your choice of kit online (the Wisdom Panel 3.0 kit is also available in some retail stores and amazon.com).
When you receive the kit, you will create an online account so you can get the results when they’re ready. Each test kit includes one or more cheek swabs.
Just follow the simple instructions included in the kit to swab the inside of your dog’s mouth, seal up the sample, and mail it to the testing lab.
Here are a few tips to get the best results:
- don’t let your dog eat or drink for about 30 minutes before testing
- if you have more than one dog and they like to roughhouse, keep them separated for about an hour before testing (so Fido’s hair doesn’t end up in Fifi’s mouth)
- gently swab the cheek and under the tongue for 30 to 60 seconds until the swab is saturated
- swab, don’t scrape – you’re after saliva, not skin cells
- if your dog won’t slobber enough, show them a treat (but don’t let them eat it until after the test)
- if your pooch chews up the swab, both Wisdom Panel and Embark will send you free replacements
Your results will come back anywhere from two to eight weeks, depending on the company, the test chosen, and how backed up they are.
You will receive an email telling you the results are ready and how to access them online.
Here are answers to a few of the most often asked questions.
How much does it cost?
That depends a lot on how detailed a test you want.
Since prices frequently change with different sales and promotions, it’s best to visit the websites for the most recent pricing.
The price for all of these includes the price of the kit and having it processed at the lab. There may be an additional shipping fee.
For all of these, keep your eyes open for sales or discounts.
Embark, for example, offers a discount if you order more than one kit, so if you have several dogs to test, you can save money by ordering them all at the same time.
How does dog DNA differ from humans?
In general, dog DNA and human DNA are very similar.
They are both made from long strands of chemical compounds called nucleic acids. Every living thing on earth has DNA made from these same compounds.
Groups of nucleic acids in a certain order create genes. The genes are in turn organized into chromosomes.
Humans have 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs), while dogs have 78. Humans and dogs actually share about 82% of our DNA with one another.
Can any breed be tested?
The short answer is yes, you can test any dog.
However, depending on the test, it may or may not recognize the breed.
Wisdom Panel breaks their test results down into 250 breeds, which is even more than the AKC’s 190 registered breeds.
Embark groups some closely related breeds together, so it only recognizes about 175 breeds. Other tests identify fewer than 100 breeds.
Can puppies be tested?
Yes, though there are a few precautions you should take.
- If the puppy has not been weaned yet, make sure it has not fed from its mother for at least an hour before testing.
- Because puppies tend to roughhouse a lot with each other, keep the puppy separated for at least an hour, so there’s less danger of having some of its siblings’ DNA in its mouth.
- Puppies love to chew, so getting enough saliva on the swab before it gets eaten can be tough. A small bone-style chew toy can help keep its mouth open and busy long enough to get the sample.
As long as you take these precautions, there is no minimum age to take the test.
Are the tests accurate?
The Embark and Wisdom Panel tests are very accurate in identifying genetic markers.
Interpreting the results, however, can be more difficult.
If the test says your purebred is 97% one breed and 3% of another, does that mean it isn’t a purebred after all?
No, not really. It just means it has a few genetic markers that are seen more often in a different breed.
A trait report can tell you how large your dog is likely to be, but that is just an average.
Some will be larger, some will be smaller. And in a mixed breed, that is especially hard to predict.
It’s the same when it comes to health tests. Just because your pet had a genetic health risk doesn’t mean it will ever develop a particular disease.
It just means it is at greater risk and your vet should keep a lookout for future symptoms.
So, while the science behind the tests is well established and highly accurate, understand that the interpretation of the results is not exact (but it’s usually pretty darn close).
Both Embark and Wisdom Panel have very high customer satisfaction ratings when it comes to accuracy, and they provide excellent quality customer support if you have questions.
There are many practical reasons to have your dog’s DNA tested.
Especially when it comes to mixed breeds, knowing just what ancestry your pet has can help you predict physical and social traits.
Genetic health risk screening can prepare you for potential issues, letting you catch them early, and may save you thousands of dollars in the long run.
Or you might just be curious to see what pops up.
Whatever the reason, having your canine buddy’s DNA tested is well worth it!