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Testing Your Dog's DNA

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Testing your dog's DNA can reveal some surprising results. Until about a year ago, there was no way to determine a mixed-breed dog's genetic heritage. Then, two companies, Mars Veterinary and MMI Genomics, started marketing genetic tests for breeds.

Theresa Brady, director of marketing communications/industry relations at MMI Genomics, said, "The No. 1 reason people want to find out the breeds of their dogs is curiosity. They go to dog parks and the first thing that anybody asks them is 'What kind of dog is that?' The No. 2 reason is that companion animals are very, very important to their family...(Owners) want to know a little bit more about their precious member of the family.''

Case study

When Conor Murphy adopted Layla, the shelter assured him the dog was a "Lab-German shepherd mix.''

But the 25-year-old Minneapolis college student was skeptical: "Layla had black-and-brown Rottweiler colors, but with white paws. She had wrinkles like a Chinese Shar-pei. And as she got older, she started to look like a pit bull.''

Murphy decided to test Layla, who is named after the classic Eric Clapton tune. The vet took a small blood sample and sent it off to Mars Veterinary for a DNA analysis.

A few weeks later, Murphy got the results: Layla was a Rottweiler-German shepherd mix along with American Staffordshire. No surprises there, but there were surprises in store:

  • Shocker No. 1: Seventy-pound Layla had traces of 125-pound Great Pyrenees.
  • Shocker No. 2: As expected, Layla had some Asian breed in her. But not Shar-pei; rather, Layla had some exotic Chinese Crested, a 15-pound breed.

You can't always tell a breed by its cover

Kyle Huizinga, DVM, of the Homewood Animal Hospital in Illinois, said, "You can't always tell a dog's breed from looking at him. Some mixed breeds come in very distinguishing features. You can tell from the length of the nose, markings, the ways ear stand up or flop over. But with many mixed breeds, you are guessing.''

Other than a conversation starter in the dog park, why bother?

Huizinga said a test may be worth doing to determine if the dog's ancestry may be one linked with certain health conditions. A dog may not look like a Rottweiler or German shepherd, but if the dog has this hidden heritage, it might be harboring hip dysplasia problems. Or a secret spaniel might have eye and skin problems.

"If we know the breed, we can be watching for problems,'' Huizinga said.

Hugo Perez, marketing and communications director at Mars Veterinary, said, "With knowledge of a dog's breed mix, owners can work together with their veterinarians to develop a more targeted care plan for their dog, and this one-time investment helps owners feel confident they are providing their dog with the best care possible.''

Brady said her company eventually is aiming to offer genetic tests to uncover health problems in dogs. She said the test has actually helped with a human health problem. One MMI customer wanted a cockapoo, a cocker spaniel/poodle mix, in hopes of preventing an allergic reaction. But she kept sneezing. Brady said the Canine Heritage test ruled out poodle blood in the dog, so she got a refund from the breeder and returned the dog.

Testing for more than health reasons

Brady said, "Knowledge about a dog's breed can help with training. Certain breeds behave certain ways. If you've got a herding dog, that would be important in training. If you've got a terrier that digs a lot, you might want to know that. Those temperament and personality traits go along with certain breeds.''

Still, Huizinga said most people test their dogs' breed just for fun. He tested one of his own dogs, Halas, named after the Chicago Bears' founder. He thought based on the dog's appearance and displays of herding behavior, Halas was part Australian cattle dog.

Testing showed that the 35-pound Halas had some of the Aussie breed. But in addition to his Aussie roots, Halas had some surprises: He was descended from the Asian breeds Shar-pei and Shiba Inu.

Huizinga has tested about a half dozen of his patients. Most have turned out to be common breed mixes, such as beagle and German shepherd. "Still, everyone has been excited to get the results,'' he said.

The great debate: cheek cells vs. blood

MMI and Mars disagree over the accuracy of blood testing vs. cheek cell swabs.

Perez contended that the blood test is "the most efficacious method for DNA sampling. It is also the only mixed-breed analysis test being administered exclusively through veterinarians who can correctly interpret the data and properly communicate it to dog owners.''

But according to Brady, "DNA is DNA, however you get it. There are no differences. There's just a different method of extracting it.''

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who have undergone genetic genealogy testing have taken saliva or cheek tests.

These debates aside, DNA testing of dogs is catching on. MMI Genomics said, for example, it is running 400 tests a week -- without advertising.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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