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

Why “Weir” Ready: with Dr. Shannon Waters

This is part one of a feature series by the Cowichan Watershed Board

Robert Barron column: A Canadian hero I wish I had talked to

Almost nobody was there on that cold Newfoundland day when Terry Fox started his run

Caps improve to 3-0

Lynn and Arquiett score two each as Caps double up Chiefs

Carving in Cowichan provided road to recovery for stroke victim

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to get out of bed or walk, let alone carve”

VIDEO: Vancouver Island mayor details emergency response after fatal bus crash

Sharie Minions says she is ‘appalled’ by condition of road where bus crashed

B.C. VIEWS: Cutting wood waste produces some bleeding

Value-added industry slowly grows as big sawmills close

Fewer trees, higher costs blamed for devastating downturn in B.C. forestry

Some say the high cost of logs is the major cause of the industry’s decline in B.C.

Federal food safety watchdog says batch of baby formula recalled

The agency says it’s conducting a food safety investigation

UVic president offers condolences after two students killed in bus crash

‘We also grieve with those closest to these members of our campus community,’ Cassels says

Coming Home: B.C. fire chief and disaster dog return from hurricane-ravaged Bahamas

The pair spent roughly one week on Great Abaco Island assisting in relief efforts

Newcomer Ferland lines up with sniper Pettersson as Vancouver Canucks camp opens

Ferland provides more depth and a scoring threat up front, Pettersson says

Intelligence official charged seemed to be ‘exemplar of discretion’: UBC professor

Professor Paul Evans says he served on Cameron Ortis’s doctoral dissertation committee

B.C. police watchdog to investigate man’s head injury during RCMP arrest

Suspect fled on a bicycle and fell off when an officer attempted to stop him

Most Read