Should I Get My Dog DNA Tested?
For us, deciding whether or not to get your fur-baby DNA tested comes down to three factors:
- What Can a DNA test tell you?
- How accurate are they?
- What do they cost?
Which is exactly what we’ll explore in this article.
What Can a Dog DNA Test Tell You?
As with anything in life, we should be clear on the ‘problem’ we’re trying to solve ... BEFORE taking action. It’s amazing how much time and money we waste by either having a vague idea of what it is we’re trying to address, and / or a lack of understanding of the anticipated results.
This advice absolutely applies to any kind of testing we might conduct on either ourselves or our pooch pals. Why do it unless you’re a) clear on why, and b) understand whether it will provide useable information. This is particularly true now that DNA home-testing kits are so readily available.
So, here we go. Let’s take a look at a) the different problems DNA tests are designed to solve, and b) the kind of people who would typically want to solve those problems. On this latter point, we’re going to break our analysis down into two groups. Those interested in breeding, and the rest of us.
For those interested in breeding, broadly speaking, there are two likely benefits to DNA testing. The first is to ascertain or confirm parentage. The second is to inform breeding decisions based on: 1. genetic pre-disposition to certain health conditions, and 2. what we’ll call ‘breeding balance’.
With respect to genetic predisposition to disease, testing can help us to identify whether a dog is likely to be affected by specific conditions and pass on those genes. Knowing whether a pooch carries a particular genetic predisposition can help you know what to look for in a potential (similarly DNA-tested) mate.
They can also help breeders make better decisions for balanced breeding. Having data on likely temperament, diversity of genes, and the general health of proposed mates can inform better coupling choices.
For the rest of us, there are a multitude of reasons why we might have our K-9 kid tested:
- Curiosity: Not surprisingly, many of us are simply curious about our fur-BFFs ancestry. Like any member of the household, it’s nice to know a little about where they came from. Particularly if their face is not so easy to read. We wonder, how many times owners of mixed breeds have had to start their answer to the inevitable question ‘what type of dog is she?’ with, ‘I think she’s a …’.
- Temperament and behavior: Why our K-9 kids look like they do is one thing. Understanding why they act like they do is quite another. It can be useful to know what you’re getting into when you adopt a pet. A DNA test can provide an indication of what you can expect about your dog’s behavior (using dominant breeds as a guide). Terriers for, example, are going to have an abundance of energy and may need more exercise. Short-nose dogs are prone to overheating, so long walks may not be the best choice. And, sometimes, it’s just good to know that our pet isn’t actually trying to annoy us. It’s just who they are!
- Training and exercise: Although this concept shouldn’t be taken too far when it comes to training, we already know that different breeds have certain traits. Working and herding dogs tend to be more business-like in their approach to tasks, for example. Hounds tend to be a little more aloof and independent. Knowing these behavioral predispositions can help in tailoring suitable training activities. Knowing likely energy levels can also be a useful guide in designing a suitable exercise regimen.
- Health issues and allergies: Results from a DNA test can be a useful input to a conversation with your Veterinarian on how to mitigate any genetic pre-dispositions as part of a preventative care plan, or just to keep an eye out. The information can also be used to develop a more tailored nutrition and wellness approach based on breed and age (see next point).
- Age: Testing can determine your pooches biological (or genetic) age (as opposed to chronological age). Biological age gives you an insight into your fur-baby’s health and predicted longevity at a cellular level. For example, a dog could be 10 years old, with a biological age of 7.
- Size: If you’re curious as to how big your canine kid is going to get, a DNA test can provide a useful pointer. Although clearly there are size differences even within breeds, a DNA test can help pooch parents predict the likelihood of their pride and joy reaching a particular height and weight.
So, now we’ve covered what a dog DNA test can tell you: how reliable are they and how much is one going to set you back? The short answer is, it depends.
How Accurate are Dog DNA Tests?
There are around twenty companies offering DNA home-testing kits that we’re aware of, with sampling typically performed via a (relatively) simple cheek swab at home. Broadly speaking, how accurate they are will depend on how they’re engineered, the database that sits behind them … and what it is you’re looking for the tests to tell you. We know, this last point doesn’t impact intrinsic accuracy, but it does influence how accurate you’ll want the results to be.
As a general rule, most of the tests are quite reliable when it comes to identifying predominant breed(s), particularly when the parent or grandparent is a purebred. Results become more variable the more mixed the breed and the smaller the contribution each breed has to the overall total. It’s also worth noting that the more breeds in a company’s database, the more accurate the results.
Now let’s get a little more granular. As we’ve said, the accuracy (and coverage) you’ll want will depend on the ‘problem’ you’re trying to solve. It will also vary by provider. At a glance, these are the things you should look out for when assessing how useful a test is likely to be:
- How far back it tests
- How many genetic markers are tested for
- Number of breeds in the database (some have over 350, including dingoes and wolves!); and
- The methodology employed
On this last point, we’re unfortunately looking at a bit of a black box. Each company considers their methodology proprietary and therefore efficacy cannot be independently verified. However, depending on which test is being requested, some of the leading companies claim up to 99% accuracy.
That said, providing you’re not betting the farm on the outcome, the general consensus among experts seems to be that the science used by the most well-known companies is sound, particularly for breed identification. Nonetheless, that science does still have a way to mature. Particularly when we start to talk about the health-related side of the equation.
If your main purpose for getting a test done is to understand whether your pooch is more susceptible to certain conditions, for example, we would stress that no action is taken without first consulting your vet. It could cost you money you don’t need to spend, and potentially harm your pet. Undertaking additional testing, and giving supplements or medication that’s not needed, is not necessarily a good thing.
What is undoubtedly pretty cool though, are the numerous accounts we’ve had related to us of tests having accurately described a crossbreeds traits such as ear erectness, leg length, weight, and coat color patterns!
Canine DNA tests run from around US$80 up to US$300. There seems to be several key drivers of price:
- What you’re testing for: A breed-only test is generally the least expensive. When you want to also identify biological age and pre-dispositions to certain conditions, for example, the price jumps pretty quickly.
- How much data the company has: As a general rule, the more breeds the company has in its database, the more expensive the test. Worth baring this in mind if you’ve already got a pretty good idea of your pet’s heritage.
- How samples are collected: Cheek swabbing is cheaper than a blood sample, which will typically require a visit to your local Veterinarian. The majority of companies collect epithelial cells via the swabbing technique, however. Companies like AdvancePet require blood samples.
- How the analysis is conducted (presumably): It intuitively makes sense that the more science and rigor behind a methodology, the higher the costs associated with developing and executing it. However, we don’t know enough about each company’s approach to know what the cost profile looks like (given their proprietary nature). So, while the companies may (and do) make claims about quality, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that price does, in fact, equal quality.
And there you have it. If you're considering getting a dog DNA test, we hope the above helps you in your decision. A good place to start your investigations is by taking a look at the four most often reviewed products: Embark Vet, DNA My Dog, Wisdom Panel and Orivet.
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Our content is peer reviewed for balance and reflects our personal views as devoted dog parents (not those of a third party). If you've read this far, we think you'll agree.