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

New Chilliwack cycling organization focuses on seniors

Volunteer ‘pilots’ carry those with mobility issues on trishaws

Judge questions joint submission for Chilliwack man who sexually assaulted girl

Crown, defence ordered to find case law to back up one-year sentencing for Andrew Mullaly

Flood mitigation money coming to protect Chilliwack-area communities

It’s $45M in infrastructure funding to build 6km of dikes, a flood gate, and pump station

CSOPA’s six spring productions in Chilliwack include play about boy with autism

Mix of musicals, comedy, mystery and more for Chilliwack School of Performing Arts’ May shows

Chilliwack’s hospital morgue needs an expansion

Fraser Health plans to more than double the space for ‘decedents’; upgrade antiquated elevators

VIDEO: ‘Alarm bells’ raised by footage allegedly from B.C. pig farm, SPCA says

PETA released video Wednesday showing dead and injured piglets next to nursing piglets

Female real estate agents warned of suspicious man in Metro Vancouver

The man requests to see homes alone with the female agent, police say

COLUMN: Keep your camping coordinates a secret this season

‘There are simply too many people in the back country,’ says Progress reporter

Can you put your phone down for Mother’s Day?

#DiningMode campaign encourages people to leave the phone alone while eating

Horgan heckled as gas prices sit at record high, could go up more

Premier John Horgan blames refiners, not taxes

SPCA investigating after newborn kittens found in Vancouver dumpster

The kittens were found suffering from hypothermia and dehydration

‘B.C. cannot wait for action’: Top doctor urges province to decriminalize illicit drugs

Dr. Bonnie Henry says current approach in ‘war on drugs’ has criminalized and stigmatized drug users

VIDEO: Surrey stabbing leaves man with ‘potentially life altering injuries’

Police believe an altercation between two people led to the incident, in the 13700-block of 97A Ave.

VIDEO: Surrey RCMP investigating after ‘sudden death’ of man found with critical injuries

Police say a man is dead after being found laying on the ground in the 13300-block of 114th Avenue

Most Read