Pet DNA Testing: Is it Right for You?
Has this happened to you and your mutt before? You’re on a walk or at the dog park with your furry friend and someone says, “Cute dog. What breed are they?” Perhaps all you have to go on is the breed mix that was just a guess by the Humane Society or rescue organization. For some, a good guess is enough. Run Those Dogs owner Jen Sewell got both of her Australian cattle dog mixes from NOAH Center in Stanwood, WA. What’s your guess on their breeds?
For many, pet DNA testing might feel quite valuable and not just to answer that frequent question on the trail. Pet DNA testing can offer much more than just the breed mix. Most also offer ancestry back to the great-grandparent level, screening for genetic disorders, herding instinct and food drive, estimates of how big they’ll grow, how old they are, how much they’ll shed and even how strong their immune system is likely to be.
When you adopt a pet, you’re adding a member to your family, caring for them for their whole life. Pet DNA Testing has become simple, accessible and more affordable than ever. You must decide for yourself whether testing is right for you and your fur baby. So perhaps the real questions are, do the benefits of pet DNA testing outweigh the fears and risks? Is it worth the money? Will it hurt my pet? Am I okay without knowing?
That’s why we’ve put together a little information about pet DNA testing to help you decide. But please know that we did not receive payment for this post nor do we endorse any one test. This is just based on our own experiences with customers, friends and colleagues about this new and fascinating scientific tool available to pet parents.
Benefits of DNA Testing
In some ways, the ethics of pet DNA testing are similar to DNA testing for humans. If you’re a carrier for, say, a cancer gene, do you want to know? Related to your pet, will the information change the way you approach their life? Veterinary health care? Insurance? Exercise and diet?
According to Money Under 30, Americans spend $380 to $1,170 per dog each year and $430 to $870 per cat, and this amount increases as a pet gets older. So, one of the first benefits could be to your wallet. Even if your dog is pure bred, by knowing about genetic predispositions to disease, you can work with your veterinarian to take preventative steps and prepare in advance for possible genetic health conditions.
If you adopt a puppy or young dog, DNA testing can help inform you of what to expect as they grow and age. How big is your puppy going to be? What kind of coat will they have? What’s shedding going to be like? These tests can even help you identify the genetic diversity in your pup.You’ll learn about predictions of physical traits including estimated age at the time of the swab (if you’re not sure), altitude tolerance, predisposition to car sickness and even whether inbreeding could affect their immune system response.
The Embark DNA test for dogs currently checks for carrier and “at risk” status of 174 genetic disorders. That includes those that are specific to certain breeds and breed mixes. Knowing that your pet might be a carrier for a genetic disorder can inform your decision about whether or not to breed the dog. Knowing their “at risk” status, or predisposition, genetic disorders like hip dysplasia, urinary issues, or hereditary cataracts can help you and your veterinarian be proactive in monitoring and take simple steps to prevent the onset of disease or seek early diagnosis and treatment. You can also use this information to inform decisions about the best diet and exercise regime for your pet, such as choosing foods that promote urinary health or adding a step to your bed to reduce joint impacts in older dogs.
In the case of health and genetic disorders, knowing about risks may cost you more money in monitoring at your next vet visit, but it may also save you money long-term by helping you avoid costly surgery, not to mention the pain for your pet.
Is the Test Invasive?
Nope! DNA testing kits are generally very simple and you can do them from home. Generally, you first order a test kit from a certified DNA testing provider or buy one from your local pet store. Then you take a cheek-swab. Of course, getting a cheek-swab could be harder than it sounds depending on your pet’s cooperation, but the procedure is not painful to the animal. Just a little saliva goes a long way. You usually mail the sample in the kit provided to the lab via regular mail.
Once the sample arrives at the lab, the DNA is extracted from your pets cheek cells and a DNA fingerprint is determined using high-tech machines. Results generally come to you via email through a website link in about 2 to 4 weeks from the time the sample is received by the lab. But the length of time varies depending on the test you choose so take that into consideration when selecting a test.
Some veterinarians also offer a more extensive (and costly) blood test. Discuss with your veterinarian the costs and benefits of a blood test compared to the saliva tests to see what’s right for you. An added benefit of a blood test is that your veterinarian can walk your through the test results and perhaps integrate the results into long-term planning for your pet’s care.
Check out tips on how to swap your your dog.
Fears and Ethics
Before genetic testing became more common for humans, many were worried that DNA test results could be used against you somehow, for example in employment or insurance situations. Others still worry that businesses or the government can somehow obtain this private information and use it against you.
Although some paranoia is a healthy thing, most DNA testing companies use privacy as a selling point. So be sure to research how the information will be used and who will have access to the results. Many testing companies sell their data to research firms but allow you to opt out of sharing your pet’s information. Some testing companies also try to build community by allowing you to share your results on their website publicly or within the community of those tested. But most offer the option to the consumer, you, on whether you’d like your results to be public or held private. Just be sure to confirm their defaults and your user preferences.
For pure-bred animals, being able to catalog and register DNA findings has become another way for breeders to strive for stronger and healthier lineage. In an attempt to minimize hereditary defects, many registries offer lists of breeding animals that do not carry a particular gene.
Some breeders use DNA identification as a source to prove the purebred status of their animal. Other people use the DNA to hold on file in case of the theft of their pet. The possibilities of DNA research are just beginning. As more and more DNA research is collected, we’re likely to see it used in ways we could never have imagined.
Because the industry is not yet regulated, there is no guarantee that, say, pet insurance companies won’t begin requiring DNA testing to determine premium rates. Only time will tell how DNA results might be used in the future. Thankfully, veterinarians and pet care givers have a powerful voice in the pet industry, as do pet parents who demand safety and quality for their pets.
A real fear of veterinarians is that some will interpret their pet’s DNA results incorrectly and make poor decisions, such as unnecessary testing or treatment or premature euthanasia, as a solution for a preventable or manageable disease that may never arises. That has led debate about whether the average pet parent is capable of interpreting the results on their own and about how accurate results could be.
Are the Results Accurate?
While companies claim their tests are accurate, for example Embark claims “a greater than 99.99% accuracy for most tests,” there is very little policing and regulation in this area. With any new technology, regulation often lags behind. So how do you know if your results are accurate? Most tests focus on assessing risk, and even if your pet tests “at risk” for a disease, its very possible that that disease may never develop. Just like humans, a predisposition toward breast cancer doesn’t mean you’ll get it, it just means that you have a higher than average chance of getting it. The same goes for the hundreds of diseases that these tests screen for in your pet. Testing at risk for a rare eye disease doesn’t mean your cat has it, or even ever will have it, it just means they have a higher chance than the average cat.
Embark adds that “Our genetic testing provides an assessment of risk and not a medical diagnosis.” That may be the key here. The results are only as accurate as the collection of data that the company is working from. As with most science, as our knowledge base increases, the more accurately we can make predictions. But pet DNA testing has only been around since about 2007. So the accuracy of the test results are based in part on how large and of what quality their data base is.
We predict that the accuracy of test results will only improve as more and more animals are tested. The more we study the genetics of epilepsy, heart disease and neuro-degenerative disorders, for example, the better these tests will be able to predict the risk. A similar situation happened recently with human DNA testing. One of the largest providers of human testing, Ancestry DNA, recently refined and revised their estimates of people’s genetic make up because they were able to acquire a much larger set of high quality data. More scientific information allowed for more accurate estimates in some areas. Pet DNA testing accuracy will also likely improve as more and more animals are tested and that data is shared between companies and agencies.
Make sure to read the accuracy explanation when researching a test. If you aren’t convinced by their description, then perhaps you should investigate others. You can also ask your veterinarian for their advice on selecting an accurate test.
How To Find the Best Test and Price
Do your research. You can find articles online that compare and rate tests to decide which is best for you. Once you choose your test, join the mailing list for that company. You’ll get frequent offers and discounts that can be used to save on the cost. Generally that can range from $60 to $250 per pet. You’ll often find the best discounts around holidays and some websites even track changes in price so you can look for patterns on the best time of the year. If you just can’t wait once you choose, search the internet for discount codes to try.
If a friend has already purchased a test, you might be able to get a discount code from them as some companies offer referral discounts.
Whether you choose pet DNA testing for your fur baby or prefer the old school wonder and bliss of not knowing, it’s important to do your research. Pet DNA testing is a new technology that will improve with time as more and more pets are tested. Greater regulation and quality control will likely follow that will hopefully prevent and/or eliminate some of the rational fears associated with this exciting new power at our finger tips.