About eight years ago, we adopted a dog through a local rescue organization. When we saw pictures of the puppies online, we were initially taken by how unique they looked. The mother, a Husky mix, had a litter of six that showed very few Husky characteristics. Some of the dogs had brown eyes, a few had blue eyes, and one had one blue and one brown eye. Their fur was a sleek amber tan with a tell-tale ridge down their backs, leading the adoption agency, foster family, and veterinarian to assume that the father was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. We came home with one of the two females from the litter who had one blue and one brown eye. We named her Honey, and she has completed our family.
After having Honey home with us for a few days, we took her for a check-up at our local veterinarian. As with any new puppy, the whole office staff was taken by her adorableness. But, what they were all surprised by, was her unique look. The Husky eyes, Ridgeback coloring, and ridge, and there was something else, a hint of some other breed, too. When talking with the doctor we told her that the foster family believed the mother had some other heritage besides Husky. The doctor thought it might have been some Border Collie lineage. He told us that if we were interested, they could perform a DNA test on Honey to find out.
At the time, DNA testing was not as common as it is now. It was expensive, and didn’t seem to hold any other value other than knowing what type of dog we had, so we declined. Fast forward a few years, and at home DNA testing has become hugely popular. Thanks to revolutionary advances in sample collection and the computer methods used to sequence DNA, a person can easily take a DNA test from the comfort of their home for less than $100. And, while it is considerably more expensive, whole genome sequencing is now available to the public too. These tests can satisfy your curiosity by showing you your family lineage or helping a doctor uncover medical mysteries that can improve your quality of life.
A few months ago, our next door neighbors adopted an adorable puppy. The foster family named the puppy Saint. Because of the dog’s name and coloration, they assumed the parents were Saint Bernards. But, out of curiosity, they decided to find out. Just as home DNA tests have advanced, the same process for our pets has advanced as well. When Honey was a puppy, we would have had to bring her into the vet’s office for blood work, wait several weeks for results, and pay a hefty bill. Now, you can order an at home pet DNA test kit from sites like Amazon and Chewy for around the same cost as a human DNA test kit.
Examples of these kits include Embark, Wisdom Panel, and Orivet. Administering one of these tests to your pet is as simple as taking the test yourself. The tests come with an online activation code, a swab sponge, a collection tube, and self addressed return mailer pack. Embark recommends waiting at least 30 minutes after your dog has eaten or had anything to drink before administering the DNA test. Then, as instructed on the test package, “Swab the lower cheek pouches for 30 to 60 seconds to fully soak the sponge. Insert the swab into the tube with the tip facing down. Close cap and shake 10 times.” The process is quick, simple, and inexpensive.
So our neighbors ordered an online pet DNA kit, and within two weeks, they got their results. Shockingly, Saint has no Saint Bernard lineage according to the DNA test! He is mostly a German Shepard with what is called a “Super Mutt” lineage. This means that he is from a long line of mixed-breed dogs. As more and more people submit DNA tests for their pets, our neighbors may even get a chance to be notified if any of Saint’s relatives have also taken a DNA test. And while it’s fun and interesting to find out your dog’s lineage, these DNA tests do serve a greater purpose. Especially when it comes to caring for a pet’s health.
There are certain breeds of dogs that cannot take certain medications. When we first brought Honey to the veterinarian, he told us that because there was the possibility of her having Border Collie lineage, we had to be aware of medications she couldn’t take if she contracted specific illnesses. Since pet DNA testing wasn’t common at the time, he recommended we test her if and when necessary. However, for Saint, though he is a “Super Mutt”, the test was able to rule out the concern of him taking such medications.
Pet DNA tests can recognize a comprehensive range of breeds as well as identify genetic health disorders. Before we adopted Honey, we had a purebred Rottweiler named Tush. The breeders provided us with paperwork that verified Tush’s lineage for several generations. Included in this paperwork were vague health records. Such as the lineage having healthy gums, eyes, and joints. What it didn’t provide us with was some of the catastrophic health concerns dogs can face, such as cancers.
Tush was a very strong dog with a very high threshold for discomfort. She had ruptured a ligament in her knee and would hardly even whine. So when she started acting lethargic and having accidents around the house when she was only six, we were confused. We took her to the doctor, and after a slew of blood tests and scans, we learned that she had bone cancer that had progressed to an irreversible state throughout her body. Putting her down was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of our lives. We were left with the agonizing question of what we could have done to help her if we had known earlier.
The DNA tests available for pets today can help answer some of those questions. The genetic information discovered through sequencing your pet’s specific genomes can pinpoint common diseases like cancers and diabetes, or even rare ones like narcolepsy. For some people, the idea of getting a DNA test for a pet may seem like an extravagance. For others, it’s a fun gimmick to learn more about their pets. For us, after watching Tush needlessly suffer through a hidden illness, the idea of getting Honey a DNA test provides us with peace of mind. She cannot tell us if something is wrong, but through advancing DNA technology, we can now have the tools needed to provide her with the longest, healthiest life possible.