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Dog DNA Test: Should You Try One?

Woman holding a mixed-breed puppy
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During the short time dog DNA tests have been made available to the public, they’ve surged in popularity. These tests give important clues about a pup’s ancestry and predisposition to disease, which is especially helpful if you don’t know much about your dog’s past. 

While dog DNA test kits can be useful, they also have their limitations, experts say.

Let’s walk through what you need to know about dog DNA tests, including how to choose the right one for you and your pup.

Dog DNA: Understanding the Basics

Strand of DNA

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) is an instruction manual that determines the traits of every living being. 

“DNA encodes all genetic information and is the blueprint from which all biological life is created,” explains Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC). “Think of DNA as a storage device which allows the blueprint of life to be passed between generations.”

The chemical makeup of the DNA molecule is the same in both dogs and humans (and all animals). It’s comprised of a phosphate and sugar backbone, and four bases called adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). The key difference is that these bases (As, Cs, Gs, Ts) are ordered differently in every species.

Despite these differences, 84 percent of human and dog DNA is identical. Dog DNA contains 22,000 genes, about the same number as human DNA, says Dr. Jessica Hekman, a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and owner of The Dog Zombie.   

“Each gene is very similar between dog and human, with small differences,” she explains. “For example, a gene might be several thousand letters long, and be the same between dog and human for all but a hundred or so of those letters. As it happens, humans package our DNA into 23 chromosomes, and dogs into 39.” 

What is a Dog DNA Test?

Man swabbing dog's mouth for DNA test

Dog DNA tests are at-home kits that allow pet parents to gain insight into their dog’s breed and ancestry, or genetic predispositions for certain health conditions. 

Since first being made available to the public in 2007, dog DNA tests have grown in popularity, as well as in sophistication. “There are a lot of different kinds of technology for doing a genetic test,” says Hekman. “The one that’s changed the most recently is called a microarray. It’s a way of looking at a large number of locations across the DNA all at once.”

This allows the testing company to offer a large panel of health tests that can be run together, instead of having to purchase them separately, she explains. “The microarray isn’t individualized, so it will include breed-specific tests not relevant to your dog,” she says. “But it is a huge step forward in testing, to be able to get all this information in one test.”

The major dog DNA testing companies offer two main categories of services: a dog breed DNA test component, and tests to identify risks for genetically-based diseases. 

Knowing your dog’s breed mix makes it easier to identify diseases they might be predisposed to, so that you can work to take preventive measures.

How Dog DNA Tests Work

dog DNA testing swab

With an at-home dog DNA test, you use the enclosed swab to collect saliva and cells from inside the dog’s cheek, says Klein. 

“From the collected samples, technicians manually extract and process the DNA out of the cheek swab into their company’s database, comparing your dog’s sample with that of various purebred dog breeds that are present in that database,” he says. “A report is then generated and sent back to the owner.”

If you get your dog’s DNA tested at a veterinary clinic, your veterinarian may draw a blood sample instead of collecting saliva, which Klein says guarantees a larger amount of DNA present to submit for analysis.

Another difference between a veterinary and DIY test is the type of questions asked. “A veterinarian will perform a specific DNA test if they have a specific question in mind, and will know how to interpret the test,” says Hekman. “At-home tests tend to be broader, along the lines of ‘Let’s ask a lot of health questions and see what comes up’ or ‘I want to know what my dog’s ancestry is.’

Dog DNA Test Kit: What’s Included

While the contents of dog DNA test kits vary by type and manufacturer, they generally include the following contents.

  •     Instructions on how to use the kit and activate it online, obtain the DNA sample, and return the sample for testing.
  •     1 or 2 sterile swabs, used for collecting saliva and cell samples from your dog’s cheeks.
  •     A container to store the swab after you’ve swiped the sample from your dog’s cheeks. This could be a plastic bag, an envelope, or the original sleeve that the swab was packaged in.
  •     A container and a prepaid shipping label for returning the sample.

How to Use a Dog DNA Test Kit

Instructions vary by kit but the protocol for using them is generally the same. 

Most kits offer one or two swabs that are inserted into the mouth of a dog who has not eaten or come into contact with another dog for about two to four hours,” says Klein. “The swabs are meant to gently rub the inside of your dog’s cheek for about 20 seconds in hopes of obtaining some cells and saliva.”

Once you’ve obtained the sample(s), you place it in the provided container and ship it to the testing company. The samples remain stable in extreme temperatures.

Quick Tip: Getting a DNA Sample From Your Dog

Most dogs are uncomfortable with having their heads restrained for swabbing, says Hekman. “It’s actually pretty easy to just sort of slide the swab in to the side of the mouth rather than having to crank a dog’s jaw open and swab the inside of the cheek.”

How Accurate Are Dog DNA Tests?

Mixed breed dog in grass

Dog DNA testing is a relatively new field. The first high-quality gene sequence of a dog (a Boxer) was published in 2004, and in 2007 DNA testing kits were made available to the public. Although the technology continues to improve, they’re not something veterinarians currently rely on heavily for diagnostic purposes, says Hekman. 

“At-home DNA tests should be considered first as a fun and interesting way to discover your dog’s breed descendants or ‘family history,’ though test results can vary from company to company,” says Klein.  

Accuracy depends on a number of factors. These are two of the most important considerations:

The Strength of the Breed Database

“Most companies will have reference samples from the most common dog breeds but may lack sufficiently diverse samples of the less common breeds and the rare breeds,” says Klein. “For that matter, it will be difficult for most companies that sell these products to have reference databases that fully represent even some common breeds because of normal genetic drift that happens with separated sub-populations of a breed.”

This also applies to disease testing. The research and study of various diseases in both dogs and humans is very dynamic, says Klein. “Searching for genetic variants that may be associated with more refined patterns—such as certain behavior or disease—is constantly evolving.”

The Number and Placement of the Genetic Markers 

“It’s impossible for these panels to look at all of your dog’s DNA—there’s too much of it—so they look at select spots across the DNA. These spots are called markers,” says Hekman. “The more markers a panel has, the better it will be at finding small bits of ancestry.”

Hekman adds that a test with more markers will be more accurate for mixed-breed dogs. 

In terms of health testing, the actual test itself is extremely accurate for identifying a particular gene mutation, says Hekman. “But what that means is another thing,” she says. 

Hekman uses the example of degenerative myelopathy (DM) as an example. DM is a disease that leads to the inability to walk and control the bladder and it eventually causes death in dogs that develop the disease. DNA tests for DM are good at telling if the mutation associated with DM is in a particular dog. 

“However, not all dogs with that mutation will develop DM,” says Hekman. “Those with the mutation are at a higher risk of developing it, but they aren’t definitely going to get it.”

Dog DNA Tests: How to Read the Results

Woman reading computer screen with dog

Most dog DNA test results are easy to read and interpret, says Klein, but he adds that they should be used with discretion. 

Like Hekman mentioned previously, just because some tests show a genetic predisposition toward a certain medical condition does not mean a dog will go on to develop that condition or disease. “While some companies will offer tests that screen for genetic predisposition toward a certain medical condition, one should caution against interpreting a positive result, as that does not mean that a dog will necessarily develop that disease,” says Klein. 

Hekman recommends that if you have a question about health-related results of a dog DNA test, you should speak to someone to help make sense of the information.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of talking to an expert to interpret the results of health testing, and also the importance of not attributing any breed behaviors to your dog based only on breed ancestry,” she says. “It’s easy for us to get these test results and come to conclusions that are wrong, and that can be detrimental to our dogs.”

You can always ask your veterinarian for help with interpreting the results, but Hekman says few are trained in dog genetic testing. “Your best bet, if you have a dog with a positive test, is to call the testing company and ask to speak to a veterinarian or geneticist on staff there about what it means and whether you should be concerned.”

Dog DNA Test Kits: Top Brands

Embark Veterinary and Wisdom Panel (owned by Mars Petcare) are among the major dog DNA testing companies. While both offer both ancestry and health testing, each offers unique features.

Pet DNA tests generally follow the same testing protocol: Activate the kit, no food or contact with other dogs prior to the test, swab for saliva, let the sample dry, then ship the sample to the company and wait for the results. As kits vary by manufacturer, it’s still important to follow the instructions.

Cost: How Much is a Dog DNA Test?

Prices for dog DNA test kits currently range from about $69 to $225. “The difference in kits usually is the result of having access to a larger breed database to pool information, from about 100 breeds in the less expensive ones to up to 250 in the more expensive tests,” says Klein. 

The more expensive kits may also offer insight into other information besides your dog’s breed history, such as health screening or breed disease risks, Klein adds.

Choosing the Best DNA Test for Your Dog

Choosing the right DNA test for your dog depends on the type of information you’re looking for. Decide what type of information you’re seeking and how much detail you need. For example, do you simply want to learn more about your dog’s ancestry, or do you want to know if they might be at risk for certain diseases?

If you do purchase a kit to learn about your dog’s health, consult a professional. “A dog owner might want to consult with their veterinarian before purchasing tests that purports to provide health analysis and should certainly discuss the results obtained with their veterinarian,” says Klein. You can also speak to a dog geneticist for more information on the results. 

Be sure the testing company has a database containing a wide spectrum of breeds. “The accuracy of DNA tests will rely primarily on the strength of the reference database owned by the testing company,” says Klein. 

Finally, opt for a kit that tests for a large number of markers, says Hekman. Tests with more markers will be able to identify a larger number of breeds, which increases the accuracy of the results.