Image: Getty / Capuski
Human DNA tests are all the rage right now, and for good reason—it's fun to know who your ancestors were, and it can help flag any concerning genetics that you might not have known about, all from a simple swab from inside your cheek or a few drops of saliva. So it's not too surprising that dog DNA kits, with their promises to identify your mutt's mystery ancestry, have also gotten to be popular among dog owners. But those tests can be pricey—some cost as much as a couple hundred dollars. So you have to ask yourself: Is the dog-parent brag you'll be able to drop at doggie daycare about your pooch's ancestors worth it? It might be, but here's what you should know before trying to piece together your pet's past.
What will a genetic test tell you about your pet?
Some tests can screen for up to 160 genetic markers of health conditions, including exercise-induced collapse, bladder stones and a multidrug resistance gene commonly found in herding breeds (such as border collies and German shepherds). Dogs with this mutation can have adverse reactions to certain antibiotics, pain medications and anesthetics—information that can be lifesaving, says Marty Becker, D.V.M., author of Your Dog: The Owner's Manual.
Knowing your pet's genetic makeup can be helpful. But be aware that the science of canine DNA is still evolving and these tests can only identify known genetic mutations at the time your dog is screened. And even if the results turn up something, it doesn't mean he'll get it. "There's a very big difference between having a mutation and how likely your animal is to develop a disease," says Lisa Moses, V.M.D., a veterinarian at MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center and a research scholar at Harvard School of Medicine's Center for Bioethics.
Find the DNA test with the largest breed database.
As for IDing your pooch's pedigree, accuracy can vary. DNA tests compare your dog's genetics to a company reference bank. There are more than 340 known dog breeds in the world, and some companies have nearly all of them in their reference bank, while others don't. "I've seen patients who have different breed determination results from different tests," says Moses. Check the company's website to see how many breeds are on their list.
Use your dog's DNA results to his advantage.
One surprising and valuable insight that a DNA test can reveal? "You can look at certain breed characteristics and use that information to tailor enrichment activities to be a better pet owner," says Becker. If your pup is part beagle, for example, playing scent-tracking games can engage her inner hound (and also let you know she has a propensity to wander). Or if you find out you have a pug-mix, you'll know he may need more motivation to exercise and to watch out for weight gain, which the breed is known for.
Is a DNA test worth it?
Ultimately, vets disagree on the usefulness of this tool. Some, including Moses, think it's too soon to make decisions based on results from home genetics tests, because a dog's health outcome or personality isn't totally spelled out in his DNA. "I don't want to prejudge a dog on the basis of one of these tests," she says. Others, like Becker, say the more information you and your vet have about your pup, the better. He adds: "Anything we can do to help our dogs live a happy, healthy life we want to do." Bottom line: If you're curious about your pet's background and don't mind paying a little money, go for it. If nothing else, it's something to talk about the next time it's your turn to do doggie pickup or dropoff.