Is Canine Genetic Testing for You?

| Jodie Otter MSW

Wondering about your dog's ancestry and breed make-up? Genetic testing helps pet owners prepare for predisposed health conditions and learn more about their pets.

Close up of a poodle

One of the worst things that can happen as a pet owner is your furry friend getting diagnosed with a serious health condition. As much as we do our due diligence to keep our pets healthy, unseen factors can affect their physical health. There’s good news though… science can offer us a glimpse into what health conditions our pets may have to face, as well as offer insights into their breed background.

What Is Genetic Testing?

The type of genes our dogs carry in their DNA play a vital role in determining their potential for certain health conditions. Like humans, dogs carry genes for everything from eye color to height, as well as other parts of their biology. However, unless your dog has an extensive pedigree, it can be hard to know precisely where their traits come from. Getting genetic testing done for your dog is the easiest way to find out more about their physical health and unique background!

Over the past few years, genetic testing has become popular among mainstream dog enthusiasts, with companies advertising at-home genetic testing kits costing upwards of $200. For many, it’s a fun way to learn about their dog’s history and see if they have anything in common with their reported ancestors. Aside from the fun factor, genetic tests offer expanded panels to explore other aspects of a dog’s genetic makeup, including predisposition to disease. Genetic testing is not a new phenomenon; even the American Kennel Club website recommends genetic tests by breed and requires health testing as part of AKC Breeder programs.

If your dog is a mixed breed, a genetic test can help identify what pure breeds contributed to their mix. Knowing this information can help you better guess your dog’s temperament, maximum size, energy levels, and other unique features. For example, suppose your mix includes a breed predisposed to back issues. In that case, you and your vet can create a preventive diet and wellness plan to try to stop the condition from becoming severe, or developing at all.

How Genetic Testing Works

You may be worried about how the test is conducted and if it will hurt your dog. A DNA test requires a sample of your dog’s cells, usually done by rubbing a sterile brush inside the cheek to collect material. Once collected, it’s submitted to a lab for analysis. Very CSI, right?

Other tests may require your veterinarian to collect a blood sample from your dog with a quick needle prick. Besides feeling a bit startled, your dog should feel no more discomfort than they usually feel when visiting the vet!

Companies that offer direct-to-consumer collection kits online will often request that you collect samples at home and then mail the sample back to the lab. Once samples have been analyzed, you’ll receive an explanation of your dog’s results through email or physical mail.

Genetic Testing Research

These direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits have been criticized as they often don’t publish their methodology. Dr. Elinor Karlsson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and expert in canine genetics, spoke to the American Kennel Club to provide some insight on how companies are using genetics research. While excited about the enthusiasm for canine genetics research, she shared that she hadn’t realized that companies were using the research to cater to dog owners. She stressed that research is still new, meaning that correlation in the research doesn’t necessarily equal causation. So, if your dog tests positive for a particular gene associated with a disease, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will end up with the condition. The American Kennel Club reported at least one instance where pet owners put their dog to sleep because the genetic tests they received were over-interpreted.

Why It's Helpful

While there are limits to the research, genetic testing is still an invaluable tool. Breeders are using the research to try and reduce the likelihood of certain conditions developing in specific breeds. For example, this type of research was able to identify the DNA behind exercise-induced collapse (EIC), allowing breeders to check if their dog is a carrier for this gene before they are bred. As another example, breed-specific conditions such as copper toxicosis in Bedlington Terriers can now also be identified using a genetic test, giving puppies a better chance of avoiding potential illness or death. Having access to information like this means you don’t have to wait for your pet to start showing symptoms before treatment or preventive measures are taken.

Trust the Experts

If you’re looking to prepare for your pet’s future, we recommend educating yourself on health conditions associated with your breed. You can also look at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals’ (OFA) Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) Program to see which screenings are recommended for your dog’s breed. Participating in human research studies and submitting samples of your dog’s DNA to OFA CHIC can also help further research in the field.

If you’re concerned your dog may have an inherited condition, pet insurance can help. AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) offers Hereditary add-on options for pets. To customize a pet insurance policy, check out our enroll tool for a quote or talk to our sales team at 1-866-725-2747.

jodie otter
Jodie Otter MSW

As an avid fan of all things that meow or bark, Jodie uses her expertise in human and animal health to have a positive impact on the well-being of pets and their owners. Jodie lives in Durham, NC with her cat, "Noodle", and two dogs, "Lilly" and "Clementine".


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