Pet Doctor: Is there a place for DNA testing in dogs?

By Dr. Chris Duke

About once a month, a client will ask a question that isn't really clinical, but just interesting. Pertaining to mixed-breed dogs in particular, is sending in hair, saliva or blood samples useful in determining the breed mix in a certain dog?

Up until now, I've been ambivalent on the subject and have given such responses as "does it really matter?" or "if you want to spend money on it, go ahead -- but it makes no difference to me." But a new company is rolling out a testing service on both mixed and pure-bred dogs with a different perspective.

Embark (gotta love the "bark" part of the name), is making available a saliva submission test to see not only the genetic makeup of a particular dog, but also look at breed markers to establish risk against certain congenital or developmental conditions. According to GenomeWeb and reported recently in the Brakke Animal Health e-Newsletter, the Embark DNA test will not only serve as mechanism with which to assess breed origin and ancestry, but also define disease risk and heritable traits of the dogs tested.

If we think through on this rationale, we would be better equipped to make hardline recommendations on spay/neuter -- let's say, as opposed to allowing for breeding in a given individual dog. Furthermore, specific blood tests and/or imaging could be done on a regular basis to track any suspicions that might have been raised by certain heritable diseases in a given blood line. The Golden Retriever Project based at Texas A & M, for example is one such program, monitoring cancer incidences reported by pet owners over a span of years. More and more breeds, I believe, will have similar organized programs in the future, with regular testing, bloodwork and imaging protocols.

The goal, of course, is to have dogs that live longer, fuller lives as a result of genetic selection and preventive medicine.

The Embark testing service will not be for everyone, as the stated cost of their DNA testing program is $199. This is a significantly higher cost as opposed to the first-generation DNA testing services for dogs that only stated percentages of purebred traits from submitted samples and, according to some consumers, were questionable in their results. For client convenience, the service includes a mobile app. My understanding is that once the sample is mailed in, results will be reported to the pet owner within four weeks.

The service should be available directly to the pet-owning public soon, according to their website,

As a veterinarian, I would like to be aware of such test results so that I can help follow through on the necessary medical recommendations for the pet afterwards.

As always, we need to work in partnership with dog owners to achieve the desired full, long life everyone wants.

Have a great week with your pets!

Dr. Chris Duke, a veterinarian at Bienville Animal Medical Center in Ocean Springs, encourages questions for this column. Write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach, MS 39560, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.