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"What kind of dog is that?"
If you're the owner of an offbeat canine who's obviously a classic Heinz 57 mix of multiple breeds, you're familiar with this question. And while it’s fun to imagine which branches might be included in your particular dog’s family tree, it can be frustrating not to know.
But there’s no need to guess — or get creative — when people ask about your dog's ancestry. The answers lie in his genes.
A dog DNA test can shed some light on your mutt's heritage. And while it may seem like fun to know what kinds of dog your fur friend is descended from, there's more to DNA testing than just identifying a dog's lineage. “Knowing your dog’s breed makeup can help you tailor his training and help you be on the lookout for breed-specific diseases,” says Dr. Marty Becker. “We've had all six of our mixed-breed dogs at Almost Heaven Ranch tested for that reason.”
If you’re thinking of DNA testing for your dog, here’s what to consider.
A basic dog DNA kit includes everything you'll need to prepare a sample for testing. The process is pretty simple: In most cases, you will swab the inside of your dog’s cheek with the provided brush for up to a minute to collect cheek cells in saliva containing DNA. Some kits ask for blood samples, which will need to be drawn at your veterinarian’s office. While blood samples yield larger amounts of DNA, both blood and saliva provide accurate results. For genotyping — the process of determining an individual’s unique genetic makeup — DNA from saliva is sufficient. “Assuming a sample has enough DNA, there’s no difference to us analyzing genotyping data from a saliva and blood sample,” says Adam Boyko, Ph.D., an assistant professor in biomedical sciences at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and founder and chief science officer of Embark Veterinary, a canine genetic-testing company.
Once you have collected your samples, you'll mail them back (in the provided packaging) for analysis at a laboratory.
When the sample arrives at the lab, the DNA is extracted and examined for genetic markers — areas where a dog’s DNA varies — from breed databases. Your dog’s DNA is compared with that of other dogs in the database. “All dog DNA tests on the market today have reference panels of breed dogs that encompass the vast majority of dog registrations in the U.S. and Europe,” Dr. Boyko says. The latest version of the Mars Wisdom Panel, for instance, covers more than 250 breeds, types and varieties of dogs. The test was developed with samples from more than 13,000 purebred dogs and has 1,800 genetic markers.
Embark's test includes more than 150 breeds of dogs, as well as wolves, coyotes and “village dogs,” which are indigenous semi-feral dogs found around the world. The “chip” on which the test is run has more than 200,000 markers.
A test’s accuracy depends on numerous factors, including the number of markers used, the number of breeds included in the breed panel and the sophistication of the algorithms. For example, some tests may have breed panels with only 50 or 60 breeds. Their results will not be as detailed or accurate as those with 100 or more breeds.
“Mixed-breed DNA tests are as accurate as the diversity of samples they are based on and the computerized algorithms used to generate the results,” says Jerold S. Bell, DVM, a canine geneticist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Dogs that are first-generation offspring of two pure breeds will have the most accurate results.”
Depending on the test, results generally take two to eight weeks to arrive.
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