30, 2007 -- From LA TIMES
Thing In Pet Services: Doggy DNA Testing
By KAREN KAPLAN
The Wilson family had puzzled over their mutt Drake's distinctive
behavior since they brought him home from the Washington Animal
Rescue League four years ago.
Workers at the shelter told them the dog was a mix of spaniel and
Plott hound. But his propensity to leap over 4-foot fences and herd
family members as if they were livestock had them thinking border
collie. The answer to Drake's past came in the form of a $65 DNA test
that promised to scour his genes for signs of the breeds in his
"We were always curious as to what breeds went together to create
him," Marcy Wilson said. "We just assumed we could never find out."
Not long ago, genetic testing was a rarefied pursuit used
primarily to settle paternity suits, diagnose medical conditions and
identify rapists and killers. Now DNA testing has gone to the dogs. With sequencing technology
becoming less expensive, dog owners are having their pets tested -
and sometimes finding that unraveling the mysteries of their genetic
code can be a mixed blessing.
For less money than a luxury shampoo and doggy massage, owners of
Canis familiaris can uncover their pooch's ancestry or take an
inventory of its constituent breeds. The tests can also reveal
debilitating health problems and other genetic surprises.
"If you're an animal lover, you can't resist this," said Jan
Lovelady, a nurse administrator in Gilbert, Ariz., who had her
mutt's DNA analyzed to see which breeds were in his lineage.
Half a dozen or so dog DNA analysis companies have sprouted
across the U.S., and peddle their services at dog shows and over the
Internet. The companies guard their sales figures closely, but each
claims to have tested several hundred to several thousand dogs. The DNA of 400,000 purebred dams and sires has been registered
with the American Kennel Club, which has required breeders to submit
genetic samples since 1998.
But the rush to genetically type man's best friends has raised
many of the same concerns as the typing of man himself. "It's one more way of codifying the American cultural belief in
genes as the foundation of everything important," said Donna
Haraway, a historian of science and culture at the University of
California, Santa Cruz. "I find it mildly disgusting." Then again, as the proud owner of two dogs, she added: "I might
actually buy such a test."
Dog DNA tests generally fall into three categories: proof of
maternity or paternity, genealogy, and identification of mutations
associated with disease. Genetic tests are available for other
animals - to determine the sex of birds, for instance, or the coat
color that cats may pass to their kittens. Far more can be gleaned about dogs because of their use in
medical research for human diseases, including cancer, heart
disease, blindness, epilepsy and diabetes. The complete dog genome
was published in 2005, making it the fifth mammalian genome decoded,
after humans, mice, rats and chimpanzees.
The earliest consumer tests stemmed from the American Kennel
Club's attempts to ensure the validity of pedigrees for 155 breeds
For many dog owners, the allure of peering into DNA stems from a
simpler desire. No matter how well they think they know their dog,
there is always a sense of mystery about them. Rob and Carole Sims of Morrisville, N.C., turned to DNA to answer
a question that had stumped them for years: How could their two
golden retrievers - born of the same mother and father - be so
maddeningly different? Liberty was gentle, mild-mannered and easy to train; Justice was
the complete opposite. It drove the Simses crazy. Had there been a mix-up at the kennel? Did they take home the
Rob Sims mailed swabs from the dogs' cheeks to a lab in Ohio that
charged $35 for each test. The results arrived 10 days later. "As soon as you open the report, it's crystal clear - they're
sisters," he said. The DNA results did little to explain why the sisters were so
different. But it helped him to accept Justice for the dog that she
is. As the dogs have grown, he has even come to embrace their
A more elaborate test was necessary to parse out the various
breeds that made up Marcy and Rip Wilsons' dog, Drake. Tests to determine various breeds examine specific points in a
dog's DNA and look for signature patterns that are known to be
correlated with specific breeds.
"It's just like when people say, `Where'd your ancestors come
from?'" said Elaine Ostrander, who helped develop one such test
while searching for genes to study cancer in dogs at the Fred
Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
The result is a blood test that can detect DNA contributions from
134 recognized breeds. Mars Veterinary will begin selling it through
vet offices in July under the name Wisdom Panel. The Wilsons used a $65 Canine Heritage Breed Test from MMI
Genomics Inc. of Davis, Calif. The test looks at 96 points and can
identify 38 breeds that encompass 75 percent of all dogs.
"We always thought he was a border collie," Marcy Wilson said.
"If we go anywhere near the foyer of the house, he will come from
whatever room he's in and try to herd us out the door."
While they waited for Drake's test results, the four family
members placed $1 bets on his true heritage. "We were all guessing border collie, chow and lower levels of lab
and spaniel," Marcy Wilson said.
They were right about the Labrador and spaniel genes, but none of
them expected that the test would conclude he was more Siberian
husky than anything else. After the results came in, Rip Wilson spent hours reading up on
huskies to better understand his dog's true nature. In retrospect, said the biotech executive, the family shouldn't
have been so surprised. Drake's proclivity for digging holes near
the backyard azalea bush turned out to be a characteristic husky
And that's not all. "He adores the snow - he'll just hang outside in the snow for
hours," Rip Wilson said. "I never clued in on it."
How Can You Test
Testing your lovable mutt will cost $65
plus $6.95 shipping and handling. You can order a test from
the company's website,
www.canineheritage.com. The test kit should
arrive in 3-7 days. You will collect the DNA sample at your
house by following the simple directions. (You will not need
to go to your veterinarian's office -- you do it yourself!).
You will receive a soft-bristled brush which you rub on the inside
of your dog's cheek to collect cells. There is video footage
of this procedure on the website if needed. You will also
receive written cell collection instructions with the test.
Then, you simply submit the swab sample back to MetaMorphix in a
pre-paid envelope, and results will be returned in four to six
The company has genetically identified
and certified 38 common, canine breeds. If any of these
validated breeds are present in the composition of your mixed breed,
they will be listed in one of three categories: