DNA Tests for Dogs: Are They Accurate?

From learning what breeds make up your lovable mutt to looking for markers of potential genetic disease — dog DNA tests are becoming popular. But, many pet owners wonder just how accurate these tests are. Dog DNA test accuracy can vary as many different types of tests and factors are involved in the process. Let’s explore how it all works with a deep dive into the world of canine genetic testing.

How do dog DNA tests work?

Similar to human DNA tests, dog DNA tests work by taking a biological sample from your dog and having it analyzed. Most dog DNA tests are done at home, via a cheek swab, but certain tests may also be done in your vet’s office by collecting a blood sample. Once a sample is collected, it’s sent to a laboratory to be analyzed.

DNA is extracted from the sample through a chemical process and analyzed for genetic markers (specific sequences of DNA associated with particular traits, lineage, or health conditions), this process is known as genotyping. These genetic markers are further analyzed and compared to a database of thousands, and in some cases, millions, of pieces of canine genetic information. This can be used to determine breed makeup and genetic variants that can indicate potential health risks (depending on the type of test ordered). All of this information is then compiled into a report for the owner.

What are the benefits of DNA tests for dogs?

Beyond satisfying curiosities about what breeds might make up your precious pup, dog DNA tests can be a great educational tool for dog owners. Learning more about your dog’s breed makeup can help give insight into their physical, behavioral, and nutritional needs, as well as important medical information.

It’s always a good idea to share your findings with your veterinarian. DNA test results might help map out future healthcare screenings, drug protocols, and more. Things like learning your dog has the multi-drug resistance gene (MDR1), which is common in herding breeds and can increase sensitivity to certain medications, can be vital information for your vet. DNA tests can also be helpful in determining predisposition to hip dysplasia, heart conditions, hereditary cancers, and more.

DNA tests are also used to determine the health of breeding dogs. Ethical breeders screen for certain diseases common within their breed to help ensure they are producing healthy puppies. Some dog DNA testing companies even offer specialized tests for breeders.

Are dog DNA tests accurate?

The accuracy rate of a dog DNA test can vary based on the specific test used. There are many different tests available, and the market is largely unregulated. Some dog DNA test providers boast an accuracy rate of up to 99% but you can also find conflicting news reports claiming much lower percentages or even botched results. This has led to dog DNA testing becoming a highly debated topic with both believers and skeptics.

While 100% accuracy might not be possible (yet), that doesn't mean dog DNA testing is without merit. DNA testing can be one of many tools that can help you and your vet interpret your pet's breed and health. And, from the test you choose to how the sample is collected and processed, there are things you can do to help increase the likelihood of accurate results.

Things that can impact test results

When it comes to the accuracy rates of dog DNA tests, many factors can impact test results.

  • Sample quality. Biological samples can be accidentally mishandled or contaminated. This is more likely to occur with at-home cheek swab-based test kits. Food residue or biological material from another dog in the household, especially if they lick each other, share toys, or drink from the same bowl, can all lead to contaminated samples and altered results.
  • Test types, technologies, and methods. Dog DNA testing companies can use different types of test kits, technology, and methods. They can also have different databases of genetic information. This can lead to the same dog having different results depending on the provider of the test.
  • Breed obscurity or diversity. Mixed-breed dogs, especially those with many different or rare breeds, can be harder to calculate. In some cases, owners may receive reports with terms like 'supermutt' — meaning the DNA is too far diluted to be identifiable, or 'village dog' — which can mean the dog’s ancestry leads back to stray indigenous dog populations.

Tips for getting the most accurate test results

While no test is 100% foolproof, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of accurate results.

  • Choose a reputable test company. There are many dog DNA test companies on the market. It’s best to choose one that uses the latest technology and testing techniques, has a large database, and utilizes credible laboratories. Some testing companies even partner with veterinary research universities.
  • Follow the instructions. While swabbing your pup’s cheek can seem pretty simple, it’s always a good idea to thoroughly read your test kit's instructions and follow them closely. Some tests might recommend things like swabbing the area for a specific amount of time or not swabbing right after your pet eats or drinks. Following the instructions can help ensure a quality sample and reduce potential contaminants.
  • Talk to your vet. Your veterinarian can be a great resource for choosing the proper DNA test for your dog, especially if you’re testing for health concerns. Sometimes, they may even recommend a blood DNA test, which can sometimes be more accurate, or check for things not available in at-home tests.

What can I learn from a dog DNA test?

Dog DNA test results can vary depending on what company and test you choose but most include a breed analysis or breed and health analysis. A breed analysis will typically include a breakdown of what breeds were found in your dog’s DNA with some information on predicted traits, size, and lifespan.

Health analysis results can include a wide variety of genetic health risks, such as degenerative diseases, bleeding disorders, heart conditions, drug sensitivities, and more. Hundreds of genetic variants might be tested.

Overall, dog DNA test results might help you better understand your dog’s behavior and needs. Along with your veterinarian’s input, the test results can also help you plan for your dog’s future medical care and pet insurance.

Where can I get a dog DNA test?

Dog DNA test kits are widely available online, at local pet stores, and in some veterinary clinics (you'll also find options for your feline friend). Here’s a look at some of the most popular dog DNA test brands on the market.

Wisdom Panel

One of the oldest and most trusted pet DNA testing companies on the market, Wisdom Panel, offers a variety of DNA tests for both dogs and cats with a breed database of over 365 dog breeds and 70 cat breeds. Choices include simple breed tests or more advanced breed and health screening options. Wisdom Panel also offers specialized testing available through breeders and veterinarians. Wisdom Panel claims to have a 99% accuracy rate and “the world's largest breed reference database” with millions of potential breed combinations.

Embark

A research partner of the prestigious Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Embark offers one of the most comprehensive DNA tests on the market and boasts an accuracy rate of 99%. Embark can test for over 350 breeds, 250 genetic health conditions, 35 physical traits, and even help you find relatives of your dog. Embark also offers advanced testing for breeders and veterinarians and claims to have the “most scientifically advanced dog DNA test on the market.”

DNA My Dog

Another popular brand for canine genetic testing, DNA My Dog offers an array of tests for breed, age, and health screenings for dogs. While accuracy rates of DNA My Dog could not be found on their website, the company does claim to use a leading canine genetics laboratory and has a large breed reference library.

Know Your Pet DNA by Ancestry

While new to the pet market, Ancestry has been a well-known brand in the human DNA test market for many years. Recently launching into the pet space, Ancestry offers the Know Your Pet DNA Test — one simple dog breed detection test. Know Your Pet DNA doesn’t state any accuracy rates on their website but they do claim to test against a large database of over 400 breeds.

Orivet

A leader in the global market of pet DNA testing, Orivet offers dog and cat breed and health DNA testing, as well as specialized tests for breeders and veterinarians. While accuracy rates are not stated on the Orivet website, they claim to offer some of the most advanced tests on the market and partner with several well-known animal organizations.

The future of dog DNA testing

While the accuracy of dog DNA testing isn’t perfect, one day it might be. This is a growing field of science with several studies already in the works to further analyze the canine genome.

The International Dog 10K Project is currently underway to collect genetic information from dogs all across the globe. This project, along with many others, will further expand the genetic database and offer new insights into the world of canine genetics. The future of dog DNA testing is looking bright.

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