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If you’ve ever visited an animal shelter, chances are you’ve seen a lot of interesting mixed-breed dogs. Maybe your own furry friend keeps everyone at the dog park guessing. Some of us know our dog’s specific breed and heritage, but for many of us with rescue dogs, it’s not so easy. Shelter staff often have to make educated guesses as to a dog’s breed, and we may find ourselves Googling photos of various breeds to see if any seem to fit our own beloved mutt. These days, though, you can get an answer to your dog’s mystery mix. That’s thanks to the rise of the dog DNA test!
These tests compare your dog’s DNA against a database of dog breed-related genetic markers. After a simple cheek swab, dog owners send away the sample to get breed identification and find out about potential health issues or health conditions related to the canine breed(s) in their dog’s makeup.
So which dog DNA test is best? We tried out two of the top options to help you decide.
Dog DNA tests have been around for a while, and are getting more accurate all the time. There are several companies on the market. Of these, Embark is one of the most well-regarded; their Chief Scientist (and co-founder) is canine researcher and Cornell professor Adam Boyko. Wisdom Panel is also touted for its database of 250 dog breeds and computer-model algorithm to predict the most likely family tree.
In both cases, you find out breed identification for your dog’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney is a holistic house-call veterinarian based in Los Angeles. He’s started using DNA tests more often, but only for certain herding breeds, such as:
- Shetland sheepdogs
- Australian shepherds
- Cattle dogs
“Those are breeds that very commonly can have a genetic defect called a multi-drug resistance gene (MDR1) defect, where they can’t process certain medications as well,” Dr. Mahaney explains.
One medication of concern is ivermectin, which is a common anti-parasitic medication but is also included in some oral heartworm preventatives like HeartGard. Some anti-cancer agents and anti-diarrheal medications can also cause problems in dogs with the MDR1 defect.
“So if you have one of these breeds who might be predisposed to problems as a result of having to take these drugs, we would like to know,” Dr. Mahaney says. “You can do the test and figure out their genetics.”
Another issue arises with mange, which Dr. Mahaney says is typically a puppy problem that goes away with maturity and spaying or neutering.
“If you have a dog of unknown breed and it’s a puppy and you’re going to start treating for mange with oral ivermectin, there could be an adverse response if the dog has one of these herding breeds in its genetics,” Dr. Mahaney explains.
Some shelters are even starting to do DNA testing in an effort to help get pets adopted. The SPCA for Monterey County recently tested 10 long-term residents to help give prospective pet parents a better idea who they would be taking home.
“Daisy” was labeled a Chihuahua mix. Such broad labels usually mean a longer wait for a forever home.
“Chihuahuas are great little dogs with good personalities—just adorable,” Monterey County SPCA Spokesperson Beth Brookhouser says. “But you walk into a shelter like ours and you see so many Chihuahuas—there are sadly too many of them.”
It turns out Daisy is a Manchester Terrier/Miniature Pinscher mix! She waited patiently in the shelter for 171 days but found her forever home after DNA testing.
“Ten days after we shared her DNA results on Facebook, she was finally adopted by a wonderful family,” Brookhouser says.
Brookhouser says DNA may have made the difference for little Daisy.
“We posted her on Facebook before—she didn’t get many likes, shares, or comments,” Brookhouser explains. “But then we posted her again with DNA results and it was a stunning difference. It was the same photo with the DNA results but this time we had thousands of people commenting and sharing her photo. We do believe it made a very big difference and we will definitely do [DNA testing] again.”
All ten DNA-tested dogs have since been adopted.
We tested one of our mixes, Sundown, with the Mars Wisdom Panel 3.0, the company’s newest test, which tests for the MDR1 genetic mutation. Take a look at Sunny in these pictures and see if you can guess his breed:
We suspected dachshund/pit bull terrier.
The DNA kit arrived in a smallish box with a prepaid return. Two swab brushes inside are used to collect DNA from the inside of the dog’s cheek. The company suggests applying pressure from the outside of the dog’s mouth while swabbing inside the cheek to get a good DNA sampling. Wrap up the swabs, ship them off and voila!—a few weeks later you are emailed a PDF of results.
Sundown’s Results: Drum roll please…It turns out Sundown is a dachshund/terrier mix, but mainly wire-haired dachshund and rat terrier.
One of Sundown’s parents is dachshund/terrier, the other is a mixed breed. Wisdom Panel now gives the mixed-breed results as a group, rather than individual breed types. For example, Sundown’s first mixed group is “toy terrier,” which means that breed group appeared most frequently in his DNA sample, 16 times to be exact.
“It is the frequency that those breeds appear in the calculations, not a percentage make-up of the dog,” a Wisdom Panel representative says. “The genetic group is what we’re trying to convey.”
We were a little surprised at the results because Sundown does not have wiry hair and appears to resemble pit bull traits more than the test revealed.
“We always have these preconceived notions of what our pet is,” Dr. Mahaney says. “I’ve had some clients very pleased with the results and other clients want their money back.”
A Wisdom Panel customer service representative says the accuracy of the test is based entirely on the quality of the DNA sample submitted.
“If there is a good sample, it is more than 90% accurate,” she says. “If you get a poor sample, there’s a quality cut-off—it’s like missing puzzle pieces, you can’t get the whole picture.”
The representative assured us our sample was a high-quality sample, and the results are therefore accurate.
Meet Scout, the mystery rescue dog from Seattle.
Scout is a rescue who traveled all the way from Korea to Seattle as a puppy, thanks to Saving Great Animals. She was found tied up with fishing line, which had grown into her neck. She successfully survived two surgeries, and now, at 1.5 years old, there’s no sign of her injury.
Scout is smart, athletic, territorial, and super-loyal to her family, which includes her moms, her human brothers, two old cats, and her new puppy sister.
Because of her constant herding behavior in the backyard, her family was pretty sure that collie or cattle dog factored into her DNA. The Jindo is the national dog of Korea, and Scout’s curly tail and country of birth also point to Jindo heritage.
Scout’s Embark DNA Test Results
Jindo didn’t show up in Scout’s DNA results—but she did get 100% East Asian Village Dog, and since Jindo isn’t a registered breed (rather, a “landrace” breed), this doesn’t necessarily mean she doesn’t have the breed in her genes.
What didn’t show up? Collie, blue heeler, or any of the herding breeds her family thought might be involved.
Over 75% of the world’s dogs are actually considered “village dogs” rather than specific breeds. Read all about them here.
Overall, we were impressed by the level of detail from Embark and it was fun to be able to read about other dogs’ results that mirrored Scout’s.
DNA testing can be useful with certain herding breeds who may carry a genetic mutation that causes adverse reactions to some medications. But mainly, it’s a fun way to learn more about your furry friend and his lineage.
Top image via Flickr/Aura Beckjhofer-Fialho