If you’re wondering what kinds of dog breeds make up the loveable mutt you recently adopted, you might opt for an at-home dog DNA test. Yup, like the ones you can do on yourself to see where your ancestors are from.
But don’t use that kit to make health decisions for your pup, experts warn.
In a recent opinion piece published in the journal Nature, three experts detail how these at-home kits shouldn’t replace in-office veterinary services.
The piece opens with an anecdote about pet owners who found out their 13-year-old pug carried a genetic mutation linked to a neurodegenerative disease. They had swabbed their dog’s spit and sent it in for a $65 dog DNA test.
After getting the results, the owners chose to put the pug to sleep, convinced that the dog would suffer paralysis and “eventual death” from the condition.
But there’s no guarantee that the dog would have actually gotten the disease, explained co-author Lisa Moses, a veterinarian at the MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center and a bioethicist research scholar with the Harvard Center for Bioethics.
Should you do a dog DNA test for your pet?
Though vets have had access to dog DNA tests for a while, there are still unknowns, especially with the at-home kits, about what the data means. There are crucial scientific questions to understand before you can use the results to make a medical decision for an animal.
“Like, if you are looking at a mutation you think is associated with neurological disease, how many dogs with the mutation actually end up getting sick?” Moses said. “We still don’t know the answer.”
Many individuals with a certain genetic mutation never get sick, she explained, and for any given genetic disease, there are a lot of other factors besides one gene mutation that determine whether or not someone, or some animal, will fall ill.
So until it’s known just how many dogs of a certain breed are likely to get a disease if they have one genetic mutation, “it’s really hard to know whether the [dog DNA test result] means anything or not.”
In an statement sent to Metro, Ryan Boyko, CEO of Embark (one of the leading consumer dog DNA test companies) said that Embark’s test results are at least 99.99 percent accurate, but that dog owners should then bring that information to their vet, not make medical decisions completely on their own.
“Genetic testing results can be very useful for veterinarians to help better assess symptoms in a dog or to guide clinical care in certain situations,” he said. “Many of the mutations tested are highly predictive of certain health problems, and knowing that can help a pet owners and veterinarians come to a diagnosis more quickly when a dog starts exhibiting symptoms. … These results do not substitute for a veterinarian though and not every condition is genetic or able to be tested for.”
For a dog DNA test, all you need to do is swab your pup’s cheek. Photo: Getty Images
And, he added, making “inappropriate conclusions” from your dog DNA test results can actually be harmful. The problem, Moses said, is that the average vet may not even know what to do with that information or how to correctly interpret dog DNA test results because they’re not a genetics expert.
On top of that, vets don’t know exactly how these companies are doing their tests, because the companies don’t have to disclose that information. Companies tend to be vague about what specific genetic variant they are even testing for, per the Nature piece.
So, what if you already sent in your pup’s cheek swab, or planned on ordering a dog DNA test kit?
“What I would say is if you want to do it for fun, do it for fun but don’t make medical decisions and don’t ask your veterinarian to make medical decisions based on the results,” Moses said.
“Good old regular check ups and watching carefully for things that happen to your dog that you weren’t expecting are far better ways to take care of your dog at this point,” she added. “We really, really, really hope that we’re going to advance in the way dog DNA tests] are being done so that we can use them, but we’re not there yet.”