A DNA test on your dog can uncover secrets of its family tree

Written by Monique Butterworth for Australian Seniors

Ever looked deeply into the big, brown eyes of your best friend, a hound of dubious parentage, and wondered – is he a bit Bernese mountain dog with a side of schnauzer? Perhaps a dash of dachshund with a hint of Himalayan sheepdog? Well, wonder no more.

Now more accessible and affordable, dog (and cat) DNA testing kits mean that owners can discover the genetic traits, breed makeup and parentage of their pet and, most importantly, they can use this knowledge to screen for genetic diseases their pooch may have a heightened risk of developing. Unlike human ancestry DNA kits, you won’t uncover your pet’s Viking heritage or penchant for all things French, but you can trace their breed ancestry back three generations.

Why find out my pet’s breed composition?

Dr Warwick Vale, president of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), says while animal DNA testing has been around for decades – especially for large animals such as horses and cattle for breed and heritage verification – the commercialisation of pet DNA kits has really taken off in the last five years. 

“The availability of the technology means veterinarians also have a more practical, accurate way of conducting breed identification when suspicious of diseases that have a genetic basis,” says Dr Vale. “From a pet owner’s perspective, it is a great way to discover what type of breed of dog or cat you have, if you’re unsure.”

The advantage of owning a crossbreed dog or cat can often be resilience in terms of health. “We see genetic vigour from mixed breeding and far less adverse genetic outcomes,” says Dr Vale. “These DNA kits allow you to determine breeds within your pet. From this you can discuss with your vet what diseases your pet has a higher risk of developing, so together you can develop a health management plan.” 

Are pet DNA tests accurate?

George Sofronidis, co-founder and managing director of genetic pet testing company Orivet, says the technology for screening pet DNA has increased exponentially. “Orivet has been around since 2013. We are founded on the premise that every pet is unique with their own specific traits, behaviours, genetic health needs and inherent risks,” says George. “We work with breeders, veterinarians and pet owners.”

Similar to human ancestry tests, the breed identification tests are not 100% accurate. “They are predictive based on the number of markers used and the reference database they’re assigned to. Our database has more than 330 breeds,” says George. 

“The human ancestry test is a fairly generalised test, giving you basic ancestry of where you’re from. It is different to a paternity test, which is 99.99% accurate, where you’re using maternal and paternal DNA and verifying your DNA has been derived from those two people.

“So, you cannot 100% define that the breed will be completely accurate because you can’t cover every single particular pedigree or line of that breed in the database,” says George. “It is a fun curiosity test, but it will also help you understand more about some of the behavioural and health aspects of your pet.”

How do pet DNA kits work?

Doing the test on your pet at home is straightforward. “You simply use the brush to scrape epithelial cells from the inside of the cheek. You’re scraping cells – not saliva. There are a few processes to ensure you avoid any bacterial contamination,” says George. “Some dogs like it. Some dogs don’t. Some dogs, you stick one brush in there and then it’s a challenge trying to get the other side done,” he smiles. “But if you think dogs are hard, cats are next-level.” 

Where to buy a pet DNA test

Many vets offer DNA testing services. Orivet offers a variety of pet DNA tests that are supplied in Australia and carried out at home. Well-regarded US dog DNA at-home tests, such as Embark (embarkvet.com) can be ordered online and delivered to Australia, although you will need to pay return shipping costs. Prices for home DNA tests range from about $120-$250, before shipping. 

While DNA testing kits can help you understand your pet’s behaviour a bit better, sometimes our mischievous pets can still be unpredictable! Ensure your pet’s covered for accidental injury and illness with Seniors Pet Insurance.