What can DNA tests tell us about our pets?

What can DNA tests tell us about our pets?

Type “dog” and “DNA” into your browser and you'll find a slew of companies offering to provide you with the genetic profile of your pet. Is it worth it?

April 3, 2019

In 2005, scientists decoded the full canine genome sequence. Thanks to this discovery, dog owners can now discover their pet's genetic makeup with easy-to-use DNA tests. Dr David Silversides, professor at the Faculty of veterinary medicine at the Université de Montréal in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, and Scientific director of Laboratoire de génétique vétérinaire (Labgenvet), spoke with us about these tests and their usefulness.

Pawsie: What is the main benefit of examining a dog's DNA?
Dr David Silversides:
“DNA is the basic code, if you will, for the creation and behaviour of all living beings. For 150 years now, humans have cross-bred dogs, producing more than 400 breeds. But this cross-breeding has also caused genetic mutations that are responsible for several illnesses. In many cases, animals that carry a defective gene are in perfectly good health. But if they are bred with other carriers, their offspring will likely get sick from the associated disease. A better understanding of their DNA could eradicate this problem.”

What type of illnesses are we talking about?
“There are hundreds of them, but some are more prevalent than others, such as certain forms of dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, which is a dysfunction of the nervous system comparable to Lou Gehrig's disease in humans—German Shepherds are particularly prone to it. The problem is that very often, once we realize that an animal is suffering from the disease, it's too late because he's already passed on his genetic code to the next generation.”

How do the tests we see advertised on the internet work?
“All you have to do is take a saliva sample from your dog by rubbing a small brush or cotton swab between his cheek and gums. Once the swab, or sample, is dry, you put it in an envelope and send it to a lab along with some forms you have to fill out. Here at Labgenvet, we usually send results back to owners by email within 10 days, and the cost is $75 per test.”

How reliable are the tests?
“Technology that seeks to bring disease-causing genetic mutations to light is proven, and the test results are therefore generally quite accurate. However, there is much more uncertainty when it comes to the tests promising to identify your dog's exact breed. If you want to better understand your dog's behaviour, for example, these tests may not be of great help. I don't want to tell dog owners not to do these kinds of tests, I'm just saying they should do it for fun and not look to obtain any sound scientific data from them.”

What do genetic discoveries portend for the future?
“Thanks to DNA testing, we are now able to obtain data related to the risks of transmitting genetic diseases among animals. The goal remains to eradicate the defects that cause them, but there's still a lot of work to be done. We must educate and raise awareness among breeders, kennel clubs, veterinarians and dog owners so that all parties demand better scrutiny over the breeding process. My role is to provide access to DNA tests, hoping they'll be put to good use.”

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