Pet DNA Test: Is Dog and Cat Genetic Testing Worth It?
Maybe you’ve thought about doing a pet DNA test. These tests, which can be easily performed at home by pet parents, are becoming more and more popular.
But, how valuable — and how accurate — are these pet DNA tests? What can they tell you about your dog or cat's heritage or health? And which pet DNA test is the best?
Read on to learn more about whether DNA testing for your pet is worth it, and how to choose the best test for your needs.
What Is Pet DNA Testing?
Pet DNA tests for pets can analyze a variety of factors in your pet’s DNA, or genetic code — everything from which breed(s) they are, what their ancestral lineage is like, who their modern genetic relatives are (yes, some tests can connect you to pups who share your dog’s DNA!), and how their genetic makeup can affect their health and behavior.
So, DNA tests for dogs and cats can be used to learn more about your furry friend, get some insights into their behavioral patterns and needs, and potentially improve their long-term health by learning more about their future health risks.
What Can Pet DNA Testing Tell You?
Some pet parents buy DNA tests solely to see their dog or cat’s breed makeup. Some tests can also give you insights into your pet’s expected height and weight, fur type and length, color pattern, and other physical traits. This can be done purely for fun — so you’ll have an interesting answer the next time someone at the dog park asks you what breed your rescue pup is. But it can also provide some health and personality insights.
For example, different breeds may have different behavioral tendencies, such as barking at animals they see outside the window, needing additional exercise, etc. Knowing some of these behavior patterns could help a pet parent know what to expect and guide them in providing their furry best friend with exactly the type of enrichment they need.
Also, certain breeds are more prone to certain genetic diseases. If you know your dog or cat’s breed makeup, you might be able to detect subtle symptoms or test for a health condition to provide as much preventive treatment as possible.
Some pet DNA tests take this one step further by evaluating the DNA of pets for markers of genetic diseases. This includes conditions such as drug sensitivities, certain types of neurological conditions, or bleeding disorders.
Remember: Being “at risk” for a health condition doesn’t mean that a pet will develop that condition. Fortunately, many pets never do!
Your veterinarian can help you make sense of how the results of the genetic test apply to your individual pet. A genetic risk for a disease may or may not ever affect your pet in their lifetime. But in some cases, additional tests or monitoring may be recommended, which (depending on the specific condition) may allow for earlier detection and better treatment options.
How Does Pet DNA Testing Work?
Most tests work in roughly the same way. You start by ordering your preferred dog or cat DNA test, which is then shipped to your home.
You should follow the testing instructions in your kit exactly. But generally, here’s what to expect:
- Register your pet in the testing company’s system. Then, perform a cheek swab using the materials provided, and mail in the sample for analysis. Some kits may instruct you to keep your pet away from food and other animals for a certain amount of time prior to obtaining the cheek swab, to avoid cross-contamination.
- Depending on the test, it’s also possible to have your veterinarian draw a blood sample. Compared to the cheek swab, some prefer a blood sample because it ensures a large, uncontaminated sample of DNA.
- Next comes some waiting time while your furry friend’s sample is processed and analyzed. Depending on which test you use, the wait can be anywhere from one week to a couple of months.
- After that, you’ll receive a report of your pet’s genetic makeup results, which is typically available via a PDF or an online portal.
What If My Pet’s DNA Test Shows They’re at Risk of a Genetic Disease?
Once you receive your pet’s results, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about anything that concerns you. Some companies also have support lines for any questions you may have regarding the results.
It’s important to remember that there’s still a lot that is unknown about how genetic markers in cats and dogs add up to disease development in real life.
Your pet could be a carrier of a disease, but never actually develop that disease (so, there’s no reason to panic until you learn more).
If they are at a higher risk of being affected by the disease, then knowledge is power. Knowing about the risk may lead to earlier detection and intervention, and therefore, potentially better care and quality of life for your pet even if they do develop the condition.
Your vet can help you determine whether any additional testing is necessary to confirm certain health conditions, and whether any preventive measures can be taken.
Given the gaps in pet DNA science, it’s possible there might not always be a simple answer or solution. Your vet knows your individual pet and can make the best possible plan for them.
It’s also important to remember that not all diseases have a known genetic basis. Therefore, unfortunately, a lack of genetic markers of disease does not guarantee a clean bill of health.
In other words, DNA testing for your dog or cat isn’t a definitive solution to predicting or preventing disease. Instead, it’s one tool in your toolbelt when it comes to your pet’s care.
Are Cat and Dog DNA Tests Accurate?
The short answer is: There is room for improvement.
While DNA testing is becoming more and more advanced all the time — for humans and pets alike — relatively speaking, pet DNA testing is still far from being perfected. A lot of valuable information can be gained from these tests, but there are also potential errors, inconsistencies, and pitfalls.
Since different companies use different methodologies, it’s not uncommon for an individual dog (especially one that’s a very mixed breed) to get different breed results on DNA tests from different companies. Additionally, genetic testing can’t be used to register a dog with the AKC, as that would require documented proof of lineage.
Due to proprietary information, pet DNA testing companies don’t necessarily publish or share their methodologies — which makes it hard for experts outside the companies to analyze their process objectively.
DNA testing for pets is not regulated, and there is a lack of independent, peer-reviewed studies to confirm their accuracy.
That’s not to say the results aren’t accurate… It’s simply to say that dog and cat parents might want to take the results with a grain of salt.
As time goes on, the technology will probably continue to get better and better. So eventually, the results might be more reliable and the potential uses for these tests could expand.
Are There Any Downsides to Testing a Pet’s DNA?
Even if the test results aren’t guaranteed to be accurate, you might be thinking… What’s the harm in testing?
If the cost isn’t a concern to you, there’s unlikely to be any harm in testing your cat or dog’s DNA. And it can be a lot of fun!
However, there are a few things to consider…
One potential pitfall is worrying unnecessarily about a health problem your pet will never develop. Remember, being “at risk” for a disease doesn’t mean your pet will definitely get that condition — it may simply mean that statistically, they’re more likely than other individuals or breeds to develop that particular health problem. Plus, a pet DNA test can come back with "unknown" breed, giving you no further insight into your pet's genetic makeup (in these cases, the companies typically say they need a bigger database.)
In addition to potentially worrying for no reason, genetic testing could also lead to unnecessary, invasive, or uncomfortable tests being performed on a pet.
Plus, there are legal or practical situations where a pet DNA test could stir up conflict or obstacles.
For example, if a mixed breed dog’s DNA test comes back as a breed such as Pit Bull, that could potentially cause problems for moving into an apartment, getting a lower rate on homeowners insurance, or moving abroad to certain countries that have inflexible breed restrictions.
How Much Does Pet DNA Testing Cost?
Costs vary by brand and by how extensive the tests are, but for most panels, you can expect to pay between $60 to about $200.
Some brands offer different levels of testing — for example, one price for a test that just looks at breed makeup, with a higher charge for a test that looks at breed makeup and genetic disease risk together.
So, double check exactly what you’re ordering before making a purchase, to ensure you’re getting what you want.
Which DNA Tests Are Available for Dogs?
The biggest players in dog DNA testing are probably Embark and Wisdom Panel. Both brands claim to have over 350 breeds in their database, for improved accuracy, especially if you suspect your pup is descended from an uncommon breed.
Both of these brands also offer versions of the test that include genetic disease screening.
A popular, more budget friendly option is DNA My Dog, although their panel and breed database is less extensive.
Which DNA Tests Are Available for Cats?
Cat owners don’t have quite as many options when it comes to DNA testing. Part of the reason is that demand has not been as high, although interest seems to be increasing recently. Another reason is that cats didn’t evolve as widely (with as many breed, appearance, and size variations) as dogs did, so there aren’t as many distinct breed identifiers in their genome.
Some tests offer information on genetic markers for disease in addition to breed information, although this type of genetic disease screening is not yet as robust as it is for a pet DNA test.
Kitty guardians most frequently turn to the highly-rated Basepaws when they want to know their cat’s genetic makeup. Other popular options include Orivet and Wisdom Panel (the latter is primarily designed for breeders).
How to Choose a Pet DNA Test
Going with one of the major, well-rated brands like Embark or Wisdom Panel (or Basepaws for felines) is usually a good bet. However, depending on your goals for testing, there are other brands out there that could meet your needs.
No matter which company you go with, here are some things to consider that could affect your decision…
- Why are you testing your pet? Whether you’re testing just for fun or with the intention of learning as much as possible about your pet’s health, this will help determine which test to purchase. Look at the specifications of each test and make sure you’re ordering one that meets your needs and goals.
- How much does the test cost?
- How will you collect the DNA sample?
- How long does it take to get your dog or cat’s results?
Also, check for reviews to see if other pet parents were happy with their experience using the test.
The Bottom Line on Pet DNA Tests
DNA testing is an insightful and exciting new field, for humans and pets alike. Accessibility to these specialized tests is greater than it’s been at any previous time in history.
However, the science of pet DNA testing is not yet perfect. Errors can occur, and there are potential downsides to testing, such as worrying about a genetic disease that your pet might never actually develop.
DNA testing for dogs and cats may become more and more accurate as time goes on, but it’s not yet at its full potential. The good news is, your pet’s DNA test could help increase the accuracy of future DNA tests, because the more genetic information that is collected from pets, the easier it will be for scientists to make new discoveries and improvements.
A pet DNA test can also be great fun, especially when looking at breed makeup and heritage.
Just remember, the results are not written in stone. The clinical significance of such tests should always be evaluated via a discussion with your pet’s veterinarian, who can give you the best advice for keeping your individual pup or kitty healthy.
DNA tests are simply one of many tools that could be a part of your pet’s overall health and wellbeing plan.