Learning About Your Pet’s Genetic Traits

By Dr. Laura Hady

My new year’s resolution was to find out more about my own genetic traits as well as those of my three mixed breed rescue dogs and two cats. Both pets and human genes are made up of compacted deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). How animals look and act are shaped by genetic traits and by the environment in which they live. I have decided to research many of the new companies providing not only breed information but also health information for our beloved family members. The following are some tips and details about the tests that are available.

  • Blood or saliva? Some tests, such as the Royal Canin DNA test, require a blood sample to be taken by your family veterinarian. Others, including Wisdom Panel essential Dog DNA Kit and the Embark Breed & Health Kit, utilize a swab that collects DNA from the cheek via saliva. While saliva is easier to collect than blood, it contains more bacteria than blood, which may increase the risk of contamination in the sample before analysis. Also, it may be easier to collect saliva and cheek swab DNA from large breed dogs versus a small breed animal or puppy/kitten. However, most experts agree that both blood and saliva will reveal fairly accurate results. Tests tend to cost from $85 to $130.
  • Explaining breeds and genetics. DNA testing tells us far less about cats than it does about dogs because of the different ways the species were domesticated. Humans actively domesticated dogs many thousands of years ago. Dogs were selected for their abilities to perform such tasks as guarding, herding, and companionship. This type of selection for specific physical and personality traits led to the development of several dog breeds. Think of the difference between a chihuahua and a Great Dane. Cats, however, sort of domesticated themselves, meaning that development of specific cat breeds based on size, markings, and personality traits did not develop until about 150 years ago. About 90 percent of domestic cats have no purebred bloodline, which means they act and look just like their ancestors.
  • Other health issues that a DNA test can reveal. Although most of us are interested in the composition of breeds in our mixed breed pets, DNA tests can also reveal potential health issues. For example, dog DNA blood tests can test for canine allergies, congenital deafness or blindness, heartworm disease, tick-borne disease, and sex determination for puppies.
  • What about DNA tests for cats? Two leading cat DNA tests are produced by Basepaws and the Wisdom Panel. The interesting thing about testing cat DNA is that most cats will have almost identical genetics. For example, my rescue, Fluffy, who looks to be part Maine Coon, has very similar genes to my dilute Calico rescue, Gouda.
  • What if my veterinarian disagrees with the genetic analysis? I think it is interesting when I walk into an exam room and see a dog or cat that looks and acts like a certain breed, but the DNA test reveal a different combination of breeds than I predicted. I am not as accurate as the testing, but my advice is to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations about certain breeds being more prone to having certain behaviors and health issues.

To test my pets, I opted for a saliva-based test for both my cats and dogs. Keep an eye out for next month’s column as I reveal some of the findings about my personal pets. Of course, no matter what they show, I will still love my pets for the constant entertainment and companionship that they bring to me.

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