While people in the DNA look for indications of health and heritage, the best friend of man is also under the microscope.
Genetic tests for dogs have increased enormously in recent years, fed by companies that repeat the popular tests for humans at home, and offer a deep dive into the genes of a pet with the swab of a dog's canine. More than a million dogs have been tested in just over a decade.
The increase in tests has led to a debate about standards, interpretation and limitations. But for many dog owners, DNA is a way to get to know their companions better.
"It has brought together a few pieces of the puzzle," says Lisa Topol, who recently tested her mixed dogs Plop and Schmutzy. Plop was the best scoring mix and Schmutzy also participated during the agility match on Saturday in the Westminster Kennel Club dogshow. Judging by the coveted best in show price starts Monday.
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A test by Embark – who became Westminster's first DNA test partner this fall – confirmed that Topol suspected that her pets with a high octane rating are more Australian cattle dogs than anything else. But Schmutzy's genetic pie chart contains surprising ingredients, including generous amounts of Labrador retriever and Doberman pinscher.
Huh? Topol first thought. And then: maybe Schmutzy's love of water and get her inner Lab coming out. And does she not run a bit like a Doberman?
"It's the dogs they are … They're unique, and they're special," said Topol, a New York advertising agency. But testing "makes me understand them better."
Canine DNA testing for certain conditions and purposes goes back to more than two decades, but the industry started after scientists mapped a complete set of dog genes and published the results in 2005.
Wisdom Health, part of animal care and candy giant Mars Inc., started a variety identification test in 2007, added a health screening option a few years later and says it has tested more than 1.1 million dogs worldwide. Numerous other brands are also available.
Mass market trials have fueled research and helped animal shelters to attract adoptive families by providing more information about future pets. DNA can support the origin of purebred dogs and helps breeders to eliminate certain diseases.
The technology has been used to identify dogs whose owners do not pick up their droppings, to pursue accused contributors and to free a Belgian Malinois from the dog sled after he was accused of killing a Pomeranian in Michigan. And some veterinarians feel that testing DNA improves care.
"I want to know as much as possible about my patients," says Dr. Ernie Ward, veterinarian and TV personality in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. He recommends testing all puppies.
But doubts about the DNA tree of the dog ended up in the prestigious scientific journal Nature last year.
"The genetic characteristics of the pet must be taken into account," wrote a veterinarian from Boston and two other scientists. Their commentary opened with a disturbing story: a pug was euthanized because her owners interpreted DNA results to mean that she had a rare, degenerative neurological disorder, while her illness might actually have been something treatable.
"These (tests) should be used in a limited way until we get a lot more information", says co-author and vet Dr. Lisa Moses.
One concern is that tests can demonstrate genetic mutations that are related to the disease in some breeds but have unknown effects in the tested breed. It can also be unclear how often dogs with the mutation eventually become ill.
That means that tests alone can not always tell pet owners how much they need to worry. Or tell breeders if a dog is not allowed to breed. Some in the dogdom fear that the DNA test results could prevent animals from passing otherwise good genes because of an ambiguous possibility of disease.
"The risk of overinterpretation is great," but DNA testing can be useful along with other tools, says Dr.. Diane Brown, CEO of the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. It has invested almost $ 20 million in genomic and molecular research and supports an international effort to promote standardization for dog DNA testing.
The initiative, led by the non-profit International Partnership for Dogs, provides searchable data on the procedures of testing laboratories and breed specific health testing information.
Test companies say that their work can help researchers to do something about the unknowns and provides immediately useful information, for example whether the genes of a dog suggest bad reactions to certain drugs. Companies such as Embark and Wisdom have assigned veterinarians to help people understand worrisome results.
"We are there to help you better take care of your dog," said Ryan Boyko, CEO of Embark Veterinary Inc., whose company has shown a variety and health test in nearly 100,000 dogs over the 3½ years. The alliance with Westminster – for which Embark pays an amount that neither would reveal – exposes the company to breeders in particular.
Long-term Belgian shepherd breeder Lorra Miller, who had dogs that compete in Westminster, was initially skeptical about consumer-oriented dog DNA testing. They found her as a novelty for domestic mixed breeds.
Now she hopes Belgian shepherd dog lovers can build up a number of genetic data to encourage more research into the protective shepherds.
"Even if I do not get immediate benefit … it's for the future of the breed," says Miller, who lives near Monroe, Washington.
For Rennie Pasquinelli the benefit is a new perspective on her dog, Murray.
He was pegged as a border-border Boston terrier mix when she adopted him. But an embark test last month only detected a pair of border collie mixed with six other breeds, mostly American pit bull terriers. And no Boston terrier at all.
"It is clear that I do not love him more or less," said Pasquinelli, a graduate student of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "It's like you know something new about someone, that your opinion about them does not change negatively or positively, but you're still looking at them in a different way."