DNA Testing: Unlocking The Key To Your Dog’s Health
The Power Of Science: DNA Testing
Who would think a tiny little Q-Tip swab in the mouth could provide SO much information? In less than 30 seconds with the Q-Tip and 2 days to mail the package, DNA testing can provide answers about your best friend’s health that could predict his future and the future of generations after him. Science is a wonderful thing… when we use it…
Why Test Your Big Dog’s DNA?
When I solicited feedback from the Big Dog Mom Community in May regarding what concerns big dog owners most about their dog’s health, over half of respondents said that LONGEVITY was their top concern or area of interest.
Our big dogs grow up fast. Too fast!
Experts believe this accelerated rate of growth contributes to a higher incidence of abnormal cell growth and death from cancer. No matter the cause, we all know our large dogs don’t live near long enough.
While DNA testing is not an immediate solution to this longevity problem, my goal is to address ONE way that you can take control of your best friend’s future and the future of your breed.
According to the 2014 Annual Report from The Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust in the UK, “Since 2009, when the Kennel Club commenced funding of the Canine Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust, DNA tests have been developed for eleven different disease mutations that are relevant to 31 different breeds of dog, with six breeds benefiting from more than one test.
In total, the AHT has now tested over 45,800 dogs for these ten mutations, over 8,600 of which were tested during 2014. Importantly, the tests have identified 9,900 dogs that are carriers of at least one disease mutation.
“In the absence of DNA tests, it would have been impossible to determine whether the vast majority of these dogs were carrying these mutations or not, meaning they might have been innocently bred to other carriers and given rise to affected offspring.”
Knowledge of the genotypic status is the breeder’s most powerful tool for the elimination of genetic disease.
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DNA Health Tests Are Done For Many Reasons
Clear / Normal
First, and most obvious, they are done to certify the dog free of a particular disease or condition or “clear/normal.” Through parentage, we knew that Junior was clear for the diseases we checked, however, it is always nice to see that assurance on paper.
Carrier / Not Affected
Secondly, they can tell you whether your dog, while not affected, is a carrier for a particular gene. Knowledge of carrier status can be extraordinarily valuable when making breeding decisions or for tracking disease incidence over time in a given pedigree (or family) of dogs. I would argue that even an average pet home should test their puppy and provide the results to their breeder so that the breeder can track this information.
According to the American Kennel Club, breeders have a responsibility to choose the sires and dams that have the best chance of producing sound, healthy puppies. Genetic testing plays a huge role in this. Most importantly, it gives breeders a heads up that there may be a tendency toward a disease lurking in a dog’s DNA.
At-Risk / Affected
Lastly, DNA testing can tell you whether your dog is at risk or affected based on the presence of the DNA marker in question. This is certainly the worst-case scenario as a dog owner, but not the end of the world. By knowing your dog could be affected or is at risk for a particular disease allows you time to educate yourself and be prepared to treat and care for your dog down the road.
Without question, this result needs to be shared with your breeder. As with carriers, breeders that are routinely DNA testing the puppies they produce will be able to track affected dogs and determine which dogs they should include in their breeding stock.
DNA Testing For Mastiffs
In the next two years, our mastiff puppy, Junior, will undergo many more genetic health screening tests. He will have OFA Hips, OFA Elbows, eyes CERF, OFA Cardiac, and Cystinuria in addition to the DNA tests described below.
While DNA tests can be done at any age, the following are the tests I had done for Junior when he was four months old:
- Canine Multifocal Retinopathy (CMR1): A mutation on this gene causes raised lesions to form on the retina which alters the appearance of the eye but usually does not affect sight.
- Dominant PRA (PRA-D): This is an eye disorder that affects English Mastiffs and Bull Mastiffs. It is a form of progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) that causes cells of the eye to deteriorate over time eventually leading to complete blindness.
- Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): DM is a progressive disease of the spinal cord in older dogs. This insidious disease begins with a loss of coordination (ataxia) in the hind limbs and within 6 months to a year, the dog is unable to walk and becomes paraplegic.
- Coat Length/Fluffy Locus: A more cosmetic issue, this mutation is recessive which means a dog must have two copies of the mutation that will typically result in a long or fluffy coat. Knowing which dogs are carriers can inform breeding decisions to eliminate this incorrect coat from the gene pool.
By doing health tests, you can use these tools to improve your breeding program, the health and longevity of the puppies you produce, and, ultimately, better the breed as a result.
[READ: For The Betterment Of The Breed: An Interview With Jadem Mastiffs]Knowledge of DNA status is a dog breeder's most powerful tool for the elimination of genetic disease.
DNA Testing For Big Dogs
There are hundreds of DNA tests for big dogs and the options are breed-specific.
For example, if you have a Doberman Pinscher, you will want to be sure to do the test for Von Willebrand’s Disease Type I (VWD1) a genetic clotting disorder. Labrador Retriever owners will want to test for Labrador Centronuclear Myopathy (CNM), a recessively inherited muscular disease. And Newfoundland owners should test for Newfoundland Cystinuria (CYS) in addition to the other recommended tests for those breeds.
The DNA tests I needed to do for Junior were listed in my buyer’s contract. Many breeders will ask for specific DNA testing to be done, especially if you plan to breed your dog in the future.
The AKC Canine Health Foundation has a list of available canine genetic tests, organized by breed. There are 119, but more are being researched and added each day. PennGen is a genetic testing facility operated at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. It is a collection of laboratories that coordinate as a not-for-profit unit, that offer routine testing for genetic disease. According to PennGen, more than 900 inherited disorders have been identified in dogs. It maintains a database of available tests, which can be searched by breed or condition.
I also recommend checking with your national breed club as they generally list recommended genetic tests and can tell you which testing facility you should use if it makes a difference. If you do not know your breed club, I have most of the National (Big) Dog Breed Clubs listed on my Resources Page.
DNA Testing Process
DNA tests are affordable and couldn’t be easier to perform.
Within two days of placing my order, I received the envelope with the swabs, labels, and directions and had the results emailed to me within the week after performing the tests. I was stunned by how easy and quick the whole process was! Junior’s DNA tests were ordered through GenSol Canine Diagnostics, however, there are many other options out there.
Watch this terrific video GenSol produced that illustrates just how easy this process can be.
So, What Can You Do Today?
My hope is that you will start with determining which DNA health tests you need for your breed and getting them ordered today. Embark Vet is another company that offers DNA testing that I have also heard good things about and would be worth checking out as well.
As I stated in the beginning, DNA testing is not just for show dogs or dogs used breeding programs. I believe it should be done on ALL purebred dogs in order to decrease genetic health conditions over time and improve the science behind diseases we have yet to find DNA markers for such as osteosarcoma and lymphoma.
READ: New Embark Vet Research and the Future of Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs
The Future Is In Your Hands
Keep in mind that much of this is ongoing science and that science can only continue with our generous support. The AKC Canine Health Foundation has a great synopsis of DNA banking and research opportunities!
The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) is a centralized canine health database sponsored by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). In collaboration with parent clubs, CHIC provides a resource for breeders and owners of purebred dogs to research and maintain information on the health issues prevalent in specific breeds. CHIC also maintains a DNA Bank that collects and stores canine DNA samples. They combine these samples with corresponding genealogic and phenotypic information to enhance research and testing. Their ultimate goal is to reduce the incidence of inherited disease in dogs.
[READ: For The Betterment Of The Breed: An Interview With Jadem Mastiffs]
Summary of Key DNA Resources For Every Big Dog Owner
- The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, Inc (OFA) has a control database for the orthopedic problem known as dysplasia. They now maintain a voluntary database of canine health, some of which are based on X-Rays, some on genetic tests.
- Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) is a centralized canine health database sponsored by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).
- AKC Canine Health Foundation has a list of available canine genetic tests, organized by breed.
- PennGen is a genetic testing facility and also maintains a database of available tests searchable by breed or condition.
- GenSol Canine Diagnostics
- Embark Vet
I would love to DNA test my dogs but haven’t done it yet. They are mixed breeds so I’m not worried as much for purebred genetic problems but to find out what they heck breed they are. A friend of my had a Czech bred- GSD that had DM later in life. So sad.
If I had a mixed breed, I would probably want to know what their breed make up was as well. I’m so sorry about your friend’s GSD. DM is awful and runs in many breeds. Fortunately we have the DNA test and have the ability to screen for it before breeding dogs that are affected or carriers. In my opinion, there is just no reason not to test, especially if you are a breeder!
I have the kit to test my dogs (corgis) for DM. I keep forgetting to send it in. This is a good reminder!
Haha! Well, good! I’m thrilled I could be a part of your babies getting their tests done.
This is a great post, and very important. DNA tests do offer great information to make better decisions, particularly about breedings and future health risks. My breeder had her dogs tested for several breed-specific issues, including DM. And while Magic’s sire tested negative and his dam tested as a carrier, he should not be affected…but has symptoms of DM. One of his littermates also succumbed to this condition. So, as a caution, DNA tests are wonderful tools, but not foolproof.
You are right, Amy. They are wonderful tools and I believe essential to any breeding program. But to you point, they are directional not a guarantee, particularly in the case you mentioned where the mother was a carrier. For some diseases, all it takes is one of the parents to be a carrier for the offspring to potentially be either carriers or affected. I’m so sorry about Magic! DM is a horrible disease and heartbreaking for both dog and owner to live with. My heart goes out to you.
I’d only thought of DNA testing as a way to determine what breed(s) a dog was. I had no idea that the AKC had determined the gene markers for so many potential illnesses/conditions! Thanks for making us aware of the importance of genetic testing in order to improve/maintain healthy breeds and perhaps, someday, to find cures.
Well, unless you are breeding or showing your dogs, most dog owners don’t think about DNA testing their dogs. Perhaps consider sharing this with your friends, as I know you are not alone in thinking DNA testing only applies to mixed breed identification. Thank you, Lori!
My Babu is a mutt and as a scientist mom, I have been curious for a long time to see what is in his lineage:-) Definitely have to give this DNA test thing a try!
Absolutely! The DNA testing outlined here is specific to health testing, however, there are many options for dog owners who want to know more about the breed history of their mixed breed dog. Go for it! I’d be interested in what you find out!
That is so cool!! I did a DNA test for Benji with a different brand, but it was insane what they found. I need to make a blog post about it, but great advice. 🙂 I think it’s important as well.
Awesome! Yes, you definitely need to share your experience! I can’t wait to read it.
I really need to do this! The rescue my big guy came from really couldn’t give me much of his paperwork, so I’m not really sure what all was done with him. I’d love to know at least an idea of it all! I do love to see all of the giant smoosh faces you have in your photos though!!!! 🙂
Thank you so much, Shayla! I would recommend it for anyone with a purebred dog. Junior was clear for all five diseases I tested for. And I have since tested him for cystinuria (common in mastiffs) and he was clear for that as well. Super simple, inexpensive way to provide a little health-related relief.
Ruby is a mixed breed – we think primarily Yorkie and Poodle, but she may have some other things mixed in there as well. I have thought about having her DNA tested for fun, but haven’t explored it yet.
If I had a mixed breed, I would consider doing it as well. Who knows, your Yorki-poo may come back part Beagle. Haha!
We did a DNA test a while ago and Mr. N tested clear of all the genetic diseases. Definitely a relief! It’s great that science can give us more answers.
That is wonderful news! Congratulations on a clean bill of health for your smart little guy!
Genetic testing is SO important if you are planning to breed your dog. I get SO angry at the backyard breeders who throw caution to the wind and breed pups who are predisposed to all sorts of health conditions. It’s how good breeds get ruined and responsible breeders get bad names. Being in the rescue world, it really isn’t much of an issue for me and my pups. I may DNA test them to see what breed they are, our of curiosity, but that’s about it.
This is so true, Debbie! The problem with BYBs is a significant and the lack of health testing is just one reason to not EVER buy a puppy from one. One of my goals with Big Dog Mom is to shine a light on this issue and educate new puppy buyers. If BYB don’t have buyers, hopefully they will stop breeding.
First of all, I am in love with your first photo! I always had posters of dogs on my walls when I was a little girl and that one would have certainly been on it! 🙂 I would love to get the Goldens DNA tested since two of them are purebred and Goldens. This is a great idea for breeders!
Haha! Thank you! This was one, out of maybe 100, that Junior’s breeder and I shot that day. This happened to be my photo and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I will always cherish this picture of Junior and his mom and dad. I would definitely consider testing your Goldens. I know there are several diseases, eye and skin especially, that are prevalent in Goldens.
This is very used in our breed Coton De Tulear (in Denmark anyway). I did with my girl Becca before we had Amigo to make sure everything was OK. I think it is a great way to make sure you don’t breed affected dogs or carriers to each other. Great post sharing this info.
Thank you so much, Bettina! I know when I did my research, there were certain diseases that were only found in the Coton De Tulear, so I am happy that you had your girl tested. You are right, knowing the status of the parents is critical BEFORE breeding!
This is very interesting, and I wonder if this is available for cats. This would be helpful for pet parents of rescued pets because so little is know about their background and the exact mix of their breeds is difficult to determine.
Thank you! I honestly don’t know if their is DNA testing for cats. It would make a great post if you could find out any information on it.
So much valuable informations for dog moms who have large dogs! Plus, you’ve compiled a great list of resources for additional reading. What a great post!
Thank you so much! I am very hopeful pure bred dog owners will take advantage of DNA testing. It’s so easy and inexpensive and provides a wealth of information for dog owners and breeders alike.
Although I’m now a huge advocate for rescue dogs, I understand that some people want a purebred puppy. I think DNA testing is potentially a great way to keep a breed healthy. Years ago, we bought our Keeshond from a fantastic small breeder who really cared about the health of the puppies and parents. My parents also bought our Bullmastiff from a good breeder and she lived to be pretty old with no major health issues.
Thank you, Beth! Both of the cases you mentioned support the need to do your homework when picking a breeder and always ensuring health is a top priority. I love to hear stories like this!!
This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing such a thorough and informative piece about DNA testing. I should look into it for Bean and Yoda so I can relate findings to their breeders.
Thank you so much Bryn! I would love to know what your breeders say if you suggest doing the testing for Bean and Yoda. My guess is they will be forever grateful that you took the initiative to do it and for the information it provides to their breeding program if they are still breeding.
So informative! The variety of health issues faced by most big breeds is a bit daunting when first exposed to a list like that ^. But, having that information before-hand, allowing for preventative action to be taken BEFORE our pups start exhibiting symptoms is absolutely priceless.
Thank you so much! I couldn’t agree more, Paul! Very well said!
My mom had a DNA test performed on her dog to determine the various breeds, but she didn’t get anything about any potential health issues.
Yes, there are two different types of DNA tests. One that is used for understanding the heritage of a mixed breed dog, like the one your mom had done. And a completely separate type of test that is focused on picking up DNA markers for breed specific diseases.
I really wish all “breeders” of purebred dogs would be more diligent about testing the parents before breeding. All the puppy mill and backyard breeding has undoubtedly carried forward so many genetic disorders and diseases. I think these kits are great for owners of purebred dogs and mutts, it’s great to find out what breeds your mutt actually is, and what health issues you may need to look out for in the future. I can’t believe how easy these DNA kits are!
Love & Biscuits,
Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them
Thank you so much, Cathy! I agree with your wholeheartedly about the problem of BYB’s and puppy mills. I know even some good, reputable breeders who don’t take advantage of these simple, inexpensive tests because they feel they “know” their lines and don’t need to. That is such a shame to me and truly misses out on the long term benefit to the breed. The more testing that is done, the more blood that is banked and researched, the higher the chances for finding markers for things like osteosarcoma and lymphoma… those diseases that no amount of “knowledge” of ones lines can prevent.
Great post! Most of the time, DNA tests for dogs are referenced to determine breed makeup, but it’s good to know they also can identify potential disease. This is great information for dog guardians that have an impacted dog so they can take preventative measures. Thank you for a very informative post, I appreciate it!
Thank you, Karen! You are right, most of the time people think of DNA testing for mixed breed dogs. I am hopeful this article will help clarify the difference between the two types of testing and why DNA health testing is critical for the pure bred dog.
Great post- I think it is so responsible of breeders or owners of pure breeds and even mixes to do genetic testing. Kilo the Pug is a pug mix and not sure how useful testing would be beyond interest. However I met a girl on the weekend who bought a bull dog puppy from a bad breeder and it already cost her $12,000 in issues and has a degenerative disease and can’t walk properly or balance. My sister-in-law has a gorgeous new little terrier puppy and she had to agree to breed twice so her puppy will do all the tests available. I’ll forward this info.
Thank you so much, Susan! Oh, my heart goes out to the girl and her bulldog puppy. That is so sad, but the risk of buying a puppy from a BYB. Stories like this are all too common unfortunately.
I absolutely love dog DNA testing and hope more people take advantage of this technology. It has been on my “to do” list for a long time now – this was a good push for me!
That’s wonderful, Kelsie! Thank you!