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 big boys and girls 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 over 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.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.
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.
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
- BREED DISCOVERY: With a simple cheek swab, Embark uses the most accurate breed identification scientifically possible. The Embark Dog DNA Test Kit tests for over 250 dog breeds, even wolf, coyote, and village dog ancestry.
- FAMILY TREE AND ANCESTRY: The Embark Dog DNA Test will tell you your dog's family tree all the way back to great grandparents. Embark also shows other dogs of similar breed mix to your pup. You can explore their profiles and photos and see how much they resemble your dog.
- DISCOVER YOUR DOG'S RELATIVES: Find and connect with other dogs that share DNA with yours, including distant and close relatives. Only Embark will give you a percentage of shared DNA between your dog and others that have been tested with Embark. Doggy DNA Relative Finder included with purchase.
- HEALTHY AGING: Embark tests for over 165 diseases. With our comprehensive genetic testing, you can better plan for healthy aging, with information on everything from genetic diseases to drug sensitivities. Keep your dog healthy longer by testing for genetic diseases that occur later in life including glaucoma, degenerative myelopathy, and dilated cardiomyopathy, three of the most common adult-onset diseases in dogs.
- FAST, TRUSTED RESULTS: Built by experts, only Embark is partnered with Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and is trusted by veterinary hospitals. Results generally between 2-4 weeks.