Genetic (DNA) Testing

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lowell Ackerman DVM, DACVD, MBA, MPA

What is genetic testing?

Genetic testing is a simple way to learn more about our pets. There is a wealth of information contained within an individual’s genetic code (DNA). Through the collection of a sample of your pet’s DNA-containing cells, a myriad of tests can be run, either individually or as part of a profile, that provides valuable information about your pet’s genetic make-up.

Genetic testing has been used in pets for over twenty years. It is easy and convenient to do and, with modern technological advances, has become more affordable. In fact, the cost is often on par with standard blood profiles, so it is becoming a common test for early detection and prevention of disease.

What can genetic testing tell us?

If your pet is a mixed breed, genetic testing can identify the breeds that contributed to the mix.

Genetic condition predispositions
Many breeds are known to be prone to certain conditions, so knowing the breeds in the mix can help determine the approximate risk for a variety of conditions. Even if tests for specific genetic conditions are not available, screening with other types of early-detection testing can promote better preventive care, and lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of conditions.

Physical and personality traits
Every purebred has certain established physical and personality traits that provide owners with an idea of the type of pet they are getting. Knowing the breeds that go into a mix can help the owners make better guesses about the size, temperament, energy levels, and exercise requirements their unique pet may have.

Diet and wellness plans
Knowing breed mix and potential condition predispositions can help owners develop a more tailored diet, wellness, and preventive care plan for their pets.

What is collected from my pet for genetic testing? Will it hurt my pet?

DNA tests can be run on samples of any cells containing a nucleus. Collection of these samples is most easily done by rubbing a small, sterile nylon brush along the inside of your pet’s cheek to collect epithelial cells from the area. The sample is then submitted to a laboratory for DNA analysis. This process is quite simple and can be done by the pet owner or a veterinarian. Some veterinarians prefer to submit a blood sample for assurance that large amounts of DNA are present. While the needle prick of blood collection may upset your pet for a moment, overall, the process will not hurt your pet.

Many companies that perform genetic testing encourage pet owners to order collection kits online, perform the collection at home, and send the sample back to the lab in the provided mailer. The pet owner will receive a report, either by mail or email, within a few weeks with a full explanation of the results.

What genetic tests are performed?

At the laboratory, several tests can be run, either individually or as part of a profile, including:

  • The DNA mixed-breed ancestry profile can help determine which purebreds likely contributed to your pet’s mix.
  • Full genetic attribute profiles can be run on purebred, hybrid, and mixed-breed pets. This provides the most valuable information, evaluating for dozens of medical conditions, as well as for certain traits.
  • Specific breed profiles can be run, evaluating only for conditions common in a specific breed.
  • Individual genetic tests can be conducted where there is only concern about a single medical issue.

With new technologies, it is as inexpensive to run a complete profile with dozens of tests as it is to run a handful of tests common in a specific breed. In almost all cases, it makes more sense (financial and otherwise) to run the complete profile rather than try to predict which tests might be most relevant. Forewarned is forearmed: with the genetic testing available, a pet does not have to become ill and show clinical signs before a diagnosis can be made and treatment or preventive measures can be started.

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