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New DNA kits unlock pet pedigrees

Curious dog owners can now determine their mutt's ancestry.

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Owners should not expect to see the physical or behavioral characteristics of every breed detected in their dog, Jones cautions. "Mixed breeds can show some of the traits from their parents or unusual outcomes of their unique mix," he says.

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With the dog genome now fully mapped, he notes, scientists are discovering a wide range of potential uses for DNA-based information. For example, it could make better human-canine matches. "Genetic information about size and behavioral traits, such as trainability and temperament, could help veterinarians identify the most lifestyle-appropriate pet for an owner," says Jones.

Mars is also developing genetic tests for canine diseases and deformities that researchers have found to be genetically transmitted. That test should be available next year, according to Jones.

Why dog DNA tests make some growl

The new breed-identification tests are causing concern among some animal activists who are fighting breed-specific legislation. These laws often follow a severe or fatal dog attack in a community and frequently target pit bulls, Rottweilers, and their mixes.

City officials, grasping for quick solutions, enact an outright ban or put into place restrictions, such as muzzling dogs in public or requiring owners to obtain liability insurance.

Hundreds of communities nationwide have such ordinances today, including Denver, Boston, and Prov­idence, R.I. Some people in the dog world fear that the new breed ID tests could aid in the enforcement of those laws.

Veterinarian Patty Khuly practices in Florida, where Miami-Dade County has had anti-pit bull legislation in place since 1989. On her blog, Dolittler, she says the ban is usually only enforced when a dog commits a violent or threatening act.

Still, that's a concern.

"In my mind, that means that Fluffy's first and only bite, regardless of circumstances or severity, can lead straight to euthanasia if she tests positive for a partial match with pit bull genes," she says.

To avoid the controversy – at least temporarily – Thomas Russo, chief financial officer for MetaMorphix, says the test's first version doesn't detect the three purebreds commonly referred to as "pit bulls" (American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American Staffordshire terrier). The advanced version, due out in September, will identify two of the three breeds, however.

The company says it decided to add "pit bulls" because of requests from animal rescue groups and hopes "more good than bad" comes of it.

And if an owner challenges the test, will it stand up in court?

"Clearly, genetic evidence has been accepted for human genes, so why wouldn't [a court] accept it for dog genes?" says David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Animal Legal and Historical Web Center. "All they have to do is show its predictability and reliability as a scientific tool."