New DNA kits unlock pet pedigrees

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Rip and Marcy Wilson adopted Drake, a fluffy black pup with floppy ears and a curly tail, four years ago from an animal shelter near their home in Chevy Chase, Md. The sign on the cage proclaimed Drake as a spaniel/Plott hound mix. But that didn't satisfy the couple's curiosity.

"We were always dying to know what breeds came together to create this perfect family pet," says Ms. Wilson about their "incredibly loyal, smart, and well-behaved" 38-pound pooch.

But for the Wilsons, and millions of other mixed-breed dog owners in the United States, there was no way to know for certain – until now.

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MetaMorphix, a life sciences company headquartered in Beltsville, Md., began offering the Canine Heritage Breed Test earlier this year that genetically identifies 38 American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized breeds. (The company says an advanced version due out in September will detect 116 breeds.) Mars Veterinary – a division of Mars Inc., a global company that sells candy and pet food – plans to release a competing DNA test, called the Wisdom Panel MX, through veterinarians nationwide later this month.

When the Wilsons learned of the Canine Heritage test, they didn't hesitate to order the $65 cheek-swab kit. "We ended up spending more for the test than we did for the dog," says Mr. Wilson with a laugh.

After gently scraping the inside of Drake's cheek with a tiny bristle brush, the Wilsons mailed the DNA sample to the company's California laboratory.

About a month later, a letter arrived with the results. Drake is mostly Siberian husky. In the mix are Labrador retriever and cocker spaniel as well. "We were completely blown away," says Ms. Wilson.

Genetic identification tests, however, do more than satisfy owner curiosity, says Scotlund Haisley, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League in Washington, D.C. They could also expedite adoption and placement of animals. "This could be a major asset to our work, revealing possible health and behavior information that will help us find just the right home for the dog," he says.

For now, Mr. Haisely says it's too costly to identify all of the shelter's canine charges. But he plans to hold a DNA test day for adopters as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization.

"Many adopters want to explore the roots of their animals," he says, adding that some owners have traveled to where their pet was originally found in an effort to learn more about them.

DNA tests may seem futuristic. But they've long been used in the purebred world, helping to verify pedigree and determine which dogs to mate. Now mixed breeds, which account for almost half of the US canine population, will benefit, too.

The test results present a blueprint for understanding where some of the physical and behavioral traits seen in each unique mixed breed dog may have come from, says Paul Jones, a genetic researcher for Mars Veterinary, in Leicestershire, England. The company's test, which requires a blood sample, identifies 134 AKC-recognized breeds and will cost about $120 to $200. Results will take two to three weeks. A six-page report will include the dog's breed analysis as well as information on the appearance and behavioral characteristics of detected breeds. The company says its results, on average, are 95 percent accurate.

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.

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."

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