How Accurate Are Dog DNA Tests?
With the increasing popularity of DNA testing companies such as Ancestry or 23andMe, people around the world have taken a close look at their legacy and even uncovered famous ancestors.
This unending curiosity about where we came from has also been extended to our furriest family members. After all, our dogs don’t tell fireside stories to their pups about Grandpa Rover nearly as much as we humans do!
Especially when it comes to our beloved mixed-breed pups, many pet parents are dying to know where our dog’s uniqueness comes from. We also can’t stop ourselves from guessing — does Fido have a little terrier in him? Perhaps a dash of German Shepherd, with a light sprinkle of some kind of hound?
The guessing game is fun to play, but hard to win. Multiple studies show that none of us, not even dog trainers and other canine professionals, are very accurate at identifying a mixed dog’s heritage based on their physical appearance. That’s because genetics is complicated and often “hides” a dog’s ancestry.
That’s right — you can almost never tell a mixed dog’s breed makeup by appearance alone!
Fortunately, if you’re really determined to find out what breeds are in Fido’s bloodline, you can! The science behind DNA tests (both human and canine) have come a long way in recent years. These days, if you have the desire and the dough, you can dig deep into the down and dirty details of your darling dog’s DNA.
What Can You Learn From a Dog DNA Test?
Perhaps the number one reason pet parents seek out a dog DNA test is to uncover the heritage of their mixed breed dog.
The two top dog DNA tests (Embark and Wisdom Panel) are incredibly accurate, and becoming more so by the day as the science advances. Embark analyzes over 200,000 genetic markers in order to give you a percentage breakdown of your dog’s unique breed mix, and even generate a family tree tracing back through your dog’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents!
How accurate are dog DNA tests?
Despite the incredible accuracy of dog DNA tests, many pet parents receive their pup’s results with skepticism. Sometimes, the results are nothing like you expect, including breeds you’ve never considered and excluding the breeds you were certain of.
That’s because canine genetics are fascinating and complex. Patterns of dominance and recessiveness complicate what “common sense” would dictate a dog “should” look like, especially when the defining characteristics of a dog’s primary breed are “covered up” by more dominant genes.
Plus, less than 1% of a dog’s genes determine their physical appearance. Most of a dog’s genes direct brain development and function, not appearance. So, your beloved “Boxer mix” mutt may not look whatsoever like they’re over 30% Border Collie — but all the evidence is there in their genes!
Interpreting your dog’s breed results
As you review Fido’s results, it’s important to keep in mind that even though DNA tests can accurately tell you your dog’s genetic makeup, this information is mostly for curiosity only. It doesn’t tell you anything significant about your dog’s personality, preferences or skills.
For example, say your dog’s results show they are 12% Greyhound. Great! But the question is — which 12%?
You may assume these genes will give your dog speediness or a desire to chase, and excitedly make plans to take Fido out on 5Ks and turn him into a true runner — after all, it’s in his blood! Yet, perhaps all Fido inherited from his Greyhound ancestor was a long, narrow muzzle…and the sprinting genes were lost along the way.
You may even discover that your dog has wolf, coyote or other wild canine in their blood. But just because your mellow pup turns out to be 8% Gray Wolf doesn’t mean they’ll heed the call of the wild one day and howl at the moon!
The bottom line is, you can’t make sweeping assumptions about complex behaviors based on your dog’s DNA. The results are highly accurate, but the meaning you interpret from the results may not be.
Can a DNA test confirm if a dog is purebred?
Yes, a dog DNA test will absolutely confirm if your pup is truly 100% purebred. However, a DNA test alone is not enough for AKC registration at this time. You will also need your dog’s individual pedigree to be confirmed.
Still, a DNA test may point you to your pup’s parents, giving you the ability to contact their breeder and pinpoint your dog’s pedigree.
Can you use a dog DNA test to identify your dog’s parents, siblings or other relatives?
The Embark dog DNA test has a unique feature that allows you to find your dog’s relatives, if they have also been tested through Embark. Many pet owners have found Fido’s aunt, cousin or “brother from another mother” this way — allowing for happy reunions and puppy playdates!
While expensive, a DNA test can even be used as a “doggy paternity test” if your female dog had a “whoops litter” and you’re able to test the potential fathers! (Remember to test more than one puppy, though — it’s possible for different puppies in the same litter to have different fathers!)
Can a DNA test tell my dog’s age?
If you know or can estimate your dog’s calendar age, a dog DNA test can tell you their “genetic human age.” Contrary to popular wisdom, your dog’s age in “dog years” is not simply their real age times seven!
This is because different breeds have different lifespans. For example, for many large breed dogs, like Irish Wolfhounds or Great Danes, nine or ten years old is a senior well within their golden years. Conversely, for many small dogs, nine or ten would be comfortably middle-aged.
A dog DNA test can give you an estimate based on your dog’s unique breed composition.
Can a dog DNA test check for allergies or other health conditions?
Dog DNA tests are an excellent way to see if your dog is a carrier for or at-risk of certain genetic diseases. Embark will even have a geneticist reach out to you personally to discuss your results if any particularly suspicious genes are uncovered.
If you’re a breeder or considering breeding your dog, you’ll definitely want to know what genes Fido carries so you can avoid passing on deleterious genes.
However, if you’re a pet parent not planning to breed and you simply bought a test out of curiosity, don’t panic if you don’t see the results you expect. Remember that a DNA test can’t predict the future; it won’t give you any guarantees about what will happen in your dog’s life.
As Science News for Students pointed out:
“Unfortunately, people sometimes take these genetic tests as doggie dogma — that they determine a pet’s future health. In fact, they don’t. Even veterinarians don’t always know how to interpret the results of genetic tests for pets.”
Even if your dog is carrying a gene that may be linked to a certain condition, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular gene causes the condition — and even if it does, it doesn’t guarantee your dog will develop the disease. Definitely don’t go making any hasty or irreversible decisions, such as euthanizing or surrendering a dog, on the basis of a DNA test alone!
It’s also important to remember that many diseases are triggered by a combination of genetics plus lifestyle. So, your best bet is to keep up with the responsible pet care you’re already doing anyway: vet checkups, regular exercise, mental stimulation and above all, a healthy diet!
In short, a DNA test alone can’t diagnose a disease. You should always check with your veterinarian if you receive any results that truly concern you.
Is a Dog DNA Test Worth It? Which Dog DNA Test is Best?
Overall, Embark is considered the best and most accurate dog DNA test. Wisdom Panel is a good choice as well. Both of these companies have a large genetic database and a highly accurate process of analysis.
However, only you can decide if satisfying your curiosity about your dog’s makeup is worth the time and money. Both Embark and Wisdom Panel tests are expensive (around $150 or more), and the wait for your dog’s results can be several weeks or even a couple of months.
The company you choose will send you cheek swabs that you’ll use to gently brush against the inside of your pup’s mouth. Depending on how cooperative your dog is, this could either be a massive hassle or a piece of cake!
The best budget alternative to Embark or Wisdom is Orivet — it’s not as accurate or as thorough, but it’s certainly cheaper. The even cheaper options include DNA My Dog (Easy DNA) or Find My Pet DNA, but these companies produce questionable results and are best avoided.
Are there any privacy concerns when testing my dog’s DNA?
Outside of the time and expense, there are very few possible downsides to testing your dog’s DNA.
Embark and Wisdom Panel both have strict privacy policies, so your dog’s DNA results aren’t shared with your vet, your insurance company, your landlord or anyone else without your permission. They may use the anonymized results in research into canine disease, but you can opt out if you wish.
This is especially reassuring if your town, landlord or homeowner’s association have any antiquated breed-specific legislation in place. You don’t need to worry about the company that tested Fido contacting the authorities to tell them that your dog is 40% Rottweiler (or another unfairly slandered breed).
You own your dog’s information, and you can even download your dog’s complete genetic data if you wish!
You may swear up and down that your mixed breed pup is half-Labrador, half-Collie, with a bit of Boxer sprinkled in — but it’s entirely possible that none of those guesses are right.
The only way to know for sure which breeds mixed together to create your best pal is to test their DNA through a reputable company. Dog DNA tests are a fun way to satisfy your curiosity (and earn bragging rights if you guessed correctly).
But at the end of the day, all dog parents know it doesn’t matter if Fido is 100% Shih Tzu or a melting pot mix of a dozen different breeds.
All that really matters is that your best buddy knows they are 100% yours!