Pet DNA tests: Do they work?

News 6 asks the experts, compares results of 2 popular pet DNA kits

By Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - When you visit a shelter looking for a pet, you’re probably just looking for one thing: a perfect match.

But some families like to know a little more about their lovable mutt, like if they will be the right fit for the family, or if they have any medical conditions. 

Enter the world of pet DNA tests.

News 6 producer Erin Dobrzyn rescued her dog Penny from the pound.

She said she really wanted to know if she had any hidden genetic issues or was a carrier of any diseases, and also what combination of breeds made up her precious little pup.

"She's obviously adorable, but everyone asks us what breed she is," Dobrzyn said. "And we wanted to know and get a better idea of who she is."

Dobrzyn decided to do two pet DNA tests on little Penny. The Embark Breed and Health Kit, which costs $199, and the Wisdom Panel Health Kit, which costs $149.99.

Wisdom said it screens for more than 150 genetic health conditions and has breed detection for more than 350 breed types. Embark states it tests for more than 170 health conditions and over 250 breeds.

"Anything I can do to prevent Penny from getting sick in the future is very important to me. Not only for her well-being, but cost-wise too," Dobrzyn said. "You don't want to spend a ton of money at the vet."

So Dobrzyn swabbed Penny's cheek, stuck her results in a test tube, filled out the necessary information, and sent it all off to the Wisdom and Embark labs.

Within two weeks, Dobrzyn got back the results and was surprised that they were a little different.

"The breeds, there are some similarities," Dobrzyn said, "But the guesses for what the breeds are are just totally different."

Both tests agree Penny is part poodle, part Chihuahua and part miniature pinscher but they disagree about what else she could be.

Each test showed a different breed breakdown, and slightly different medical information, too.

Both the Wisdom and the Embark test results showed Penny had a potential eye condition called primary lens luxation. But one said she was a carrier while the other said she had it.

"It really makes me question how exact of a science this is," Dobrzyn said.

News 6 took the results of both the Wisdom Panel and Embark tests to the Small Animal Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. We talked with assistant professor Audrey Kelleman, DVM, a veterinarian who is an expert in animal genetics.

Kelleman said pet owners can trust the results.

"Overall, I would say yes, they can be trusted," Kelleman said.

Kelleman said each test varies a little on the breeding markers they use, and that's what causes the slight differences you see. 

But she says the two tests Dobrzyn used on Penny are basically the same.

Kelleman said the medical information these tests provide can be very useful for your pet's veterinarian.

"They can test for diseases that could show how a dog breaks down medications or anesthetic drugs. They can also test for bleeding disorders as well," Kelleman said. 

Kelleman said the minor differences you see between the Embark test and Wisdom panel tests done on Penny are just that -- minor.

"They both showed she was a carrier of a specific gene that made her at risk of having that disease," Kelleman said. "So they both said yes, she has a gene that puts her at risk of that disease. One just said at risk, one said carrier." 

Dobrzyn said that makes her feel good about spending the extra money on a test for Penny.

"I mean if the results I'm getting are accurate, then I totally think the test is worth it," Dobrzyn said.

Steve Bardy is with the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando and had this to say about pet DNA tests.

"I think they're fun," Bardy said. "I did it on my dog."

But Bardy said there is no way a shelter like his can afford to run one on every animal it has. He said families looking for a pet need to look beyond a specific breed.

"I would think if people are using a DNA test to determine predisposition of behavior, I probably wouldn't use it for that," Bardy said.

Bardy admits he was a little surprised by what the pet DNA test he took revealed about his dog, Molly.

"It said she had some dalmatian, some shar-pei and some bulldog in her," Bardy said. "She still sheds all over the place. She's still the same dog." 

Both Bardy and Dobrzyn agree: Knowing what makes up their mutt doesn't make them love them any less.

News 6 emailed both Wisdom and Embark multiple times for comment about Penny's test results.

A spokesperson from Embark said the company compares each of its tests against samples from known carriers and at-risk dogs, and has the results examined by a team of geneticists and veterinarians each time. Embark says it has a 99% accuracy rate and is a research partner of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Each of our 200,000+ genetic probes undergo stringent quality control and analysis to ensure the accuracy of results, leading to greater than 99.99% accuracy for most tests. This process involves validating each test against samples from known carriers and at-risk dogs, querying each mutation between 2 and 8 times, and having results examined by a team of geneticists and veterinarians. 

We personally email owners of dogs with an At-Risk status prior to releasing their test results, and we are always willing to discuss any concerns about what this means for a dog, unexpected test results, and results that might differ from other laboratories. We also provide complimentary additional testing when there are discordant results. 

Regarding the difference between being reported as At-Risk versus a Carrier, Penelope does have one copy of the ADAMTS17 mutation responsible for Primary Lens Luxation. This causative mutation has an additive inheritance type and not a recessive mechanism of inheritance. So, while dogs with one copy of the mutation like Penelope have a higher risk than dogs with two healthy alleles at ADAMTS17, their risk is much lower than a dog with two copies of the mutation. Because dogs with one copy of the mutation can still develop Primary Lens Luxation (even if the risk is not as high as a dog with two copies), we use the term "At-Risk" instead of "Carrier".

We recommend that any dog at risk for primary lens luxation, regardless of whether the dog has one or two copies of the mutation, be monitored and examined by a vet or veterinary ophthalmologist for signs of lens luxation, and non-surgical treatment options should be discussed. For truly recessive disorders, dogs with one copy of the mutation are carriers (not at risk) and this does not increase their likelihood of getting the disorder or impact veterinary care (but it may impact breeding decisions if the dog is intact and planned to be bred). Because dogs with one copy of the mutation are at increased risk of primary lens luxation, referring to them as "carriers" could lead owners and vets to believe monitoring or preventative care is not needed, so we use the term "at risk" to avoid this potentially dangerous confusion.

Wisdom Panel also commented on Penny's results.

“Penelope has one copy of this mutation, and is therefore at low risk of showing signs of this disease. Dogs with two copies of the Primary Lens Luxation mutation are at highest risk of being affected by this condition. However there are reports that some dogs with one copy of this mutation go on to show disease signs, but this is much more uncommon. If you notice that Penelope seems to be suffering from eye discomfort, then contact your veterinarian. If lens luxation has occurred then surgery to remove the lens will be required, as untreated lens luxation can lead to complications, and potentially blindness. The second lens tends to become displaced within weeks or months of the first luxation and therefore should be carefully monitored,” said Angela Hughes DVM PhD, Global Science Advocacy Sr. Manager and Veterinary Geneticist with Mars Petcare. “We recommend you share these results with your vet.”

On the Wisdom Panel website, it states the company uses a genetic health screening that tests for multi-drug sensitivity and multi-drug resistance 1, which is a genetic mutation found in many of the herding breeds, some sighthound breeds and many mixed dogs. This mutation can have a significant impact on drug sensitivity. 

“The MDR1 gene is responsible for production of a protein called P-glycoprotein. The P-glycoprotein molecule is a drug transport pump that plays an important role in limiting drug absorption and distribution (particularly to the brain) and enhancing the excretion/ elimination of many drugs used in dogs. As a result, dogs with the MDR1-mutation may have severe adverse reactions to some common drugs, so it is important to test your dog and share your results with your veterinarian so they can provide your dog with for the best possible care,” the Wisdom website reads.

Embark’s website states it also tests for MDR1 drug sensitivity.

The discovery of the mutation of the multi-drug resistant gene (MDR1) and its effects on multi-drug sensitivity in dogs was made by Washington State University. It is a patent-protected diagnostic test that has been licensed exclusively to Wisdom Health in the United States for use in the Wisdom Panel tests.

The website states, “the mission of the Wisdom Health veterinary science and research is to facilitate responsible pet care by enhancing the well-being and relationship between pets, pet owners, breeders, shelters and veterinarians through valuable insights into pets as individuals. Through the genetic testing of dogs and cats we aim to make advances in science towards a better world for all pets so their owners can love them longer.”

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