Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.

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Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend

Journalist John Woestendiek’s Dog, Inc. traces the short history of dog cloning. Snuppy, the first “success, ” is not even six years old, after all. Woestendiek chronicles the dreams, heartbreaks, successes and many, many failures along the road to Snuppy’s birth and those of the clones who have followed. He describes the eccentric personalities and recounts the surprise of the first cloned cat, who looked (and behaved) nothing like the donor cat.

But the bigger story, what it takes to clone dogs, is what really makes this an important book: The hundreds of egg-donor dogs and surrogate mother dogs needed for each “success.” The invasive processes they endure — and their miserable lives in Korea’s dog farms and laboratories. The thousands of deformed and miscarried embryos and dead puppies. The 319 donors, 214 surrogates and astonishing 3656 implanted embryos that produced the first 16 cloned dogs and cats. The sad reality of the “extra” clones who, like Snuppy himself, have spent their entire lives in laboratory cages. Woestendiek draws a bleak picture of life for dogs in Korea, mentioning the hundreds of restaurants that offer dog meat on the menu and adding that the dog farms that exist to feed (literally) the demand are also a source of cheap egg  donor and surrogate mother dogs.

While Dog, Inc. gets off track sometimes, the writing is engaging and captures the full range of human foibles. It’s narrative journalism at its best. The story, though, is horrifying. How can anyone who loves dogs — or even anyone who loves his or her own dog beyond all reason — stomach the process of cloning dogs?

Woestendiek effectively debunks the usual rationale — that they’re going to get their beloved dog back. Cloning is reproduction, not resurrection. It creates an identical twin — same genes, different personality and behavior. Scientist Mark Westhusin, comments that “People get attached to their animals, and they want to sometimes see more than is there …”

This attachment is why people have been willing to fork over $150,000 for a clone of their beloved pet. Sometimes they get more (or less) than they bargained for. The owner of Booger, a pit bull who was cloned, ended up with five clones who fought with each other and her other dogs. “All I was trying  to do was have my Booger back … I have to say that cloning ruined my life,” she said to Woestendiek in one teary phone call.

While preying on the emotions of their wealthy clients, the scientists involved also reveal their true motivations: the drive to do something no one else has done, national pride, the potential for a lucrative commercial venture. These scientists are not cloning dogs out of love for dogkind. One produced 19 fluorescent green beagle pups. Why? Because his rival had produced glowing red beagle pups. Creating monster dogs for fun does not justify the pain and suffering these scientists cause.

Dogs, Inc. describes the current state of dog cloning and hints at its future. Will Korea’s commercial cloning venture take off of wither away into deserved failure? Woestendiek doesn’t prophesize, but this reader hopes that people who truly love dogs will see cloning for the travesty that it is and instead devote their time, love, and dollars to the millions of deserving dogs we already have in this country.