Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Buying a Dog DNA Test

updated Oct 29, 2020
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Want to know your dog’s breed makeup? DNA testing can be a fun way to learn about their ancestry. But with a growing number of dog DNA tests on the market, it can be overwhelming to figure out which one to buy for your furry friend (not to mention how to use it). 

To learn more about dog DNA testing, we spoke with Dr. Jessica Hekman, a veterinarian and postdoctoral associate at the Karlsson Lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. From what to look for in a test to how they even work, here’s everything you need to know:

Why would you want to do a dog DNA test? 

Dr. Hekman says the main reason owners try dog DNA tests is out of pure curiosity. “If you have a mixed breed dog and are curious about what breeds are in there, that’s pretty much for fun,” she says. “Occasionally, someone might want to verify their dog is really a purebred.”

Another reason to do dog DNA test is to get health information, which Dr. Hekman says is usually relevant for breeders to decide the healthiest dogs to breed with each other. Also, if you’re looking to buy a purebred puppy from a breeder and have questions about the dog’s health, Dr. Hekman says it’s reasonable to ask if they’ve conducted genetic testing. Herding dogs like Australian Shepherds, for example, are more sensitive to particular drugs, which is useful information to know before bringing the dog home. 

Keep in mind, though, that a dog showing a DNA marker for a certain health condition doesn’t mean it will definitely have that condition. Dr. Hekman says it just means there’s a higher likelihood compared to other dogs.

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How does dog DNA testing work? 

Like most human versions, dog DNA tests use saliva samples. Ancestry tests use a computer algorithm to look for markers scattered across the dog’s DNA, then determines which breed it looks like on all those markers. “Then you can say, this dog seems like a golden retriever in this many places, so he’s probably 50 percent golden,” Dr. Hekman says. 

Health testing is a little more complex. Dr. Hekman says those tests are often based on scientific studies where researchers examine how DNA markers look in a dog with a higher or lower risk of a given disease. 

What should I look for in a dog DNA test?

Dr. Hekman says there are two elements that make up an ideal dog DNA test. The first thing to look for is a kit with a higher number of DNA markers than other brands. Basically, a breadth of DNA markers means the kit will identify even the lower-percentage breeds in your dog. “The test that has more markers will be better at finding different breeds,” Dr. Hekman says. “The more DNA markers you look at, the better—you don’t want to miss a breed.”

After collecting DNA information, the kit company also has to compare what other dogs look like at those markers. So Dr. Hekman says it’s important to look for a dog DNA test that’s tested enough dogs to have a higher number of breeds on its breed panel.

Most companies have all the common breeds. Some kits look for more unusual breeds than others, but Dr. Hekman says if you have a mutt, the test probably can’t detect some random, rare breed. If you’re trying to find out if your dog has a particular breed in it, then it’s important to check the testing company to make sure that breed is on the panel. 

What are the best dog DNA tests on the market?

Dr. Hekman says there are two brands to start with: Embark and Wisdom Panel.

Embark has a higher number of markers, so if you have a mutt with a lot of potential breeds in it, this brand might find the smaller percentages (it has 110 times more genetic markers than its competition). Oh, and apparently Oprah likes it, too!

Wisdom Panel has a slightly larger breed panel, testing for 350 different breeds, so you can look into it if there is a particular breed you’re curious about.

One caveat Dr. Hekman says to keep in mind if you’re DNA testing your dog: most vets don’t have training in how to interpret dog DNA tests, so it’s important to take all the information with a grain of salt. 

It’s also important to remember that every dog is different. Learning about your dog’s breed makeup isn’t a reliable way to learn about your dog’s personality or behavior. “The genetics of behavior are very complicated, so don’t use these tests to change your assumptions about your dog,” she says. “These tests should be used for fun.”