I was crawling around on the floor, chasing my cat, Avalanche, as she artfully wriggled away from me over and over again to gnaw at the piece of tape I had stuck to her grey and white fur. Avalanche had unwittingly become a victim of journalistic inquiry: I wanted to explore the latest fad in consumer DNA testing, genetic analysis for pets. But rather than somehow coax my cat to spit in a tube, Basepaws required that I stick a piece of tape to Avalanche's body, then "gently" pull it off. Except it turns out that there is no way to gently rip tape off of an animal completely covered in two-inch-long fur. My cat was furious with me for hours.
The market for at-home DNA tests has exploded. Curious to find out about their ancestry, risk of disease, diet, and athletic potential, millions of people are hawking gobs of spit into test tubes and shipping them off to companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe. But human DNA testing is not the only thing that's trending. Increasingly, people are DNA testing their pets.
Now, why, you ask, would anyone want to DNA test their cat or dog?
For Mirja Bauer, it was about her dog's health. When she adopted Bagel, she was told he was a Dalmatian mix. And Dalmatians tend to suffer from a host of genetic problems, including urinary stones.
"I wanted to do the DNA test to see if she really was a Dalmatian," Bauer told Gizmodo.
Knowing a dog's breed can help an owner manage or prevent health issues that are breed-specific, as well as give insight into breed-specific behaviours.
So she ordered a doggie DNA test from Embark, which offers a cheek-swab test that tells owners about their dog's breed, health, and even traits like athletic performance.
Bagel, it turned out, was not a Dalmatian at all, but a mix of Boxer and Staffordshire bull terrier. The test gave her peace of mind.
"I found out that she's really really healthy," said Bauer. "I think there was 160 diseases that they tested for. And she's clear [on] of 156 of those."
For most pet owners, the main interest is simply curiosity (and bragging rights) about their dog's breed.
Philip Berne, a writer in Dallas, adopted his dog, Moose, right after Hurricane Harvey had displaced many, many pets. Moose, Berne was told, was a dachshund puppy and was deaf because of a genetic condition.
"I've always been curious about his genetics because he doesn't look like other dachshunds," Berne said. He ordered the Wisdom Panel breed detection test. His hunch, it turned out, was right.
"Moose is 50 per cent Chihuahua, 25 per cent dachshund, and 25 per cent poodle," he reported. "I was shocked."
Another company, Animal Biome, will even sequence the microbiome of your dog or cat. From bacterial DNA in a poop sample, Animal Biome will tell you about the microbe makeup of your pet's gut, along with information about how this impacts digestive health.
At least when it comes to breed, doggie DNA tests are significantly more accurate than ancestry tests for humans. Dog breeds are, in essence, human-made. While what makes a Norwegian a Norwegian is hard to pin down, what makes a German Shepherd a German Shepherd is much more well-defined.
"We have much better records of German Shepherds than we do Italians," Angela Hughes, the veterinary genetics research manager at Wisdom Health, said.
As with human tests, a company's algorithm and DNA database can cause some variability between two different tests. And the more mixed the dog is the, the harder it is to pin down specifics. But a dog that gets a German Shepard test result is pretty likely to actually be a German Shepard. And like human tests, as testing company databases grow, that accuracy will only improve.
The domesticated dog is actually a close evolutionary relation to humans, compared to many other animals, and its DNA is fairly well-studied. A lot of health information can be gleaned from insight into a dog's breed alone. Unlike health-risk tests for humans, the health information offered on doggie tests doesn't have to pass through the FDA's regulatory approval. The studies that back the results on these tests tend to be smaller and fewer in number than those looking at human disease risk. Because of that, said Hughes, Widsom Panel can act as part of the research process, validating or debunking study results based on what its testing finds.
Cats are even more poorly studied, and only one company, Basepaws, offers a commercial breed test. That's the test I foisted upon my cat, Avalanche. (I also put her through a test from Wisdom Panel, though that test is primarily marketed to cat breeders.)
I adopted Avalanche last April from the SCPA in San Francisco when she was an adorable, palm-sized kitten. She is short-haired, with white-and-grey, tabby-striped spots. Avalanche spends most her day staring out the window trying to imitate bird sounds or attacking her favourite toy, my appropriately named Cat Palm. I have no idea what breed she is. This is not a question most people ask cat owners. And, even if you did know a cat's breed, it would not be nearly as useful as knowing the breed of a dog, because cats are simply not studied as often. (Even though, as this story points out, they may actually be better models for human disease.)
Still, I ordered a kit from Basepaws and proceeded to rip a fine layer of fur off of Avalanche with the included sticky tape. Wisdom Panel also sent me its cat breeder test, for which I swabbed her cheek. (This went much more smoothly; she kind of enjoyed gnawing on the swab.) I even raided Avalanche's litter box to collect a sample of her poop for the Animal Biome test. If bisecting your cat's poo isn't love, I'm not sure what is.
"When a person a pet owner gets this new cat from the shelter, they really don't know anything about it," said Anna Skaya, who founded Basepaws in 2016. Like dog owners, most cat owners are curious about whether their pet is a certain breed or is genetically predisposed to certain health issues.
"Most cats are mutts, most cats domestic short-hairs," Skaya conceded. "But even if that's the case, you still are closer to some breeds than others."
And, Skaya said, she hopes the data they collect will be useful to help forward cat genetic research.
Here's what I found out from my cat's tests: Avalanche doesn't have any known genetic conditions. According to Wisdom Panel, she is "genetically black" with a solid coat, though my own visual assessment confirmed that she is in fact grey and white. (The test also suggested it is likely that she has a tabby pattern, which she does.) And, as I suspected, she is a mutt.
As with any genetic endeavour, testing your pet's DNA is a game of probability. Genetics is a science of comparison - you measure your dog or cat's genes against other dog and cat genes to see how they relate. And as more dogs and cats go through the rigmarole of a DNA test, the results are sure to become more informative.
Still, I'm not sure I found out anything especially useful. And I am fairly certain that poor Avalanche would agree it wasn't worth the hassle.