Basepaws Review: Cat DNA Test Is Far From Purrfect

Basepaws Review: Cat DNA Test Is Far From Purrfect

Human DNA testing is big business now, with companies like 23 & Me, Ancestry and MyHeritage all competing for a slice of your genome. Given how obsessed us Brits are with our pets, it was only a matter of time before someone started offering DNA kits for them too.

One of the first out of the gate is Basepaws, which we had high hopes for based solely on its ingenious name (it’s a pun on “base pairs” plus, obviously, paws). Sadly, those expectations were not met.

Here’s our full Basepaws review to explain why.

“Excuse me, Fluffykins, could you spit into this tube?”

My first question about Basepaws was how I was supposed to collect DNA from my two cats, Mawri and Moose. If you’ve ever met a cat, you’ll know they’re not exactly what you’d call compliant.

Thankfully, rather than the spitting-in-a-tube process favoured by human DNA testing, Basepaws uses a swab that you swish around the cat’s mouth and then put into a tube. Admittedly, the cats still weren’t thrilled about having their cheeks swabbed, but it was relatively quick and easy and I gave them each a treat with what remained of my fingers.

Each kit has its own serial number which you associate with the cat you’ll use it on on the website. I was careful not to fill in any information other than their names, in case Basepaws cheated and used it to inform the results — if I’d uploaded a photo of Mawri and got a result saying “you’ve got a fluffy black cat,” I’d have been suspicious. I wanted all the info to come from the samples.

The next problem was how to send the DNA back, because Basepaws hasn’t technically launched in the UK yet so you have to send your samples to the US. It’s only a swab in a tube, but I suspected if I wrote “cat DNA” on the international customs form, it’d get stopped — so I filled it in exactly the same way as on the label that got it here (plastic screw-top tube, non-hazardous liquid, etc). It got past the Post Office clerk no problem, other than the usual scowl.

The waiting begins

I sent the samples by international priority mail, so they got there within a couple of days (you have to pay for this yourself if you’re sending from the UK: about £10 per box). But that’s where the speediness ended, because it turns out the Basepaws process is unbelievably long.

The 23andMe kit takes between 3 and 5 weeks to process, for which you get loads of info about your looks, health traits, ancestry and whether asparagus makes your wee smell. I was expecting around the same for cat DNA.

My two sample boxes arrived at Basepaws HQ on the 28th of January, so I thought I’d have results by mid-March at the very latest: that’s a generous six weeks. In actual fact, on the 21st of March — almost two months after they arrived — I got an email saying “One step closer! Your Basepaws CatKit is being sequenced!”

Apparently, it took all that time to extract the DNA from the samples I’d sent, and they hadn’t even started sequencing them yet. Brilliant.

I finally got the results on the 9th of April, which is ten weeks after they arrived, and even longer since I posted them. The service obviously knows that ten weeks feels like a very long wait, because the subject line reads “Finally! Your CatKit results are HERE! ????”

Finally indeed. So was it worth the wait?

Describe the cat in front of me

The two cats I tested are both adopted, so I don’t know anything about their backgrounds and was hoping to learn what kind of cats they might be.

Mawri is a smallish black floof with very silky fur:

And Moose is a gentle giant who I’m often told looks like “he’s got a bit of Maine Coon in him,” but could also be 100% rug:

After the epic waiting time (and although Giz UK’s review kits were comped, for most people the not-inconsiderable cost of about £75 per cat), you’re hoping for something impressive and interesting — ideally something you can boast a bit about when showing off your beloved moggy.

That is not what you get.

For each cat, I received a nicely-designed 8-page PDF report. While that sounds like a lot of information, page 1 is the cover, page 2 is contents, page 3 is “how to interpret this report,” and page 8 is some really, really basic information about having a cat as a pet, including remembering to take them to the vet, and not letting them get too fat. Groundbreaking.

That leaves 4 pages of actual report, of which only one is really useful: the summary of what they found in your cat’s DNA. Here’s Mawri’s:

So my domestic longhair, completely black cat is most similar to a Ragdoll, which is a large breed that goes floppy when held (hence the name). I’ve actually had a Ragdoll and Mawri is nothing like one, either in appearance or temperament. If you pick her up, she wriggles like crazy and tries to bite you, and has done since she was a tiny kitten.

The second most like her is the Norwegian Forest Cat, also a massive cat. Mawri is small and has none of its traits.

And finally, the Turkish Angora. This is the most believable: although they’re thought of as all-white, you can get black Turkish Angoras, and they have long silky coats like Mawri’s. However, she’s still no more similar to an Angora than any other silky longhair. Unimpressed.

Here’s Moose’s results:

Persian?! Moose is nothing like a Persian. They have a very specific look and temperament, and he doesn’t share it whatsoever. Maybe this stuff is easier to believe if you don’t have much experience with these breeds?

Norwegian Forest Cat was second again, which I could believe — he is quite big and does have the long “snowshoes” on his large, fluffy paws, but I put no stock in this after the first place result was Persian.

And finally, a Russian Blue — again, no similarity at all.

The summary page also compares each cat to the wild breeds they’re most similar to. These were identical for both cats: leopard, cheetah, tiger, cougar. We wonder if anyone gets different results on that section for a domestic cat (tempted to test a tiger and see what it comes back with).

That summary page is pretty much the entirety of what your money and time gets you. There are some cool-looking but uninformative chromosome maps, and full-page summaries of the top three breeds your cat is most like, which you could Google — and that’s pretty much it.

I was expecting something more along the lines of human DNA tests, where it tells you what colour hair, eyes and so on your DNA predicts, as well as some health information, perhaps a bit of ancestry and some genetic quirks. But there’s none of that.

The results don’t tell you what colour coat or eyes your cat has (I know, of course, but I wanted to see if they’d get it right), anything about their health (like what diseases they might be more prone to, for instance), anything about their descent beyond “it’s most like this random purebreed that it’s nothing like” and… just nothing, really. I’m none the wiser from these results whatsoever.

Please do not reverse-engineer my cat.

The report says (emphasis ours):

“95% of all cats in the world are mixed-breed mutts. This is all we knew about them until now. With genetic data, we can learn more about what makes each mixed-breed polycat unique! As we gather more purebred data and trait information, we will be able to start narrowing down the parts of the genome that are responsible for certain traits and thus will continue to explore what makes YOUR polycat unique!”

In other words, we can’t tell you any of this stuff at the moment. Super.

It gets worse

The Basepaws results are all calculated according to the rest of the tested database. For instance, Mawri’s results say “Mawri is more similar to the Ragdoll than 94.43% of all other cats in our database.”

Spot the problem?

This tells me nothing. It’s completely useless information. For all I know, she’s been compared with 100 Persians, in which case of course she’s more like a Ragdoll than they are. That doesn’t mean she’s like a Ragdoll, but it kinda reads as if she is if you don’t really think about it.

I'm a what now?

Still, if the database is huge and contains millions of cats, that information might be significant, so I asked Basepaws for the number of cats they compare against. They wouldn’t tell me. A spokesperson said:

“We match the samples we collect from our cat parents to purebred cats in our panels – that’s how we determine which breeds your cats are closest to. We have thousands of cats and our databases are quickly growing!”

I asked again for a more specific figure (tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Two thousand?) but Basepaws refused to be any more specific.

Lamer than a three-legged moggy.

Is Basepaws’ cat DNA test worth buying?

You could get a low-end Android for the cost of these.

Right now, absolutely not.

It’s $137, some hassle and a lot of time to find out whether your cat is more similar to a random breed than an unspecified number of other random cats.

At some point in the future, if the database grows to numbers that are actually significant and Basepaws is able to tell you anything about your cat’s health and traits from the DNA information, it might be worth a try.

But for now, it’s less a genetic report, and more a generic report. Disappointing.