Have you heard about DNA testing in dogs? If so, then you may have come across Embark – a company that provides DNA testing kits to pet owners. However, there are also an array of other companies out there offering similar products. Let’s explore DNA testing in dogs, as well as whether it’s worth doing one for your pet.

What is the Embark test?

Embark, and other similar companies, primarily market themselves as a way of identifying your dog’s breed. Many owners with cross-breed dogs are intrigued by the heritage of their pets. They would love to know more about what purebreds have combined to make their unique pup. Embark looks at your dog’s DNA to work out what breeds (and at what proportions) were involved in making your dog. They also claim to be able to match siblings. So, if another owner has one of your pup’s litter mates and they have also chosen to have their dog’s DNA tested, then Embark would be able to make the link on their database.

We know that this information plays little bearing on how you manage your pet; but most owners enjoy finding out more about their companions. So mostly this test is used as a bit of fun; though occasionally some owners may use it to prove their dog’s parentage.

However, heath tests are another area that these companies are branching out into

Genetic testing using your dog’s DNA can help to find out if they are carrying certain hereditary health issues. We know that some breeds are more prone to particular health complaints than others; and some of these can be picked up on DNA testing e.g., hereditary cataracts or dilated cardiomyopathy in some breeds (a condition causing abnormal heart enlargement).

This has the potential to be useful if you are considering mating your dog. If they are a carrier for one of these conditions then breeding should not go ahead, as there is a risk to the offspring of developing disease. We should only be breeding healthy dogs to maximise the chances of healthy pups.

How does the test work?

You will need to collect a sample of your dog’s cells, which is done by using a swab. This swab is inserted into your dog’s mouth to rub the inside of his cheek and under his tongue, collecting loose cells and saliva. They advise 60 seconds of swabbing to increase the chances of collecting a good sample.

This sample is then sent back to embark for processing. Here they extract your dog’s DNA from the cells in the sample and look for certain markers within it. They then compare this information to their large database of various purebred dogs, to work out a match. This is known as genotyping. The company will notify you when the results are back.

Some swabs might fail because they simply don’t have enough DNA collected on them. Often this is due to the sampling technique, particularly if your pup isn’t very compliant! Most companies will allow you to take a new sample and try again.

Do vets recommend Embark or similar tests?

Anecdotally, some owners report favourable outcomes when doing canine DNA; with the results matching or confirming what they thought their dog was. However, we must note that these companies are currently unregulated. Embark, a US company, states on its website –

‘At this time, the FDA does not regulate genetic tests for companion animals, so there is no federal requirement for FDA approval on Embark tests. However, Embark has gone above and beyond, and all testing is run in a CLIA-accredited laboratory to ensure proper quality control. Three federal agencies are responsible for CLIA: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

‘Additionally, throughout the ongoing development of our canine genetic science, we are continuously peer-reviewed and audited by an independent body of experts comprised of leaders in their respective fields. Embark Veterinary continues to work with them to ensure that our science is always world-class.’

This means that there is no governing body that oversees the running of businesses like Embark. There are no specific rules or regulations to ensure they all operate to the same standard. However, Embark does its best to reassure us that they are a professional outfit. And that they do take things seriously, trying to operate at a high level. Research in the field of dog DNA is ongoing though. Embark themselves are trying to use information from the samples sent in to build a better understanding of canine health generally.

Due to this lack of regulation, most vets would suggest that we use these tests as a general guide, but don’t take them too seriously

They would agree that the genetic testing aspect is a worthwhile endeavour, as we should be breeding dogs for health. But some of the other tests that Embark offers alongside their canine DNA tests are a bit questionable.

For example, their oral health test seems unnecessary. This is a test that is designed to look at bacterial imbalances in your dog’s mouth to determine if they need dental intervention. Most owners that are choosing this test are probably doing so because they have noticed bad breath, tartar on the teeth or gum inflammation, all of which in themselves are signs of dental disease. It would therefore make sense to save your money and just go straight to your vet for advice rather than paying for DNA testing of your dog’s oral bacteria.

Their gut health test, which looks at sequencing bacterial DNA material from your dog’s faeces (gut flora), may also be misleading. At best it could give some meaningless results. At worst it may delay your dog in getting appropriate veterinary tests and treatment for its gut issues; particularly if there is an underlying disease process occurring. This is usually what causes the bacterial imbalance in the first place.

So… are these tests worth it?

In my opinion, I would suggest that owners avoid self-diagnosing any well-being issues and speak to their vet regarding anything health related. A physical examination from a qualified veterinary professional, and appropriately recommended lab tests, will lead to better outcomes for your pet as opposed to chasing a potentially unnecessary health screen from an unregulated company. It would also be worth discussing genetic testing with your vet or reaching out to the Kennel Club if you are considering breeding your dog.

However, if you are just after some information about your dog’s breed make-up for a bit of fun, then go for it! After all, the test is minimally invasive for your pet. It could even throw up some interesting results (who knew that Fido was 25% poodle, 25% rottweiler and, 50% Dalmatian!).

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