What is DNA profiling in dogs?

A scientist working in a dark laboratory to profile DNA

Whether you’re thinking of buying a pedigree puppy, or simply curious about your dog's particular genetic makeup, DNA profiling is something you might want to look into.

In fact, once you’ve covered the basic essentials for your pet, such as microchipping and pet insurance, it could well be one of the things that you turn to next when thinking about a complete programme of care for your animal friend.

But exactly what is DNA profiling – and what can it tell you about your canine companion?

DNA profiling: an introduction

DNA profiling is the process of obtaining a specific sample (or profile) from a person or animal, with the aim of finding out more about their genetic makeup and heredity – and also, by extension, about any illnesses to which they might be susceptible, any likely dietary intolerances, medicines which might produce adverse effects and so on.

The science has been applied to humans since the 1980s and, over the past few years, has also become a popular area of research for dog owners. Let's look at some common dog-owning scenarios, and explain why DNA profiling might work in each one.

You might be looking for a puppy to welcome into your family, and anxious to have as much information as you can about the genetic background, and potential health risks, of the animals on your shortlist.

You might be a concerned owner, waiting for your dog to receive a surgical procedure – and apprehensive about whether their genetic makeup will stand them in good stead, or result in post-op complications.

You might be a dog breeder, keen to provide accurate information on the ancestry of the puppies you are offering for sale.

Or you might simply be a long-time owner, curious to know exactly which breeds of dog have gone into making your beloved pet the way they are. Why, for example, do they have green eyes? Why is their fur spotted? Why do they have a tendency to overeat, or love to bark at any passer-by?

You might be a 'rescue parent', unaware of – and curious about – your adopted pet's precise identity. Or you might just want to provide a more informative answer to those fellow dog owners on the morning walk, who call out, "She's gorgeous! What breed is she?”

In any of these scenarios, DNA profiling is a simple, painless way to get a fuller understanding of your dog's genetic picture. It will also check your animal, and their genetic information, against various gene-specific diseases or disorders (or genetic mutations).

A fuller medical picture

It may be that, due to their own particular genetic mix, your dog is a carrier of a certain illness – or at greater risk of developing it than you had suspected.

DNA tests can help to rule out certain diseases for your dog – or conversely, and sometimes crucially, flag up a disease as a potential health risk further down the line.

This kind of knowledge could be invaluable in helping you to decide, for example, what level of pet insurance your dog may require.

Most DNA tests search for a wide range of autosomal-recessive conditions. These are conditions for which a dog must inherit two copies of an abnormal gene (one from its mother and one from its father) before its health is affected. 

No wonder, then, that DNA profiling is the method recommended by the Kennel Club for proving a stud dog's identity and genetic credentials.

Indeed, the Club keeps the DNA records of every Club-registered dog on file throughout the animal's life – meaning that vets, breeders, prospective buyers and others can refer to it whenever necessary.

Incidentally, as well as ascertaining whether a dog is as advertised, a DNA profile can also help identify an animal that has been lost (or stolen) and then found.

Although all dogs in England, Scotland and Wales must now legally be microchipped, DNA profiling can also provide crucial assistance in reuniting a dog with its owner.

A sausage dog standing on a log in a woodland area
For buyers and breeders alike

Let's look in detail at two main scenarios – that of the new buyer, and the breeder – where DNA profiling could really make a difference for you.

To take the first scenario, as a buyer of a pedigree dog it's a good idea to ask the dog's breeders whether the stud dogs (the dogs they use for breeding purposes) are DNA profiled.

This will help to establish whether the dog you're being offered is actually the animal detailed on the registration papers (or other documents) – and, furthermore, whether it is a true purebreed.

The DNA profile cannot be altered or tampered with, making it a surefire way of knowing the pedigree of your dog (and that your dog really is the animal that the breeders tell you it is).

As regards the second scenario, as a breeder you should also consider DNA profiling. The procedure will allow you to improve your breeding lines, bringing down the risk of your dogs inheriting hereditary disorders such as hip dysplasia, dental problems, eyesight difficulties and even auto-immune disorders.

These tests can tell you if your dog is likely to be affected by specific conditions, or whether they may pass on the genes associated with these conditions if they're bred from. Health risks are often determined by species – for example, cocker spaniels are prone to ear infections while dachshunds are genetically predisposed to slipped discs.

Again, a knowledge of your dog's precise genetic makeup could be hugely useful in helping you to determine what level of pet insurance is likely to be the best long-term investment. This can help protect your beloved companion throughout their lifespan – and cover you against whatever medicines and procedures might be necessary.

Knowing more about their genetic makeup can also help you to reduce the risk of producing puppies affected by inherited conditions.

If you know about a certain disease-causing gene in your own dog, you will have a far greater insight into what to look for (and what to avoid) in the genetic makeup of any breeding partner. Check out our recent blog on how to safely breed your dog for some tips.

Be aware, though, that a DNA profile does not in itself hold any information about your dog's health status – and that legally, even if your dog has been DNA profiled, they must still be microchipped.

How do I do a DNA test?

A number of different commercial laboratories – including Embark, Wisdom Panel and DNA My Dog – will sell you a dog DNA kit. Try a Google search such as 'Dog DNA test UK' and some options will come up, most costing around £50-£100.

It's worth noting that different laboratories will have different databases – they may, therefore, be particularly strong in certain breeds, having large numbers of that species on their database and therefore able to provide detailed insights and more DNA matches.

Before you commit to a particular DNA test, it may be worth trying to find out how many breeds the company has on their database, and in what numbers.

You can also search the Breeds A-Z section of the Kennel Club’s website and, under each breed, find the Kennel Club advice on which test or tests may be suitable for that breed.

Once you've ordered and been sent the test pack in the post, it's time to carry out the test itself. These are usually in the form of a swab inside the mouth, although sometimes it can be a blood test, for which you’ll need a qualified person, like a vet, present.

The tests generally recommend waiting for at least two hours after your dog's mealtime before you take the swab – this is to ensure that you get an uncontaminated sample. You should also inspect their mouth between the cheek and gums, to make sure there's no food debris remaining.

Instructions may vary, but you will typically be asked to allow the swab to dry for at least five minutes before you package them in the envelope to be sent back to the laboratory.

You will normally wait between one and six weeks to receive your results.

A scientist looking at a screen in a laboratory

The science behind DNA profiling

A typical test may screen for up to 250 breeds and varieties, and may be able to provide a breed breakdown (say, 35% Yorkshire terrier / 45% springer spaniel / 20% poodle) to within 1% accuracy. You may also be provided with a multi-generational family tree that traces your dog's ancestry as far back as their great-grandparents.

The test may also feature additional tests for particular medical complications, helping you to identify risks before your dog goes ahead with any medication or surgical procedures.

And there will likely be several trait tests – detailing your pup's eye colour, coat type, ideal weight range, and other key genetic properties.

Obviously some of these details (such as eye colour!) you know already – but the testers don't, making this a good way to gauge the test's accuracy.

Advanced tests (probably coming in at over £100), meanwhile, might take in up to 200 genetic risks related to drug sensitivities, vision, weight, mobility, and more. You may also be offered a consultation with a vet to discuss any relevant findings or any areas for concern that have been flagged up.

How do the laboratories arrive at these results? It's fairly simple, in fact: just like us humans, dogs have two copies of every gene – one they have inherited from their mother, one from their father. The DNA tests zoom in on these genes to give information about your dog's maternal and paternal lines.

Interestingly, puppies inherit 50 per cent of each of their parents' breeds – but this is a random 50 per cent so, as you may well have experienced, siblings from the same litter can have different breed compositions (having inherited different sections of the family tree / DNA complex).

Given this, a DNA test can be enlightening, even if you think you know the identity of your dog's parents and/or siblings.

What happens with the results?

As the owner, meanwhile, you will be sent a DNA analysis certificate containing the essential information – your dog's name, registration number, owner's name and microchip number.

Alongside their use to you as a breeder, owner or prospective owner, the results of the DNA test may be retained by the Kennel Club in cases where the dog is registered with the club.

You can use their Health Test Results Finder to find the results for any dog on their records that has been screened for the DNA tests and screening schemes that they record. 

Are there ever errors?

It's very unusual, but there is the possibility of errors. You might get a false match, for example, if the laboratory you use for your DNA test holds too few DNA records in its database to compare your results against.

Or the problem could arise that only one of the parent dogs has been DNA profiled – for example, many kennels and breeders may only DNA-profile the sire (or father), meaning that the mother's DNA may not be on their database – again, leading into an incomplete picture for your dog's results to be matched up against.

Knowing your pet

In general, however, it seems that DNA profiling could be both an enlightening and a useful addition to the sum of information you have about your beloved pet.

Whether you're wanting to feel better informed about possible illness risks that might await your puppy in the future, or you simply want to know why your furry friend does that hilarious thing when he sees a squirrel in the woods, DNA profiling could provide you with the answers, reassurance and safeguarding that you need.

Protecting your dog’s future with pet insurance from Purely Pets

DNA profiling could turn out to be a crucial asset in the long-term planning for your beloved pet's healthcare. Another key factor here is pet insurance.

At Purely Pets, we know how important your pup is to you, and we aim to provide you with the kind of pet insurance that will give the best protection to you and your companion.

Our award-winning features include:

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Our Gold products have been awarded a 5* Defaqto rating for 2021.

Contact us today to find the right pet insurance for you.

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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