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Jul 02, 2019

Finding Their Roots: Genetic Testing for Our Pets

Diane L. Grigg

genetic testing dog floor

In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of interest in genetic testing and how it applies to not only our ancestry and medical possibilities, but also our pets. Genealogy websites abound as we connect to missing and unknown family, learn about our medical history and even solve crimes. The process of discovery using simple DNA collection techniques means a faster, more streamlined way to find out who we are and how we connect to the world. The physical manifestation of gene expression translates into finding out our best friends’ breeds, temperaments and behaviors, while giving insights and clues to dietary and medical concerns. The results are not perfect, but reliable. The notion of finding out the genetic components of our pets has brought forth a great deal of excitement and curiosity.

Since the studies and theories of natural selection by Charles Darwin in the 1850s, to Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiments in 1865 which demonstrated heredity in distinct units, the idea of comprehending the components of heredity has fascinated us all. From the first X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA in 1952 by Rosalind Franklin, to the Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick who discovered DNA’s double helical structure, the study of DNA and genes help us define our past and plan for the future. Most organisms on the planet work on a common information, storage and expression system centered on DNA. Every organism has a developmental history from birth to death. As an organism develops, its unique set of genes interacts with its unique environment in determining characteristics.

The study of genes has profoundly changed our view of animals and their relation to the rest of the universe. Genetics is the study of those genes through their variation. A gene is a section of a threadlike molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. It is a heredity material passed from one or two sets of parents. DNA is the basis for all processes and structures of life. It virtually functions the same way in all organisms.  It wasn’t until April 2003, 50 years after the discovery of DNA, that the human genome code was cracked, with 99.99 percent accuracy.  After that, genetic testing went on the fast-track with multiple companies joining the DNA train.

Ten years ago, DNA test kits appeared in pet stores. The availability and lower cost piqued the interest of pet parents as they longed to find out which of the Heinz 57 variety their animal was. People were seeking answers to physical attributes as well as temperament and potential medical issues. This revealed information on how to better care for our best friends nutritionally, medically and environmentally, leading to a potentially longer and happier life. The process of discovery starts with a simple test kit, consisting of a swab to gently scrape off cheek cells and sometimes a container to place a bit of hair. After a wait of six to eight weeks, the results are ready for review. At less than $100, one can discover the hidden secrets DNA contains.

Cat ancestry differs from dogs. While humans have 46 chromosomes and dogs 78, domestic cats have 38. Chromosomes are linear structures made up of strands of DNA. There are 20 individual genes which determine the color and pattern of a cat’s coat. Cats have large feral populations all over the world, invading rural and urban areas creating a wider gene pool and greater diversity. The first DNA test for cats was manufactured by a company, Basepaws, whose goal was to unearth a lifetime of health related discovery. Some breeds carry a defect which causes adverse reactions to commonly prescribed medications.

Animal shelters use genetic testing to determine “Bully” breeds, dogs that are part Staffordshire Bull Terrier or American Pit Bull, as these specific breeds have been stigmatized by dog fighting and aggression. That information alone could stop an adoption from moving forward. Many condominium associations require testing of canine residents to determine eligibility for housing. Several complexes have used genetic testing to unravel the mystery of whose droppings are being left around.

Inbreeding has deleterious effects on the future by limiting the gene pool and creating genetic mutations. By pinpointing the potential for disease, common genetic disorders like disc problems, cancer and tumors, eye and heart disease, neurological diseases like epilepsy, joint and bone disorders, as well as skin and immune system concerns can be addressed. Diabetes can be traced in dogs and cats, citing specific breeds that carry the propensity for this disease to develop.

Advanced cellular and genetic research is prompting better therapies for our best friends, improving quality and length of life. By investigating the roots of existence, we are able to connect to a greater fabric of life. Animals do not give a second thought as to who they are genetically related to. They are related to us – our friends, who with just a sniff and a nudge know their place in the world.