Home Podcast TOP #50: What Are Dog DNA Tests and Are They Reliable?

TOP #50: What Are Dog DNA Tests and Are They Reliable?

DNA tests for dogs are similar to those used for humans, and over the last ten years, canine DNA testing has become substantially more popular. Dog DNA tests themselves have improved significantly, and several companies now can provide pet owners not only with the history and breed specifics of a dog, but even related health problems.

The current leader of DNA tests for dogs is Embark with the most extensive and accurate database and tests available. I've previously reviewed Embark's DNA kit, but this time I wanted to invite one of their representatives, Ashley Troutman, to come speak to me about what doggy DNA tests are, how they work, what are their benefits and in particular their reliability. If you're curious about testing your pooch for breed history and health problems, this podcast episode is for you. Tune in!

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

What Are Dog DNA Tests and Are They Reliable?
(raw podcast transcript)

What Are Dog DNA Tests and Are They Reliable

What are dog DNA tests? Have you heard about this new trend that's becoming more popular over the last couple of years? If you've adopted a dog from a shelter there's a chance you've probably heard of it, you might have seen it pop up as an ad on Facebook or on one of the sites, the pet sites that you've been browsing recently.

So what are dog DNA tests? What can we learn from them? What's the difference between the products that are on the marketing right now? Because this is a fairly recent development, and it's not really a fairly recent development but it's recently been placed into the hands of consumers.

So we don't have a whole lot of options on the market right now. There are probably less than a dozen. But there are some different brands, they test for a lot of different things, there are kits that you can order online or buy at a local pet store and you do the swabbing and the testing yourself, you mail it in and get your results back. It's kind of like the human DNA test, paternity test and maternity test that you can buy at the drugstore, very similar to that setup.

And then there are also DNA tests that can be done through your veterinarian. Obviously your vet's going to have answers as far as what they can test for. Again depending on the service that they use you're going to get different results. But usually a vet DNA test will be a blood test. They may do a swab, but I know our vet does a blood test and that's kind of the most common.

The ones that you order and do at home are pretty simple, very straightforward. My question I was kind of skeptical on the results, how much you would really learn, how beneficial they were, and also how reliable they are. So I wanted to reach out to an expert in the field. I reached out to my friends at Embark. Embark is probably the best known dog DNA test on the market at this time. They're a very popular company, they have sold thousands and thousands of tests with great results, a lot of great reviews, consumers have been happy, a lot of different shelters use Embark test.

So I researched my friends over there and I spoke today with Ashley Troutman. And Ashley is a representative from the company, and she's here to tell us a little bit more about these tests and what can we expect as pet owners, so you can make a choice and decide whether this is an appropriate expense for you or not.

Interview with Ashley Troutman

Samantha: Can you tell us a little bit about how dog DNA tests work? I know that a lot of pet owners are probably familiar with the human variation of the cheek swab test, but can you just let us know how the test work, how pet owners use them and what happens kind of with the process?

Ashley: Of course, so let's start from the beginning. As soon as you receive your DNA test kit you'll want to get ready to swab your dog. So take the swab and rub it around your dog's mouth and gums for about 30 seconds. And then the swab comes with a tube, so you'll want to put the swab back into the tube and then into a small plastic bag that comes with it as well. And that now will have a code on it, it's important to register that code on our site, embarkvet.com. And then repackage everything into the box; send it back to us with the prepaid shipping label.

And then we'll send you an email once you've registered the swab on our site and then we'll continue to send you updates until your dog's results are ready. And we display them on our site, it's very easy to navigate. And if you have any questions or a customer I should say has any questions we have an excellent customer service team that can help out.

Samantha: So how long between when you actually mail the test back and until you get the results?

Ashley:  Typically it takes about six to eight weeks, but we're working on faster return times right now.

Samantha:  Yeah, I will say I will link to my review of the Embark dog DNA test that I tried with our dog, and my favorite part about it because six to eight weeks, I mean, obviously you're getting DNA results back so you're not expecting them to come the next day. But you're still kind of curious during that time of what's going on with your dog's swab and what they're doing, and so I love that you get email updates and it keeps you involved, like you said you register your specific swab and your test online and so you're notified of what's going on and kind of how the process is moving along which I love that. Just not kind of after four or five weeks you might be waiting and thinking, “I wonder if it ever got there. I wonder if they even started testing it yet or whatever.”

And my favorite thing about Embark which I noticed a lot of other tests don't do is that they sort of keep you aware of what's happening through the steps, so you're not just sitting there for weeks a time wondering what's going on.

Ashley:  That's great. I'm so glad that you liked that, and we really enjoy keeping our customers in the loop and we just want to keep you updated on the process.

Samantha:  So I know obviously Embark is not the only test on the market, how much do these tests cost? What could pet parents expect to pay for a test?

Ashley:  So you can order one test for about 199 and if you'd like more than one kit or if you're a vet, breeder, or shelter we offer bulk discounts.

Samantha:  Oh, that's fantastic. That's great.

Ashley:  Yes, we want to help as much as we can.

Samantha:  So I know that some tests are cheaper, obviously some are more expensive, that's just the way the market is. What would be the difference between some of the other tests and Embark? What sets Embark dog DNA test apart from the other products?

Ashley:  Well, we're a science focused company, and the founders worked in dog genetics scientists for a decade before starting Embark. Plus we're partnered with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, not to mention our dedicated customer service professionals they help our customers with anything they need, and we also have veterinarians that will actually calling you to talk about your health results if you'd like.

Samantha:  Oh, wow.

Ashley:  But when we talk about numbers I know it's not great, but our customers really love that, and when we talk about numbers our test uses over 20 times as much genetic information as any other test. So that allows us to provide the most complete and accurate result possible, and the amount of do that we have also allows us to make new scientific discoveries and no other dog DNA test collects enough genetic info to allow for research into conditions with unknown causes, so we're really excited about the discoveries that were going to make in the future and are working on right now.

Samantha:  Oh, that's great, that's really interesting to know. And for anybody who's listening who's not familiar with DNA tests I love that you mentioned that you guys take more information. Some of the tests on the market are cheaper but as with anything you get what you pay for kind of thing, so my biggest advice to pet owners when I'm talking to people about DNA tests and which to choose, which is right for their dog is to look at the results, what you're going to learn from your test because you don't get as much information from some. So what can pet owners learn from the results that they're going to get back from their DNA tests from Embark?

Ashley:  Well, how much time do you have? So they can learn so much. So not only can you learn about breed, because of course you want to know what breed your dog is, but also traits and ancestry. We actually create a doggie family tree for customers and it goes back three generations, well, we know this because we tested your dog. But for anyone who's listening who hasn't tested we go back three generations and actually give you this cute graphic that shows the dogs. Plus with an Embark DNA test we can uncover potential health risks that you may be able to prevent, and that's really my favorite part about our test.

Samantha:  Yeah, that would be my favorite part too. And I mention it in my review, unfortunately when we got the test our dog had already been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy which is a congenital heart disease that she was born with. So that was normally it's something that doesn't show any symptoms until a dog's like seven, eight, or nine years old, I think eight years our vet told us was the average age because our Boxer, Chloe, came from a puppy mill and obviously inbreeding was a big issue, and so the genetic basically, her genetics were like souped up almost, she was diagnosed when she was four because of such strong breeding of these bad traits and so many generations of her family.

So hers came out really young but had it not shown sign so young we would have been able to know that that was coming, and it actually would have saved us so much. We're in a very rural part of Maine, so I mean, there's veterinarians around here but we don't have a lot of specialists. We would actually have to go to New Hampshire to get the closest cardiac, canine cardiac specialists to us.

So when Chloe was first diagnosed we kind of rushed her to our vet who then sent us to the emergency vet and there was a lot of phone calls and we had to make a trip out of state to see this canine cardiologist. And had we known that this was an option maybe going to happen down the road we could have prepared for that and maybe talked to our vet about it and she could have learned more about it before we were actually struggling with it. So it hits home very much for me, and I'm sure there's other people out there who can relate to that too that there are some diseases that if you know about them beforehand it can really literally be a lifesaver for your pet.

Ashley:  It really can, yeah. There are a lot of preventative measures that you can take and that is something that our vets would certainly talk with you about.

Samantha:  That's so, so great. So differing results from different tests we talked about that a little bit, and I think the biggest thing to me that it seems like Embark stands out with is the genetics and just pinpointing some of the specifics for your dog. I know there are some brands out there where you'll only get like ear dog's breed or the breeds that he's mixed back. So do you think that's probably the biggest difference and the biggest maybe benefit for looking at the different types of tests?

Ashley:  Yes, because like you said it is possible to get different results from different brands. The reason behind that is our competitors often come up with different results especially with respect to ancestry because their methods are different than ours. We have more genetic information, so that allows us to get better results. Plus as I've mentioned before we use over 20 times the number of genetic markers than other tests, so it just allows us to resolve breeds with greater accuracy.

Samantha:  And I know one of the other differences I've noticed just in researching different tests is the number of breeds that they can test for, how many breeds can Embark identify?

Ashley:  Yes, there are over 175 breeds we look for in your dog. And we have a list of all of them up on our website if you want to go check that out.

Samantha:  Oh, that's great. So if people are … a lot of people I know when you get a dog from a shelter they may have a good idea that it's a lab mix, they'll tell you or something like that, so if people have questions they could jump on there and see if the breed that they're suspecting is on there.

Ashley:  Yes, absolutely. That's what we would suggest you do. Just come over to our site and take a look at the breed list that we have up and just find your breed there.

Samantha:  And for anybody who's listening that wants just quick access to the Embark site what I will do is if you're watching this on social media or listening to it on our site, there'll be a link to the Embark site right there. So if they want to go ahead and check that out it'll be really easy to access.

Ashley:  Great. Thank you.

Samantha:  So we talked a little bit about Embark and how you guys are looking towards the future which I think is always great for any company but especially in something like genetics, things are changing, technology is changing and advancing every day, what are you guys foreseeing dog genetic testing having greater uses in the future?

Ashley:  Well, we hope that it will have many greater uses in the future. Already there's lots of dog owners and breeder that are seeing the value of learning all they can about something about their pet and producing the healthiest possible litters, so that's the first step. And Embark is combining what we think is the most comprehensive testing panel with research created platforms, so that allows us as more pet owners and breeders test with Embark to get our scientists working on this to make more discoveries.

So the more discoveries we make the farther that will push us ahead in research. And Embark is already making discoveries right now that lead to better genetic testing in dogs. And as we continue genetic testing will become more and more valuable. And eventually we believe that we can develop genetic tests that will help reduce the instance of cancer, hip dysplasia, and even heart disease in breeds and improve their lifespan.

Samantha:  Wow, that's fantastic.

Ashley:  Thank you.

Samantha:  That's great.

Ashley:  It's not me. It's our company.

Samantha:  Yeah, absolutely. No, kudos to you guys for doing that. I know obviously being a pet owner for many, many years and a pet lover that's the biggest drawback that every pet owner talks about is that you just wish that your animals could be around as long as you could. And losing them early to a disease like cancer or watching them suffer with something like hip dysplasia is so heartbreaking for a pet owner. So to think that you guys are working on advances for something so major like that is really inspiring. That's great.

Is there anything else about dog DNA tests or Embark specifically that you would like our audience to know?

Ashley:  Just that it goes so much farther than just enabling you to find out what breed your dog is, which is so much fun and wonderful. But like I said before we also provide insights on ancestry and traits, and we can help you uncover potential health risks so you're able to hopefully increase the amount of time you get with your dog. So that is extremely important.

The two brothers who started this business, Brian and Adam Boyko, they are biggest dog lover you'll ever meet. And the company's mission is to end preventable diseases in dogs, and as far as I'm concern that's a really easy mission to get behind.

Samantha:  Absolutely. And I think it's important too, we focused on a lot of the benefits health-wise for your pet, but just knowing the breed and like you said the different traits I mean that can be really empowering for pet owners especially new pet owners that are kind of uncertain and a lot of us that have been dog owners for many years have a kind of a breed of choice, ours with our family we've had Boxers for a long time and you kind of know what to expect and what their personalities are like – are they active? Are they more lazy?

So for people who maybe you get a dog from the shelter and you don't know anything about them not only can it help you with the health aspect but it can just help you learn more about your dog. And the more you learn the better pet owner you can be and the more that you can bond with your companion, so that aspect certainly we shouldn't overshadow that either. It's a really big part of DNA testing and the information that you can get back from that.

Ashley:  Absolutely.

Samantha:  Another big thank you to Ashley for speaking with me today. I really appreciate her time. And I hope she answered a lot of your questions about dog DNA tests, what they are, how they work, the accuracy of them. She gave us some great information on Embark, as I said they seemed to be the leader in the industry right now. I really look forward to seeing how dog genetics is going to advance in the future. There are some really great things happening in that field right now. I like to keep my eye on that and watch, as I said we've had experience with pets in the past who have had congenital diseases, birth defects, issues with their health that could have been helped or maybe even prevented had we known about them earlier. So we've definitely lived that. I know there's a lot of you out there listening that have dealt with issues like that, and wouldn't it be nice to be able to foresee these issues or be able to figure out ways to treat these issues so that we don't have to lose our pets earlier than expected.

PREVIOUS PODCAST: TOP #49 – Clean Eating for Dogs, Is It Worth It?

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.