Who is your pet, anyway?
Do you really know your pet? Sure, you know her favorite toys and treats, where she prefers to sleep at night, how she interacts with other animals, and that she always tries to cheer you up when you’re down—but what made her who she is? DNA testing can reveal hidden information about our pets (and ourselves), such as breed makeup, ancestry, health predispositions, and, most recently, age (dogs)! Specific DNA tests can also identify problematic bacteria and gene mutations in your pet. At one time, many of these tests could only be accessed through a veterinarian, but they are becoming increasingly available as home test kits for pet owners.
The benefits of pet DNA test kits
No single test provides every benefit listed below—if you want to reap them all, you will likely need to purchase two or more different kits.
- Learn about your pet’s breed(s). Unless you own a purebred pet with papers to prove it, you might like to know your pet’s breed or breed mix. The breeds of some pets, like birds and reptiles, are easily identified by their appearance. But cats and dogs are trickier, which is why some dogs are referred to as mutts, and most cats are referred to by their coat color and length (e.g., shorthaired grey tabby, longhaired calico). Breed identification tests can identify your pet’s breed ancestry several generations back. You might find out that your suspected Labrador Retriever-German Shepherd is 25% Border Collie (ah, that explains the white patches!), and your orange tabby is 20% Bengal (that’s why his stripes are so round!).
- Find your pet’s relatives. Ever wonder where your pet’s littermates or parents are and how they’re doing? If your pet’s relatives have been tested by the same company, you can find out! You can even find your pet’s aunts, uncles, and cousins! If you wish, you can contact their owners and swap details about your pets’ health history, physical traits, and temperaments. You can also choose to keep all your pet’s (and your own) information private.
- Find out how old your pet is. Age detection is the new ‘kit’ on the block, currently only available for dogs. Pet DNA companies claim to determine your dog’s age to the year and month. If you adopted your dog as an adult, this could be intriguing! Combining your dog’s age with breed information can help you best support your dog through his different life stages, particularly as he enters his golden years.
- Reveal your bird’s gender. Many popular pet bird species are sexually monomorphic, meaning there are no outwardly identifiable differences between males and females. A whopping 75% of parrot species are sexually monomorphic, including the African Grey, Parakeet, Caique, and Blue-Fronted Amazon. Knowing a bird’s gender is helpful for successful breeding or bonding, preparing for hormonal and behavioral changes during sexual maturity (some birds do not reach sexual maturity until they are three years or older), and tailoring their diet at certain times of year to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Where does your veterinarian fit in?
While at-home test kits provide interesting information, DNA testing is only a fragment of your pet’s overall health picture.
When your veterinarian gives advice, he/she considers your pet’s current health status and history, including other diagnostic test results (e.g., blood work, urinalysis, ultrasound, etc.), past and present medications, dietary needs, body condition, and lifestyle. If you want to adjust something in your pet’s regime, like changing his diet or giving him a new dietary supplement, always consult your veterinarian first. Don’t do it because the test kit says your puppy is part Great Dane, and therefore, think he needs more food.
The same holds true for home test kits that claim to interpret your pet’s oral and digestive health by detecting bacterial imbalances; these reports offer recommendations for diets, supplements, and lifestyle changes. Again, only your veterinarian can see the whole picture, and following through with such recommendations based solely on a genetic test could be detrimental to your pet’s health. If you have concerns about your pet’s health, consult your veterinarian. A physical exam and more personalized recommendations are often less expensive than a commercial home test kit.
The take-home message about at-home tests
DNA test kits can be a fun way to get almost-accurate answers about who your pet is. Where your pet’s health is concerned, let a veterinarian who knows best take the lead.