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Figuring Out the Mix in your Mixed Breed

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PetStyle
By Diane Levitan, VMD

Call them mutts or hybrids, mixed breed dogs are definitely one of the most beloved pets. Some people are proud of their "half Collie, half Shepherd" and others are just as content to call their dog a "Heinz 57". But, how do you know what the "mix" is in your mixed breed dog? More importantly, does it really matter?

Until recently, most people could only guess as to their pet's ancestry. The American Kennel Club recognizes more than 150 breeds of dogs and 62 more are considered Foundation Stock. About 400 hybrid breeds are listed by the Hybrid Breed Club. Without some sort of validation from the breeder, people were at a loss to discover what type of dog their pet might be. But, the mapping of the canine genome has now given scientists new tools to help answer some owners' questions about their pet's "roots".

It is now known that humans first domesticated dogs from wolves more than 13,000 years ago, but some "tame" wolves may have associated with early humans as far back as 100,000 years ago. The mapping of the dog's genome has validated that all of our canine friends, purebred and mutt, descend from the gray wolf. It may seem far-fetched, but Chihuahuas and Great Danes have almost identical DNA and, believe it or not, could actually breed and reproduce. Although most people are content with the love and affection of their mutt, a recent survey showed that 60% of dog owners would welcome knowledge that would help them better understand their pets.

The Wisdom Panel® DNA test for mixed breed dogs enables some of these owners to find answers. This new analysis is a comprehensive DNA based test that uses unique, breed-specific markers in the DNA to identify what breeds are most common in a dog's ancestry. By taking advantage of something called "SNiPs" or single nucleotide polymorphisms, scientists have designed blood tests that can determine from what breeds your dog might have descended. SNiPs are single changes in the DNA code that allow researchers to track human population migration, or for CSI fans, to find the murder suspect from a single drop of blood.

With a small amount of blood drawn by your veterinarian, the Wisdom Panel can determine your pet's unique ancestry through the use of more than 300 SNiPs. According to Genetic Research Manager, Dr. Paul Jones of Mars Veterinary, the Wisdom Panel has the ability to identify 134 AKC registered dog breeds that could be present in your pet's past. Validation testing by Mars, which is ongoing, has shown an 84% accuracy rate.

So what does all of this mean for you? Knowing the breed predilection to various diseases, could this test predict that your pet will develop cancer or kidney failure?

Dr. Lowell Ackerman, a board certified veterinary dermatologist and noted author says that the test is "really more for entertainment rather than medical or diagnostic purposes." A point with which Dr. Jones agrees. He states "the Wisdom Panel should only be used for informational purposes. It should not be used to try and link a disease process with a pet because of its ancestry and known pre-disposition to certain diseases or congenital malformations."

And what about the legal implications? Could an insurance company deny coverage to you because of your dog's ancestry? To date, this has not been an issue, but the thought does raise questions. As an example, some cities have tried to enact pit bull bans. But, according to Jones, there is no method of proving pit bull ancestry due to the genetic variability of this dog. Could other "aggressive" breeds be singled out? Is it possible you may have to move because of your Rottweiler or Doberman? Could your homeowner's insurance deny you coverage because your dog has too much German Shepherd?

For those folks who want to provide the latest in pet identification, there is even a DNA fingerprinting test for your pet available through www.PetGadgets.com. Using a cheek swab (just like CSI), scientists can often gather enough DNA to create a DNA fingerprint for your pet. Unfortunately, unlike CSI, pet owners often have to send multiple samples in order to generate enough DNA for the testing. Kansas State University uses similar testing to verify identity and parentage of racing greyhounds.

If you want to know more about your pet's genetic background, ask your family veterinarian about the Wisdom Panel. After a simple blood sample, you can expect results back within a few weeks. These tests usually cost between $100 and $200. The cost difference may reflect your veterinarian's involvement and consultation in the interpretation of the results.

All in all, the Wisdom Panel could be a fun way of taking a new look at your family pet. You should remember that there are limitations to this test and it will not likely provide any concrete evidence of either medical or behavioral issues. If you have concerns about breed specific diseases or problems, talk with your veterinarian. There are specific DNA tests available for many hereditary diseases of dogs.


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