How a simple doggy DNA test can help identify diseases and save your precious pooch’s life

DNA-testing your dog will enable you to take a well-informed and preventive approach to its care

"I have Kiva's DNA results back … don't worry, she is perfect," says the email from Dr Sara Elliott, veterinary director at the British Veterinary Hospital in Dubai.

I dare say that every dog owner in the world thinks that their pet pooch is perfect, but there had been some concerns about Kiva, my 9-month-old chocolate labrador. With any pedigree dog, overbreeding can result in various ­genetic weaknesses and defects, and chocolate labs have a reputation for being a dumping ground for bad genes. Added to that, Kiva had suffered a series of illnesses as puppy, including a bout of anaemia and a suspicious-looking lump on her side.

This meant she was exactly the type of dog (and that I, by extension, exactly the type of owner), who would benefit from Wisdom Panel, a DNA test for dogs that is now available at the British Veterinary Hospital. The test can determine your dog’s precise breed ancestry and, by checking for hundreds of genetic markers, highlight potential problem areas when it comes to their health, allowing owners to take a preventative approach to their care.

A case in point: Jack Russells can suffer from a condition known as lens luxation, where the lens of the eye becomes dislocated, resulting in glaucoma, retinal detachment or even blindness. If you knew that your Jack Russell was genetically predisposed to this condition, or if you learnt that your rescue pup was part Jack Russell, you could take them for regular eye checks and hopefully prevent the disease from developing.

Cavalier King Charles spaniels, meanwhile, have a 60 per cent to 70 per cent chance of developing a heart valve issue. Elliott highlights a recent case of a spaniel diagnosed with a heart issue using Wisdom Panel, which was then ­successfully treated through nutritional supplements and an adapted diet.

"With golden retrievers, they've managed to identify a gene that causes tumours in the spleen. If you know that your dog is susceptible to that gene, you can have them ­ultrasounded every few months. Or, if it has heart problems, you can ultrasound and make sure you catch these things early. Because if you catch diseases early, you can normally treat them," Elliott tells me. "We're not trying to play God. What we're trying to say is: these diseases are much more likely­ ­because your dog has the gene for them. Let's watch for it, because with disease A, we can do the following to slow it down, or prevent it, or get rid of it."

The test itself is completely unobtrusive and consists of two simple swabs of the cheek (which Kiva actually seems to enjoy, although she is probably just thinking it’s snack time). The skin cell samples are then dried and sent off to be tested for more than 140 disease-causing mutations. Results are sent back within two or three weeks.

The results, when they come back, are unbelievably detailed. Kiva’s ancestry chart reveals that she is 100 per cent labrador retriever, but also provides information about her size, and the shape of her head and tail. The test tells me not only that Kiva is brown, but also that she has elements of tan and brindle in her coat. It also reveals that Kiva is clear of all of the genetic markers that she was tested for. Elliott highlights two of the most important ones.  

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“One is a multidrug resistance. With that, they can have very strange reactions to various anaesthetics and even some antibiotics and anti-tick medications. She’s clear for that. The other one is something called malignant hypothermia. That’s a bizarre condition where if a dog’s body comes under stress or heavy exercise, they start to generate heat. In this ­country, if a dog goes out in the summer for slightly too long – a normal dog would just pant and be okay; the dog with this condition literally self- ­implodes. And you do get this condition quite commonly in labradors.”

As Elliott points out, "information is a tool" and the Wisdom Panel test can have potentially life-saving repercussions for your pet. On a more surface level, it can offer fascinating insight into what type of dog your precious pup is. Whether it's an unidentifiable mixed breed or a much-loved rescue, the Wisdom Panel, which costs Dh995, is like the canine version of the BBC's ever-popular Who Do You Think You Are series, if you will. Take Jumeirah Resident Victoria Cryle, who had long wondered about the heritage of her 10-year-old dog Jake.

"He certainly looked like a boxer as a pup, but as he got bigger, his look became more like a bull mastiff. We heard about the test and decided to do it to find out once and for all – plus it's good to hear if there could be potential problems that we might be able to take measures to help prevent. "From the analysis report, among other interesting details, we discovered Jake is indeed 42 per cent boxer, but is also 36 per cent bull mastiff, 12 per cent rottweiler and 10 per cent labrador."