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The Pros And Cons Of Exploring Your Dog's DNA

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are one of the millions of Americans who owns a rescue dog, you may not know what breed your pet is, since most mutts are a combination. Well, there is a way to find out more about your dog's ancestry with a DNA testing kit, although some vets say don't take the results too seriously. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

MARIE CORDIS: Where's the squeaky? Let's get the squeaky toy.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Marie Cordis (ph) was told her dog, Anya (ph), was a German shepherd mix.

CORDIS: And she definitely looks like a German shepherd, only she is lighter in color and much smaller. Where's my girl? Come on, give me a shake.

NEIGHMOND: But when Cordis takes Anya out for walks, she sometimes hears comments that are concerning.

CORDIS: This one little boy that even said, Mommy, look, that lady's walking a coyote - because she is about the size of a coyote. She has the same coloring. Other people said, oh, she looks like a wolf or she looks like a fox.

NEIGHMOND: So Cordis decided to find out. She went online, ordered a DNA kit, swabbed Anya's mouth for saliva, put it in a tube, mailed it off. And one week later...

CORDIS: What came back was that 88% of her is German shepherd. So that tells you that one parent was probably a purebred and the other parent was a mix. And they identified it as the hound family. So it was like greyhound, bloodhound, whippet.

NEIGHMOND: Definitely not a fox, wolf or a coyote. But does it really make a difference what breed your dog is? Dr. Angela Hughes, a veterinary geneticist with Mars Petcare, which makes a dog DNA test, says knowing the breed helps you understand your dog better.

ANGELA HUGHES: What makes them tick? Why do they look the way they do? Why do they act the way they do?

NEIGHMOND: It helped Hughes with her own dog, who turned out to be part Russell terrier and part Australian cattle dog.

HUGHES: Understanding that that's just how she is hardwired, that she needs a lot of exercise and she needs, you know, certain things that terriers need like, you know, a quiet, dark place to den so that she can kind of get away and not feel like she has to be on patrol all the time, recognize that she's going to go ballistic at the sight of any squirrel and those sorts of things, and that she's not just trying to irritate me, but that's how how she works.

NEIGHMOND: But these testing kits are also being used to check for potential health problems. And veterinary bioethicist Lisa Moses says this is where the problems come in. She's with Harvard Medical School's Center for Bioethics.

LISA MOSES: I want pet owners and veterinarians to understand that they should not be using direct-to-consumer dog DNA testing to make medical decisions about individual animals.

NEIGHMOND: Moses says the tests aren't that accurate, in part because the FDA doesn't regulate them. And just because a DNA test suggests a vulnerability to a disease, she says it doesn't mean the dog will actually get it.

MOSES: It's quite possible that you would end up doing a lot of unnecessary testing to look for signs of disease if you have a dog who seemed perfectly healthy. And not only could that be costly, but it could also be invasive and potentially even harmful to your dog.

NEIGHMOND: Especially, Moses says, if people make treatment decisions based on misleading DNA results.

MOSES: What I see that could possibly happen that would be really bad is people choosing to do treatments and things that would end up being for a wrong diagnosis.

NEIGHMOND: If you're concerned about a health problem, Dr. John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says your best bet is to talk with your vet.

JOHN HOWE: Because veterinarians are really adept at using all of our education experience, our senses and our knowledge to really diagnose and treat patients that we have, as well as incorporating any external information, you know, from our clients or from literature or other veterinarians.

NEIGHMOND: But Howe says if you just want to find out more about your dog's ancestry, a DNA test could be a fun thing to do. Just understand that it may not be accurate. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.