Dog DNA testing can have health care benefits

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Monty Doodle Doo may be owner Marni Hagel's baby, but there's nothing little about him. And when Hagel and her husband adopted him from a local shelter last year, they didn't realize just how big he'd get.

"They said he was a Labradoodle, but we weren't really sure because his paws were really big," Hagel said. "Our friends who had Labradoodles, theirs weren't as big as puppies."

Curious as to what his breed mix really was they decided to give Monty a DNA test. It turns out Monty isn't a Labradoodle, but a golden doodle -- i.e. a golden retriever-poodle mix.

"I was really surprised," Hagel said. "I mean, he's black, how can be a golden doodle?"

Stories like Monty's got me wondering about my own dog, Jax Arfhur. We were told he is a Maltese-shih tzu when we adopted him, but have always thought he seemed big for both of those breeds.

The Hagels used Wisdom Panel, an $85 DNA test that provided a detailed family tree of Monty's heritage. It's just one of a growing number of direct-to-consumer dog DNA tests popping up on the market.

Embark Veterinary is the newest test to hit the market. In addition to revealing a dog's breed mix, Embark also screens for more than 160 genetic health conditions.

"It screens for heart diseases, it screens for drug sensitivity, it screens for things like bladder stones which are also preventable, it just runs the gamut for all kinds of diseases," Embark CEO Ryan Boyko said. "We think this is a revolution." Boyko added that the test results could soon provide insight into what to feed your dog to optimize his or her health.

Embark launched earlier this year and has already processed thousands of DNA tests. It's among the more expensive kits on the market at $199, but Boyko says knowing more about your dog's health profile could save you money over time.

"If you can feed your dog the right diet for it, you can make that dog healthier throughout its whole life," he said. "You can decrease what you're going to spend on vet bills, but also have more quality years with your dog."

Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center, says tests like Embark do have medical value.

"You could argue this is the future of all of us in medicine," Goldstein said.  "One day, each of our DNAs is going to examined and they're going to tell us what to look out for, risk factors."

While Goldstein said the tests can be useful, he also said you need to do your due diligence, because there's not much regulation of the dog DNA test field.

"Anybody can peddle a test, which is a problem," Goldstein said. "You need to kind of do your research, talk to your veterinarian, see what stands behind these tests, who stands behind these tests."

As for my dog's DNA test, turns out Jax isn't exactly who we thought he was! The Embark test showed no trace of Maltese, instead, finding his mother was a shih tzu and his father was a small poodle.

The tests can be revealing, but regardless of what they find, they won't change one thing we'll still love our dogs just the same.

Embark is currently running a promotion to help local shelters including Animal Haven of New York City. To find out more, click here.