Writer, Loving Dog & Cat Mom
Irene is an writer, NEA Fellow, content strategist & former editor at Rover. She’s also mom to 2 rescue dogs & 2 vocal cats.
Like millions of Americans, I have mixed breed dogs for pets. On walks or trips to the pet store, I’m often asked, “what breed is that?” People are curious about Vera’s scruffy mane and Scout’s cookies-and-cream coat and curly tail. Before I tried a dog DNA test, I had no idea how to answer. I liked to joke that Vera was half-dinosaur and Scout was a husky who’d been hit by a shrink ray.
My dogs are rescues; Scout came from Korea and Vera from a local suburb, but in both cases, their DNA was a complete mystery. Thanks to modern science and a cotton swab, it didn’t have to remain that way.
When I chose to use dog DNA testing kits, it was partly about curiosity, partly about science, and 100% about being obsessed with my dogs.
Read on for the scoop on how dog DNA tests work, why they can be controversial, and which companies are best on the market today.
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The 4 Best Dog DNA Tests
Despite the rising popularity of dog DNA testing, there are relatively few companies offering these services. The most commonly known are Embark and Wisdom Panel, both of which promise not only to reveal your dog’s breed mix but also their family tree all the way back to their great grandparents. Other well-known companies include DNA My Dog and Orivet.
What are the differences between these companies? With a dog DNA test, two things matter most: the number of breeds in their database and the precision of their results. Here’s a breakdown of the four top options and what they’re best known for.
#1: Embark DNA Test
Embark tests for 350 breeds including dingoes, village dogs, and wolves. Who doesn’t want to know if their dog is part wolf?
Researcher Ryan Boyko founded Embark Dog after conducting research into dog DNA around the world. The test is produced in partnership with the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and is highly rated online, including by The New York Times, which recently tested major dog DNA test brands.
Quality comes with a price: the two Embark kits (one is the health version, which we’ll detail a bit later on) retail at $129 and $199 respectively.
#2: Wisdom Panel
Wisdom Panel, from Mars Petcare also tests for over 350 breeds. NPR spoke to Angela Hughes of Mars Petcare, who produce the Wisdom Panel tests, and Hughes said that they can’t reveal their precise methods for proprietary reasons. She added, however, that internal testing has found its breed results to be 93% accurate in mixed breeds.
Like Embark, Wisdom Panel offers two different products, one a “premium” version that includes health testing. Their two kits will cost you either $99.99 or $159.99, so they’re a bit more affordable than Embark.
This option is less expensive than Embark and Wisdom Panel and has a smaller database of breeds on hand. That means that if your dog is of a rare origin or an unregistered breed, DnaMyDog isn’t the best choice.
However, its database does represent the majority of common dog breeds in the United States. You’ve got your German shepherds, your bulldogs, your Yorkies, and even your Affenpinschers. If budget is a concern, take a look at DNAmyDog.
Orivet markets itself primarily to breeders and to veterinarians. For the science-minded or for the pet parents looking for extremely specific health tests, Orivet offers a wide variety of specific tests for genetic conditions. They do have a commercially-available “mixed breed kit” available for $84 on Chewy.
How do dog DNA tests work?
The process of DNA testing is straightforward for dog owners. You can order a dog DNA test kit from Amazon, Chewy, and other online retailers. Then, your breed identification test consists of a cheek swab.
The DNA testing itself was simple for us, though we had to bribe Scout with bacon before we swabbed her cheek. Pro tip: do not let them eat the treat, as it will dilute their saliva and mess up your results. Use it to get their attention and cooperation, then reward them when you’ve collected enough saliva.
After you send it off in the mail, your dog’s sample is compared against an extensive breed database of other DNA samples.
Within a few weeks, you receive your dog’s results via email. This will either be in an attached PDF or online. Embark and Wisdom Panel offer customized online portals for viewing your dog’s mystery makeup. This means a breakdown of breed heritage by percentage.
Are these tests regulated? The short answer is no. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor the quality or promises of dog DNA tests, unlike its regulation of human DNA tests such as Ancestry and 23andMe.
The companies themselves promise high levels of internal quality control; Wisdom Panel notes that its lab is USDA-accredited, in fact.
Dog DNA testing and your dog’s breed
Dog DNA testing comes down to our curiosity about breeds. Is there a purebred in your mutt’s past? Does your furry giant possess terrier genes? Is your petite pup hiding German shepherd genetic markers?
Dog lovers will be the first to tell you that breed is not everything. After all, knowing your dog’s breed doesn’t explain why they stare at you all the time (seriously, why?)
That said, different breeds lend themselves to different lifestyles. For instance, a Labrador retriever, bred to help fishermen, lives to visit the local swimming hole. Beagles display their hunting instincts with intense food motivation.
And pugs, well, they’re born to hang out on the couch. Just ask the breed experts at the American Kennel Club, who inform us that “throughout their long history, [pugs] have performed just one very important job: keeping us company.” Good job, pugs!
Whatever your dog’s makeup, be sure to remember that breed isn’t destiny after you get those breed results. Dog breeds that have been stigmatized in the past, such as the pitbull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier, might alarm pet parents if they show up in a pet’s breed breakdown.
Dog DNA tests and your dog’s lifestyle
Knowing your dog’s breed doesn’t just satisfy a pet parent’s curiosity, but it also provides useful information. As VCA Hospitals note, knowing the breed mix “can help an owner develop a more accurate diet, wellness, and preventative care plan for their pet.”
If you’ve got a herding mix on your hands, for instance, you’ll likely want to provide them extra exercise to keep them stimulated and motivated.
On the other hand, “short-nose” dogs like Frenchies and Boston terriers are prone to overheating. If your dog is one of these breeds, you’re likely to avoid long walks in the heat—and perhaps invest in a doggie pool. Let’s be honest: the cute factor is a real added bonus.
Learning more about the breeds that show up in your dog’s results is half the fun of DNA testing. Getting clues about your dog’s behavior only strengthens your bond.
Dog DNA tests and your dog’s health
As with many things, when it comes to health information and dog DNA tests, you get what you pay for.
Wisdom Panel has two options for purchase: their “Essential” test and their “Premium” kit. Formerly known as Wisdom Panel 4.0 and Wisdom Panel Health, respectively, they’re priced at $99 for the Essential and $159 for the Premium.
While both tests promise to tell you about potential “medical complications” your dog could face because of medication sensitivity or immune deficiencies, only the premium version conducts 180+ health tests for genetic predisposition to disease.
Embark, which already retails at $129, offers an additional “health kit” to their standard breed test that tests for over 190 health conditions and over 20 “physical traits.” This more expensive package costs nearly $200.
However, before you spring extra for the health tests, it’s important to take a look at the science.
The American Kennel Club says of DNA health tests: “the research is still in its infancy.” They point out that for-profit testing companies keep their methods a secret, meaning that it’s difficult to verify the accuracy of their results. The AKC cautions against “the unquantifiable level of worry, heartbreak, and sometimes false confidence these tests might stir.”
And, while It’s true that certain breeds are prone to certain health risks—dachshunds are susceptible to back problems, for example, while golden retrievers have a high incidence of canine cancer—there’s no guarantee your particular pet will fall prey to common breed conditions.
Take the example of a serious canine disease called degenerative myelopathy (DM. DM is a debilitating spinal condition that eventually leads to paralysis in senior dogs. Researchers have connected a mutation in a certain gene to DM; DNA testing can potentially tell owners whether their dog is a carrier and whether their pet is at risk for developing DM.
That said, the DM mutation alone reveals just how tricky genetic testing for health conditions can be. In an article about dog DNA testing, The Atlantic spoke to anatomy and genetics professor Kari Ekenstedt at Purdue University. She explained that the “ever controversial DM mutation” is tough to trust.
Why? Because even if a dog does have the mutation, they don’t necessarily develop the disease.
So take any dog DNA health testing with a grain of salt.
Always speak to your veterinarian about your specific dog. Your vet can provide a thorough health screening at regular checkups. Good preventive care for your pet is more likely to give you insight into your dog’s health than their genetic makeup is.
Answer to a mystery
Though the science of DNA testing is still developing, it has come a long way in recent years. Countless online reviewers on Amazon, in various product reviews online, and even on the DoggyDNA Reddit community attest to their pet’s breed results.
For most pet parents, a dog DNA test is a positive experience. Learning more about your dog only helps to strengthen your bond. This sweet video from BuzzFeed shows rescue dog owners learning their dog’s DNA test results, and, well, just try not to cry.
My own dogs’ breed breakdowns surprised me. I used Embark for my pups based on their great reviews. Embark packages up your results in a colorful email that links to a personalized profile for your pet.
Scout was just a puppy when she traveled all the way from Korea to Seattle thanks to rescue and foster organization Saving Great Animals. She’d been found tied up with a fishing line that had grown into her neck. After two surgeries, you can no longer see any sign of her injury. She’s a medium-sized dog with a curly tail and territorial instincts.
Based on these instincts, we assumed she was some kind of collie or cattle dog mix. The rescue had mentioned that she was likely part Jindo, too, which is the national dog of Korea.
Guess what? Scout isn’t a collie, a shepherd, a heeler, or any other kind of herding dog. Jindo didn’t show up in Scout’s DNA results, either—but she did get 100% East Asian Village Dog, and since Jindo isn’t a registered breed (rather, a “landrace” breed), she may have some Jindo genes.
In the end, we found out that Vera is a true mutt: mini-Schnauzer and cattle dog dominate her results, but she’s got many other breeds in there, including 9% German shepherd. In fact, she was designated part “Supermutt,” which Embark coined to describe dogs descended from many other mixed breed dogs.
At least now I can tell curious strangers about my pets’ breeds. That is, if they want to stop and listen to the complicated origin stories.
If not, I can always just say “they’re mutts,” with all the love in the world.