What Breed is Your Dog? Geneticists From the “Hutch” Pioneered New Test to Provide Answer

2/18/09Follow @xconomy

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which Mars returns to the vet within two weeks. The development of the test required an analysis of 19 million DNA markers from 13,000 dogs. The answer doesn’t come in precise percentages, but rather in ranges that would say a dog is more than 50 percent of a particular breed, like border collie, and gets between 25 and 50 percent of its heritage from another breed, and a smaller amount, say 12 to 25 percent, from another genetic line. The test is made to recognize 99 percent of American Kennel Club certified breeds. It’s considered 90 percent accurate—the best available on the market. Cost? $125 to $150.

Which sounded like a lot to me, if all you’re talking about is satisfying the owner’s curiosity. So I asked Mars’s Fretwell.

This type of test is unusual, but not unique. MMI Genomics of Davis, CA, markets a test for $120 that requires a cheek swab and no trip to the vet. That test isn’t as accurate, Fretwell says, because cheek swabs provide lower yields of DNA, and can get mixed up with food and bacteria. Mars’s strategy is to go through veterinarians instead of selling direct to the consumer, because vets can help owners interpret the information—like whether your dog is part Golden Retriever, and therefore needs more exercise than it’s getting to stay healthy. Sometimes the test can provide surprising results, showing a dog with a short black coat can actually be more than 50 percent Golden Retriever.

“We think vets are an important part of the process of helping people use the information,” Fretwell says.

So far, this test hasn’t really struck a chord in the marketplace. Mars, as a private company, doesn’t disclose its sales. The test has recently gotten some publicity on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and on “The Rachael Ray Show.” Fretwell would only say that the product was introduced nationally in February 2008, and it remains “in an early adoption phase.” Weissman was a little more candid, saying, “It hasn’t taken off yet the way we thought it would.”

bearI know one person who has had the test done—Spencer Lemons, a Seattle-based tech transfer consultant who used to run the licensing office at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He got his black-coated dog, “Bear,” from a rescue shelter in Bothell, WA. Lemons suspected it had some border collie and Australian shepherd heritage, but wasn’t really sure.

The Wisdom Panel test results showed “Bear” didn’t really have a dominant breed, although he was part Cocker Spaniel, part Field Spaniel, and part Chow Chow. I didn’t get the sense this bit of information changed Lemons’s view of his dog very much. He still sent me a picture of his companion, and made sure that I saw his “pretty blue eyes.”

(Correction: This story initially listed the accuracy rate for the Wisdom Panel at 84 percent. An upgraded version of the test introduced in October raised that level to 90 percent.)

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