What Are Mutt Tests Good For? And Do They Really Work?

Patty Khuly
mutt-testDo people often say, "Your dog
is so cute, but what is he!?"

It was in 2007 that canine geneticists first announced the innovation many of us would come to term “the mutt test.” Better known as dog breed identification genetic tests, these were marketed as commercially available kits pet owners could use to help determine their mixed breed dogs’ purebred forbearers.

At the time, these tests were heralded by the entire canine community as a breakthrough –– largely because they were a highly visible manifestation of the kind of technology to come from mapping the canine genome.

Though veterinarians were curious and enticed by the prospect of a cool new tool, we were generally more cautious about the whole thing. Sure, it’s awesome that we can identify genetic markers that correlate highly with certain breeds (the science behind the ID process), but what, we questioned, would be the point of knowing whether breed A, B, or C is represented?

Aside from the obvious gee-whiz factor that accompanies any neat new gadget and the entertainment value of knowing Fluffy’s true parentage, we counted off the possible applications like this:

#1 Genetic disease risk assessment

Identifying an individual’s breed provenance would help us assess the relative risk of certain diseases, knowledge that might help us counsel pet owners more effectively.

For example, knowing that a dog hails from Cavalier King Charles Spaniel stock would have us concerned about syringomyelia in neurologic patients and find us recommending more complete cardiac workups due to the prevalence of chronic valve disease in these dogs.

#2 Behavior counseling

Certain breeds are better suited to some kinds of work and particular lifestyles because they’ve been bred for centuries to perform specific tasks or fulfill discrete functions. Knowing which breeds they hail from early on might help us channel their drive in helpful ways and might actually help head off behavioral problems that could lead to relinquishment to shelters and even untimely euthanasia.

#3 Legal and regulatory issues

In recent decades, laws that focus on outlawing specific breeds of dogs (breed-specific legislation or “BSL”) has led to the otherwise unwarranted euthanasia of many thousands of dogs, along with legal action against their otherwise law-abiding owners.

Other industries have adopted similar breed-specific regulations, most notably the homeowner’s insurance industry, in which many carriers decline to cover accidents or injuries caused by specific breeds of dogs or their mixes.

Though veterinarians and epidemiologists have discouraged these laws and regulations –– on the basis that the science does not support the fact that specific breeds are inherently more likely to commit expensive and injurious acts than others –– most of these policies and directives remain in effect. This is the case even for mixes, despite the fact that research into the inheritance of physical traits demonstrates that it’s difficult to identify the breed origins of any dog based on looks alone.

Given the current legal and regulatory climate, it makes sense that some mixed breeds might benefit from these tests. That is, should they become accepted by legal and regulatory entities as evidence “exonerating” them from belonging to “bad” breeds of dogs.

Trouble is, when these tests first came out they weren’t always considered as amazing as everyone had hoped. After all, when large breed dogs’ results come back indicating they hail from Chihuahua stock, we can be forgiven for losing faith in the veracity of these findings.

In the wake of lots of wackadoo results, plenty of veterinarians came to the conclusion that these “mutt tests” were for the birds –– or, at least, they were not as helpful for our dogs as we’d initially hoped. Which is how one popular test, marketed as the “Wisdom Panel,” got nicknamed the “witless panel.”

Fast-forward five years and, as it turns out, these tests have stood the test of time. With careful attention to the relevance of genetic markers to individual breeds, all have become more accurate over time. In fact, according to an investigation by the Veterinary Information Network, the Wisdom Panel, once so maligned, has distinguished itself as the leader in the dog breed identification genetic test market and is currently being considered for its utility in legal and regulatory settings. So what does this mean to the average mixed breed owner interested in getting a “mutt test?”

Go for it, I say. After years of thinking these tests were worth no more than the paper the $99 price-tag was printed on (and offering this opinion online), I’ve changed my tune. Not only do you have nothing to lose, I say, but given the state of the tests’ current accuracy, you might actually have something to gain.

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