For their part, the leading dog-DNA companies realize a total lack of regulation is bad for their industry’s reputation. “The industry could be tainted by a bad actor or two. We do feel like it’s important to try to self-regulate as best we can,” says Hughes, of Wisdom Health. It’s why Wisdom Health and several other testing companies are collaborators in the Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs project.
At its core, the harmonization project is a database of dog genes that have been linked to different diseases in different breeds. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Gene names aren’t always standardized; neither are breed names between countries. “We have to make sure we’re even talking about the same dogs,” Llewellyn-Zaidi says, which illustrates the challenge for vets delving into the genetics literature.
Getting breeds right is key because many markers linked to a dog disease are breed specific. (Some companies offer breed-specific DNA tests to account for this.) In many cases, those disease markers will never be found in another breed. But in a few rare cases, they can mean different things for different breeds. For example, says Ekenstedt, Factor VII deficiency is associated with mild bleeding in beagles, in which it was first discovered, but with severe bleeding in Alaskan Klee Kais.
A typical vet isn’t likely to be familiar with the details of hundreds of mutations. And in fact, Ekenstedt admitted that even she, a trained canine geneticist, isn’t. When I asked about a specific trait called alanine-aminotransferase activity, sometimes tested for in dog DNA, she said she wasn’t so familiar with it. “Even an expert like me can’t keep up,” she says. “No regular veterinarian has time to keep up with it. Ultimately, I think we need to have more specialists who are more visible for regular vets to reach out to.”
In some cases, the DNA-test companies have stepped in to fill that void. Hughes told me her team regularly fields questions from customers about their dog’s specific results. Embark also has a veterinary team that proactively reaches out to customers about their results. “We don’t want someone opening an email and being hit by something and not knowing how to interpret it,” says Adam Boyko, one of Embark’s founders.
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One Embark customer, Emily Rose Cunningham, told me that the company reached out about her dog Dora, an American hairless terrier that had a marker linked to enlarged hearts in another breed. Cunningham took Dora to see a dog cardiologist. Her exam came back normal, and Cunningham reported the results back to Embark. Since then, at least one other American hairless terrier has been found with the marker. Cunningham told me she appreciated that Embark was collecting data for further research. “I like that there’s continued research rather than just getting test results and it’s done,” she said.