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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
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Pet Owner Sends Her Own Cheek Swab Samples to a Pet DNA Testing Laboratory and Gets a Report That She is Part Border Collie and Bulldog

In a follow-up story, investigative news team in Boston sends a reporter’s cheek swab sample to the same pet DNA testing lab: report states the reporter is part Malamute, Shar Pei, and Labrador Retriever

One pet DNA testing company returned results from human cheek swabs showing two different people were in fact part dog. The resulting local reporting calls into question the accuracy of DNA testing of our beloved furry friends and may impact the trust people have in clinical laboratory genetic testing as well.

Pet DNA analysis is nearly as popular as human DNA analysis. The market is expected to exceed $700 million by the end of the decade, according to Zion Market Research. But are customers getting their money’s worth? One CBS news station in Boston decided to find out.

Last year, the WBZ I-Team, the investigative part of a CBS News station in Boston, looked into the accuracy of pet DNA testing. They reported on a pet owner who questioned the DNA test results she received for her German Shepard. The report indicated that her dog had DNA from more than 10 breeds, besides German Shepard.

During their research, the WBZ investigative reporters learned that pet owners order these tests to reveal what one pet DNA testing company described as understanding “your dog’s unique appearance, behavior, and health.”

“So, the WBZ-TV I-Team came with more tests from different companies to compare. All came back with some German Shepherd, but the percentages ranged from 65% to just 29%. Aside from that, the three companies showed a puzzling hodgepodge of other breeds. One included Great Pyrenees, another came back with Siberian Husky, another listed Korean Jindo, and the list goes on,” WBZ News reported.

The owner of the German Shepard then sent two swab samples from her own cheeks to one of the pet DNA testing companies. The test results indicated that she was 40% Border Collie, 32% Cane Corso, and 28% Bulldog.

The company that performed that DNA testing—DNA My Dog—insisted to the WBZ I-Team that one of the pet owner’s cheek samples contained dog DNA, WBZ News reported.

“The second sample did in fact yield canine DNA. … The results provided would not be possible on a human sample,” Jessica Barnett, Director of Service Operations, DNA My Dog, told WBZ News.

This must have come as a shock to the pet owner, who is probably sure she is not part dog.

 “I think that is a red flag for sure,” Lisa Moses, VMD (above), a veterinarian and bioethicist with Harvard Medical School, told WBZ News. “A company should know if they’ve in any basic way analyzed a dog’s DNA, that that is not a dog,” she said. One wonders what might happen if a dog’s DNA was secretly sent to a clinical laboratory performing human genetic testing. What might the results be? (Photo copyright: Harvard Medical School.)

Two Times is the Charm

To continue its investigation into this odd occurrence, the WBZ I-Team decided to repeat the test this year. They sent a cheek saliva sample from one of their own reporters to three different dog DNA testing companies. 

According to the I-Team report, one company, Orivet, said the sample “failed to provide the data necessary to perform breed ID analysis. Another company, Wisdom Panel stated the sample “didn’t provide enough DNA to produce a reliable result.”

However, DNA My Dog once again reported that the human sample belonged to a canine. This time the company’s test reported that the DNA sample was 40% Alaskan Malamute, 35% Shar Pei, and 25% Labrador Retriever.

DNA My Dog did not respond to WBZ I-Team’s attempt to contact them for a comment, WBZ News reported.

Wild West of DNA Testing

“I personally do have concerns about the fact that, from a consumer standpoint, you don’t always know what you’re getting when you work with those companies,” said geneticist Elinor Karlsson, PhD, Director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told WBZ News. “There’s not a lot of rules in this space.”

Karlsson is also founder and Chief Scientist at Darwin’s Ark, a nonprofit organization that combines dog genetics and behavior to advance the understanding of complex canine diseases. People participating in the initiative contribute data about their dogs to an open source database, which is then shared with researchers around the globe. To date, more than 44,000 dogs have been registered with the project. 

She hopes that reports like the one from the WBZ I-Team will not dissuade interest in pet genetics, as the science does have significant value when performed correctly. 

“We might be able to figure out which dogs are at risk of getting cancer, and screen them more often and be able to diagnose it earlier,” Karlsson said. “We might be able to develop new treatments for that cancer.”

“There isn’t necessarily a gold standard answer for what your dog is,” veterinarian and bioethicist Lisa Moses, VMD, co-director of the Capstone Program for the Master of Science in Bioethics Program at Harvard Medical School, told WBZ News. “A breed is something that we’ve decided, which is based upon essentially the way a dog looks. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to know what their genes look like.”

DNA My Dog Awarded ‘Best Budget Dog DNA Test’

In February, US News and World Report published an article rating the best dog DNA tests of 2024. The magazine ranked the DNA My Dog Essential Breed ID Test as the “best budget dog DNA test on the market.” The test sells for $79.99. According to the company’s website, a simple cheek swab yields:

  • A complete breed breakdown,
  • Genetic health concerns,
  • Unique personality traits, and
  • Bonding tips for dogs and their owners.

“I worry about people making medical decisions … based on one of these tests,” Moses told WBZ News, which added that, “She and some of her colleagues have called on lawmakers to set standards and regulations for pet DNA labs, and to require them to share their databases with each other, for more consistent results.”

The investigation into pet DNA testing by the television news reporters in Boston is a reminder to clinical lab managers and pathologists that DNA testing can be problematic in many ways. Also, when consumers read news stories like this one about inaccurate canine DNA testing, it can cause them to question the accuracy of other types of DNA testing.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

I-Team: How Accurate Are Pet DNA Tests? We Sent One Lab a Swab From a Human

Pet DNA Company Sends Back Dog Breed Results from Human Sample a Second Time

Pet DNA Testing Company in Doghouse after Identifying Human as Canine

Best Dog DNA Tests of 2024

Global Dog DNA Test Market Size Forecast Projected to Growth to USD 723 Million by 2030 with 15.1% CAGR

Dog DNA Test Market Size Report, Industry Share, Analysis, Growth 2030