Special Report: What’s in your dog?

Posted at 9:59 PM, May 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 00:23:18-04

MISSOULA – At this Mission Valley ranch, Border Collies rule.

“We’ve been breeding for some 30 years, perfecting what we want in a dog,” says breeder Joan Mason.

Joan and Lynn Mason sell their dogs to people around the country for search and rescue, agility competitions, working ranch dogs or pets

But in this new world, it’s not just about the dog. It’s about their DNA.

This entire litter of Border Collies had their genetic tests that reveal, among other things, what they’ll look like when they grow up. That’s important to a potential buyer.

“We have one rough-coated parent and one smooth-coated parent, so the possibility is you can get both,” Joan said. “So we DNA’d everybody. The females are all sorted so people have picked.”

Potential buyers often ask that a pup’s parents be genetically-screened to either avoid or anticipate any genetic health issues in their puppies. The Masons are equipped for just that because the information is invaluable to them, too.

The DNA testing can help an owner feel assured that the animal they’re buying is healthy. It also helps them know if a coat will stay straight or curly. But beyond that, the information helps the Masons know which dogs to breed together to insure the health of the litter.

For example, Border Collies can develop Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA), a serious eye disorder. The Masons can breed a male and female with a safe genetic combination to prevent that genetic time bomb in their dogs.

And that’s one of the benefits of testing companies like “Embark” that’s developed genetic testing kits revealing a dog’s breed, ancestry, health and even relatives. Embark touts a research-grade DNA genotyping platform that looks at more than 175 genetic health conditions and traits.

That’s important when you’re not quite sure what kind of dog you have and you want them to live a long, healthy life.

“When you think of a German Shepherd, you have a clear understanding of how that dog is going to act and  also what health issues that dog is predisposed to. But you lose that power with mixed-breed dogs,” said Embark’s Veterinary Geneticist Dr. Erin Chu. “Just because a dog looks like a dog breed doesn’t mean it is, and you can’t make inferences on how its life is going to be based on genetic risks.”

She calls it precision medicine into genomics, a science that’s exciting to veterinarians like Dr. Trevor Ferguson at Missoula’s Blue Mountain Veterinary Hospital. He’s in the business of keeping animals healthy and says that DNA testing can help.

“It’s really starting to intertwine with what we’re trying to do as far as diagnosing diseases and what the owners can do, in as far as collecting samples and understanding some of these diseases, and maybe even diagnose before it becomes clinical,” Dr. Ferguson said.

But where the science is exciting, the AKC Canine Health Foundation cautions, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“And I think that people are so excited about this and all of us in medicine and health and veterinary medicine are so excited about trying to get DNA to give us all of the answers for health testing and for disease, that we forget that it is only one of the tools out there that should be used,” said AKC Canine Health Foundation CEO Diane Brown. “We’ve even heard horror stories of people actually euthanizing dogs over test results like that.”

The AKC Canine Health Foundation offers a lot of free online information to help dog owners understand what tests are appropriate for their dog breed and how to manage their dog’s health. It has spent millions of dollars globally for research into canine health and urges pet owners to seek help and guidance when interpreting any genetic tests results.

As for the future, most agree this is just the beginning of a specific science that can help us give our dogs longer, healthier lives.

“Just medication-wise, I think the DNA aspect may be able to make new drugs available to us. I think the sky’s the limit on some of that stuff,” Dr. Ferguson said.

Genetic testing is also used by property managers, who sometimes require DNA results to confirm a dog’s breed before renting an apartment. Plus, many do genetic testing on dog waste to identify a dog and its owner in order to issue a fine when they don’t pick up after their animal.

Reporting by Jill Valley for MTN News