Dog DNA testing promises to reveal your dog's breed and genetic health risks. But how accurate are these at-home tests? Let's find out.

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One of the best parts of adopting a pet dog is getting to know their unique personality. Maybe Fido has to circle his pillow 3 times before lying down; maybe he puts his paw on your leg when he wants attention. And of course, there are the signature physical markers: The folded-over ears, the spotted coat, the floppy tongue. It's these quirks that truly endear us to our pets. But where do these traits come from? Can those behavioral tendencies be attributed to a certain breed? And most importantly, how can we help our dogs live their happiest, healthiest lives? Dog DNA testing may offer an answer.

Over the past decade, at-home DNA testing for dogs has skyrocketed in popularity. Wisdom Panel, one of the leading dog DNA testing services, has tested the DNA of over 2.5 million pets since its launch in 2007. Its stated purpose? Helping you know more about your dog or cat, "so you can give them the best life possible."

And we understand the allure: With more information about our pets' backgrounds, we can better understand their history and unique tendencies. Companies like Wisdom Panel and Embark offer at-home dog DNA testing. "With a research-grade DNA genotyping platform, Embark looks at over 350 breeds and more than 200 genetic health risks," Embark advertises. Simply swab the inside of Fido's cheek, mail in the sample, and in 2 to 4 weeks, you'll receive a personalized report on your dog's genetic makeup.

But how exactly do these at-home DNA tests work, and how accurate are the results? We spoke with Dr. Bruce F. Smith V.M.D., Ph.D., and Professor of Pathobiology at Auburn University, to demystify the dog DNA testing process.

How do dog DNA tests work?

First thing's first: Let's break down the science behind dog DNA tests. "These tests usually obtain DNA from the dog with either a cheek swab or a blood sample. The cheek swab picks up skin cells from the inside of the mouth and the blood sample contains white blood cells, both of which contain DNA in their nuclei," writes Dr. Smith. "The results are matched to a database on a computer that maps the characteristics for each breed in the database. The database also contains the sequence of gene changes (or mutations) that can cause or increase the risk of certain medical conditions."­

At-home tests like Wisdom Panel and Embark rely on cheek swabs. These tests offer two profiles of information: An analysis of breed of genetic health risks.

How Accurate Are Dog DNA Tests?
Credit: Getty Images

How accurate are dog DNA tests?

In terms of accuracy, Dr. Smith notes that these tests are "pretty accurate, but are not foolproof." He continues: "The actual technology used to run the tests is very accurate. However, it is important to realize that there are other places errors could occur." Most DNA testing labs take the utmost caution in processing these tests; one of the greatest risks to the test's accuracy falls to simple human error. "At the time of sampling, the samples might be mixed up, or if the sampler is not careful, the sample from one dog might be contaminated with cells from another."

What can a DNA test tell me about my dog?

As long as you are diligent in following the test's sampling instructions, you can be confident in receiving accurate results—but that brings the question of how to interpret this data. Though these tests can reveal lots of fun, interesting information about your pet, veterinarians urge you to use the results responsibly.

"The breed information should be used for its entertainment value," notes Dr. Smith. "Owners should never make life altering decisions based on the data from these tests without fully understanding the meaning." This is especially true when it comes to the information on health risks. "The disease gene information should only be acted upon in consultation with a veterinarian," Dr. Smith advises.

To understand another hidden perk of these tests, we're taking a little trip down memory lane—to high school biology class. Remember those lessons on dominant and recessive genes? With these DNA tests, you can discover which genes your dog may carry, but not display. "These tests can give you an idea of 'hidden traits' that a dog carries that could be revealed by breeding it to a dog that also carries these traits," says Dr. Smith.

Just like human DNA testing, these results can even help you connect to Fido's relatives and map out a family tree. Embark's DNA test comes with access to a canine relative finder, allowing you to connect with other dogs who share your pup's DNA.

What about other animals?

Cat owners, you're in luck. "Several panels are available for cats that do much the same as the dog panels, although typically, they test for fewer breeds, traits, and diseases, as there is somewhat less published literature on these in the cat," writes Dr. Smith. "There are also genetic tests available in many other species, but unlike the cat and dog panels, these tend to be tests for one or just a few traits or mutations."

How can I get a dog DNA test?

If you're interested in getting a DNA test for your dog, there are a variety of products on the market. Wirecutter from New York Times endorses the Embark's Breed Health Kit for its "sizable breed database, wide array of inherited-disease screenings, and reliable customer support mark." Wisdom Panel, advertised as "the DNA service most used by veterinarians," is another great option for at-home pet DNA testing. Sounds like the perfect present for the dog lover in your life.