For dog owners who might find it reassuring to know their dog’s lineage is as pure, in canine terms, as any given member of East Hampton’s Maidstone Club, the first mixed-breed DNA test, Canine Heritage, is now available. “I can foresee the test being a great control for what has become a somewhat poorly regulated breeding industry,” says Shelly Rubin, spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association (and Oprah’s vet). “A lot of people are buying on the Internet, and they’re not determining how reputable the seller is. These dogs come in, particularly toy breeds, and they’re supposed to be a Maltese, and they don’t look like one. The general public has no idea.” Thus, the Pomeranian-haired Chihuahua. “Sometimes you say, ‘Ooh, a fifteen-pound Yorkie? There might be something else mixed in there,’ ” says Ann Hohenhaus, a vet at the Upper East Side’s Animal Medical Center, where a majority of owners think they own purebreds. Up until now, there was no scientific way to prove it.
But don’t look for the American Kennel Club to trade its intricate genealogical records (a million new dogs are registered annually) for the $65, cheek-swab test. “We do not intend to use this test,” says spokesperson Lisa Peterson. “We’ve been around for 122 years, and we’ve relied on our pedigrees and registration statistics. We believe there are not sufficient markers in this test to determine the breed of the dog reliably.” For them, a “purebred” has two registered parents.
That’s fine with MetaMorphix, the company behind the test, which can identify up to five breeds in a dog’s DNA. “We decided early on that we are not a registry,” says MetaMorphix’s Dennis Fantin. It is marketing it to curious owners of mixed-breed dogs, “to build a closer bond between owners and adopted pets.” The current test covers only 38 of the more than 150 breeds, which account for three-quarters of the dog population (Pomeranians and Boston Terriers aren’t covered). The test can disqualify a dog from being a purebred, which could be bad news for a breeding industry where Bullmastiffs run for $1,500, and Norfolk Terriers $3,000.
Vets note other uses for the test, though. “There are disease traits attributed to certain breeds,” says Rubin. The test could warn of genetic predisposition. But some fear that the test can be abused. “Pit bulls are much maligned, and co-op boards can use the test to discriminate against a dog,” notes Hohenhaus. “So could home insurance and pet health-insurance companies.”