With the popularity of genealogy websites like Ancestry.com soaring, an increasing number of people are using the technology looking into not just their own heritage – but also that of their furry family members. Brittany Keogh reports.
Organisations that provide DNA testing for pets say demand for the service is rising. Pedigree breeders often use it to find out whether their animals carry genes for hereditary health conditions, while mum-and-dad owners may want to find out more about their mutt or moggie’s breed and background.
Michelle Fremaux, director of Massey University’s Equine Parentage and Animal Genetic Services Centre, said genetic science was “moving incredibly fast”, with new research being published all the time.
The centre had seen a spike in requests for “genetic counselling” – the interpretation of genetic results – as well as genetic testing for dogs, as the science developed. It also provides testing for alpaca, llama, camel, birds, cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Plans to soon offer DNA testing for cats are also in place.
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Fremaux said the use of DNA testing by companion animal breeders was a positive thing as it allowed them to eliminate hereditary diseases from their bloodlines by only breeding animals without the genes that cause the conditions.
While concerns had been raised in an article in the scientific journal Nature in 2018 that pet owners may get spooked by the results of genetic testing and euthanise pets with treatable genetic conditions, Fremaux had never heard of that happening in New Zealand. She said breeders doing the testing cared a lot about their animals.
Robyn Morrison breeds persian and exotic cats from her home in Warkworth, north of Auckland.
She said advancements in DNA testing come with “huge” advantages for breeders, allowing them to breed “healthier cats that live longer and don’t cost their owner an arm and a leg”.
Her cattery is free from polycystic kidney disease – a genetic condition that once affected 40 to 50 per cent of persians.
She used to rely on ultrasound scanning to ensure her cats did not carry the gene responsible for PKD before breeding them, but for the past several years had instead been using DNA testing which was much easier, cheaper and could be done when the cat was much younger.
Morrison takes cheek swab or blood sample from her kittens and sends it off to a lab at the University of California at Davis in the US. The results confirm that the felines are PKD-free as well as telling her what coat colours the cat carries in its genetic line, which is helpful as she specialises in chocolates and lilacs.
Orivet.com allows pet owners to order swabs to collect samples of their DNA that they can send off for testing, similar to Ancestry.com. The company does both breed ID (ancestry) testing and genetic screening for diseases in cats and dogs.
Its Melbourne-based co-founder and managing director George Sofronidis said pet owners were becoming more clued up and doing more research about the genetic conditions different breeds are prone to.
“I have and continue to see an increase in genetic testing. The industry is becoming more ‘regulated’. Breed clubs and member bodies have a code of ethics. All this means that you need to do what you can to ensure you are breeding ‘healthy and sound’ dogs.
“Testing has become more accessible and the technology has advanced to allow for mass array screening.”
Rescue dog owners mainly sought out breed ID tests, costing $120, Sofronidis said.
Genetic testing identifies specific DNA mutations responsible for diseases.
Could cannabis be the next big pet health trend?
Meanwhile, in Auckland, a company that makes nutritional supplements for pets is testing another health product usually used by humans that it believes may help pets too – medicinal cannabis.
Hale Animal Health is developing what its managing director Leila de Koster hopes will be the world’s first registered CBD oils for dogs and cats.
CBD oils are derived from the hemp plant. They do not contain the chemical THC, which causes the high when people smoke cannabis.
They are increasingly used to treat conditions like pain and inflammation in humans and some evidence has emerged that they may also help animals experiencing anxiety, stress, nausea, skin conditions, arthritis and seizures.
Partly owned by medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics, Hale Animal Health has partnered with several organisations overseas to conduct clinical trials for a medicinal cannabis tincture for pets.
De Koster said although the product is at least a couple years away from hitting the shelves – it still needs to gain approval by New Zealand’s regulator the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines –demand for it already appears to be high.
“We get a lot of enquiries weekly from pet owners [about medicinal cannabis].”
She added that the regulatory process was “very rigorous”.
“Before releasing you need to be 100 per cent sure that it does what it’s saying.”
In a bid to generate more discussion about the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis for pets, Hale Animal Health is hosting an event for vets at its headquarters in East Tamaki on June 29. About 30 vets are expected to attend.
Massey University associate professor in small animal medicine and nutrition Nick Cave said interest in using cannabis to treat ailments in animals had grown as it became a more popular remedy for human health problems, but the results of studies into its effectiveness varied, leaving him “sceptical”.
While some research indicated it may provide modest relief for osteoarthritis in dogs, other projects had found CBD had little to no effect in treating anxiety or failed to detect any CBD in the dogs’ bloodstream, meaning it may not be absorbed property, he said.
“Does that mean no product would work at no dose? Absolutely not. But there’s no evidence yet.
“The conundrums for a company or the challenges would be to demonstrate that their product is actually absorbed and that they provide better evidence than is currently available. Then on top of that we still need to do studies on the long-term effects.”
Cave said medicinal cannabis companies would have to demonstrate, based on independent double-blind placebo-controlled trials, that they had a marked impact on particular diseases before he was convinced of their effectiveness.