Dog? Check. Buccal swab? Check. Apply the latter to the former, inside of cheek. Rub for 10 seconds. Voilà. DNA collected.
Until fairly recently, the garden-variety dog owner could only wonder if potential problems lurked in her dog’s DNA. Now, however, it’s possible to know—maybe not everything, but at least the possibilities. Which can be kind of comforting, since it allows you to focus your anxiety where it might be more useful.
As dogs age, they display a number of signs similar to those experienced by aging humans, among them, loss of muscle tone and strength. And, like humans, those symptoms can be chalked up to simple aging. For the prone-to-worry among us, they can also be signs of something more dire, such as degenerative myelopathy, or DM (see Nick Trout’s column in the Spring 2013 issue for more on that).
For answers, we turn to our vets, and increasingly, to science. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals  offers much, much more than insights into a dog’s predilection for, say, dysplasia or subluxations. This nonprofit, which was incorporated in 1966 and began with the mission of evaluating and genetic counseling for those whose dogs were at risk of hip dysplasia, has evolved its objective: “To improve the health and well being of companion animals through a reduction in the incidence of genetic disease.” (They’re also including other companion animals these days, cats, for instance.)
So, when I started noticing hesitations and missteps in my large-breed, 14-year-old dog’s gait, I wasted no time. Going to the OFA website, I was able to request the DNA test for DM, pay for it online and have the kit sent to me. Once I received it, it was comparatively easy to do the cheek swab required (it would’ve been easier with just the tiniest bit more cooperation from the dog in question, but then, that would’ve been out of character). Some DNA tests require a blood draw, which needs to be done at a vet clinic, but many are equally reliable via cheek swab, which pretty much anyone can do at home.
The instructions were simple, as was the return. Within in days, I had a response from the University of Missouri’s Animal Molecular Genetics Lab, where the DNA was evaluated. I was glad to see that the test came back N/N, or no genetic markers for DM. But even if the results had been different, I would have at least known, and knowing is always better. Having this test done also meant I could provide my vet with one more piece of information that he could factor in to his diagnostic consideration.
Another benefit is that by having this sort of evaluation done, you—via your dog—are contributing to the larger body of knowledge on genetic diseases. The samples and associated information about the dog become part of a DNA repository, which may in the future provide answers to some of dogs’ more vexing health issues.