Health Testing – to DNA and Beyond

We have received multiple inquiries from our clients and friends in the last few days regarding the DNA panels our dogs participate in. Many of the same questions and concerns repeated by multiple parties. This post will serve as our official position statement on Health Testing (DNA and beyond) in canines so it is all in one convenient place going forward.

We will address:
1. What canine DNA testing is and is not, including the two genetic testing types and links to approved labs.
2. An article from The Canine Chronicle regarding the improper use of DNA screening tools and how proper analysis is key.
3. The eight LGD breeds participating in CHIC and what they require with links to OFA’s breed page for each.
4. Our Position – Why we believe that developing science/research is worthwhile, and our hope that all dog breeders and owners can work together to support breed appropriate health testing to improve the future for our dogs.

Canine DNA Testing – IS vs IS NOT

Canine DNA testing is a tool for dog owners and breeders to screen for carrier/at risk/affected genes in our dogs. Genetic screening allows us and our Veterinarian to monitor for likely symptoms and take faster action to treat our dog, should a genetic disease pop up.

Canine DNA testing is not a disease diagnosis (only your Veterinarian can diagnose), a guarantee of future illness (some breeds/dogs never become symptomatic even if they test for the gene), or an automatic disqualification from breeding (it is treated as a fault, see below). It is also not perfect. Marker match is less reliable than gene match, and neither are 100% reliable. Knowing this prior to submitting your sample is important.

“The “A” (mutated) allele appears to be very common in some breeds. In these breeds, an overly aggressive breeding program to eliminate dogs testing A/A or A/N might be devastating to the breed as a whole because it would eliminate a large fraction of the high-quality dogs that would otherwise contribute desirable qualities to the breed. Nonetheless, DM should be taken seriously. It is a fatal disease with devastating consequences for the dog and can be a trying experience for the owners that care for them. A realistic approach when considering which dogs to select for breeding would be to treat the test results as one would treat any other undesirable trait or fault.”

From OFA regarding breeding decisions based on DM genetic screening results.

Two Types of Canine DNA Testing

Canine DNA evaluation comes in two varietiestargeted and panel.

Targeted DNA testing is when you take a sample and have it tested a specific gene or marker you are looking for.
Example: when a German Shepherd Dog breeder wants to participate in the CHIC certification program, she would test specifically for Degenerative Myelopathy.

Targeted DNA testing providers: Pawprint Genetics, UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Lab (VGL), Optigen, GenSol, and many more (click here to see the complete list of OFA approved genetic labs).

Panel DNA testing is when you take a single sample and test for a spectrum of genetic markers/genes.
Example: We send swabs to Embark on all of our breeding prospect dogs. We are most interested in the few genetic diseases found in LGD breeds, color and trait genes, inbreeding percentages, and tracking the haplotype/group on each dog (Nerd Alert!).

Panel DNA testing providers: Embark Vet, Wisdom Panel + Health (AKA Optimal Selection)*
*We have used both Embark and Wisdom panel tests. The results are comparable, and they both are engaged in ongoing research to improve their processes and expand the testing offered.

Proper Analysis is Key – Canine Chronicle Article

Here is a screenshot of when we shared an applicable article from The Canine Chronicle last October (article link). I encourage you to take some time to read that link, maybe more than once to the goal of comprehension!

Posted October 17, 2019 on the Northwest Guardians Facebook Page

It’s important to note that the goal of the article is not to say that the DNA testing of our dogs is “worthless,” rather that it is a developing scientific tool that must work in tandem with our veterinarians and breed health records to be useful. Data analysis without informed perspective is worthless.

The claim of any owner/breeder that their dog is “free of all hereditary diseases” as quoted in the article is not sound. Many of the genetic mutations tied to a certain disease are tied to some breeds but not others.

Example: It isn’t a big deal if a non-collie dog is “clear of MDR1” since they aren’t prone to that disease to begin with. It doesn’t apply. The only reason to check MDR1 in an LGD is that it would indicate a collie outcross in the tested dog- so it wouldn’t be a pure LGD.

“Genetic tests are one of the most significant advances toward the health of dogs, but if you don’t use them properly they are worthless- or worse.”

Caroline Coile, from “When 23 and Me Has Gone to the Dogs” in the Canine Chronicle, September 2019

As a response to Caroline’s article quote above, we would agree and note that the speed at which canine DNA technology advances will be correlated to the amount of support it receives from dog owners and breeders alike. Being an early adopter in a developing science doesn’t offer the same reliability as when it becomes well established, but the act of early participation and support helps move us forward!

The article makes a point of how the French Bulldog and German Shepherd DM carrier/at risk results carry different weight. Using DM at-risk status as a disqualification for breeding a French Bulldog isn’t taking the breed health records into account, nor is it sound science. Breeding an at-risk GSD, however carries more potential consequences.

Since the German Shepherd Dog breed is affected by Degenerative Myelopathy and was heavily crossed with the Sarplaninac in the Yugoslavian Army days, the DM check in the Shars worthwhile in our opinion. DM screening is required by CHIC for their nearest cousin breed, as well.

Other genetic diseases of interest that are recommended in some livestock guardian dogs are: Progressive Retinal Atrophy, Canine Multifocal Retinopathy, and any diseases found in the out-crossed breeds during the militarization of your given breed are worth screening for, as well.

At Risk =/= Affected

Let’s remember the point of DNA testing is to screen for POTENTIAL diseases. Carrying/At risk genetic statuses are NOT a guarantee that a dog will ever develop symptoms of that disease! Every dog carries mutations, and there is no such thing as a genetically perfect dog. Proper analysis of the DNA profile, breed health, and potential breeding partners is key to successful usage of DNA screening in any breeding program.

DNA testing is far from the ONLY factor to consider in breeding decisions! We understand that this position was held by every speaker at the 2019 AKC National Parent Club Canine Health Conference in St. Louis thanks to the above article.

EIGHT LGD Breeds – Canine Health Information Center

It is important to note that there are only EIGHT livestock guardian dog breeds in the CHIC program! Eight. That is only a fraction of the available LGD breeds in this country.

Here is a list of the LGD breeds participating in CHIC and what they require**.

Anatolian Shepherd (requires Hip and Elbow)
Caucasian Shepherd (requires Hip, Elbow, and DM DNA testing)
Estrela Mountain Dog (requires Hip and Elbow)
Great Pyrenees (requires Hip and Elbow PLUS one elective test)
Komondor (requires Hip, Eye and Dentition)
Kuvasz (requires Hip, Elbow and Thyroid)
Maremma (requires Hip and Elbow)
Tibetan Mastiff (requires Eye, Hip and Thyroid)
**Optional tests are also recommended for most breeds, click the breed name to learn more!

Is your breed missing from this list? The Sarplaninac is. Without a breed club advocating for health testing, the breeders of any of the other LGD breeds tend to clash on what is truly necessary to screen breeding prospects for. It is generally recommended that all breeding candidates of large/giant size dog breeds be screened, at bare minimum, for hip dysplasia by OFA or PennHip***. Additional testing is never bad, but it can be irrelevant!

***Remember, a declaration from your private veterinarian doesn’t carry the same weight as an official certification and will not be accepted for the OFA database.

Our Position

We will always advocate for health testing, it is part of our kennel values.

At Northwest Guardians, we believe:
– in science. Developing and established, alike.
– that our contribution to canine health research is an important tenet of our rare dog breed stewardship.
– that the science of canine genetic evaluation requires proper data analysis and support as it develops.
– in ethical livestock guardian dog breeders who perform official hip certifications on their breeding dogs (and other tests required if their breed participates in CHIC).

There is so much we can do to mitigate future health concerns in our breeds if we do the work! That is our encouragement to all LGD breeders:
Let’s work together to support the science of healthy dogs!

And for those already testing: Thank you for health testing your dogs. You matter, and you make a difference.

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