Innovations in DNA technology for pets will help to store details to cut dog mess, thefts and even reveal a four-legged friend’s ancestry, writes Etan Smallman
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Could a single innovation really help clean up dog mess, solve puppy thefts and enlighten owners about their canine’s health and heritage? DNA testing is, according to its advocates, the new frontier in protecting pets and prosecuting wayward owners.
At the same time, the fervour for genealogy that has swept Britain’s humans in recent years is now spreading to man’s best friend, with dog-lovers getting DNA hometesting kits to find out more about their animals’ traits and ancestry.
The Dogs (DNA Databases) Bill is currently going through Parliament. It was initiated by the Conservative MP Andrew Griffith, who explained to the Commons last month that it seeks to create “a national register of doggy DNA as a more secure, more humane and better long-term alternative to microchipping”, which is already compulsory. He believes that it would be superior because chips can cause suffering if inserted incorrectly and can be cut out by thieves. The DNA process, on the other hand, only involves a simple swab inside the dog’s mouth.
It could also help to trace owners of out-of-control dogs, estimated to kill about 15,000 farm animals a year. And supporters for the change in the law argue that the database could offer a priceless data pool to track canine genetic diseases.
The Private Members’ Bill is only at the start of its parliamentary passage, having had its first reading in the Commons. Its second is not scheduled until March next year. But elsewhere, the technology is already being used to combat dog fouling. Last month, an amendment to municipal bylaws was passed in Tel Aviv in Israel that will compel residents to register DNA from their hounds with the council.
This will enable inspectors to test samples from the estimated 500kg of dog waste left on the city’s streets every month. A fine will be sent in the post, and owners will also be charged for the cost of testing.
A 2016 trial held by one London local authority – aptly, Barking and Dagenham – made anyone walking their dog in the areas subject to public space protection orders having to pay £30 for a DNA swab. The pilot drove down the problem by over 60 per cent once those who were failing to scoop their poop realised they could be traced.
Genetic material also has the potential to help tackle thefts – which have surged by a fifth in the past year following a boom in demand for puppies during the pandemic. Official figures revealed last week that police solved just 2 per cent of dognappings in 2020.
In June, the Gloucestershire force made headlines after developing what is believed to be the first dog DNA database to be held by any police service in the world, to deter and catch thieves.
Officers have been inviting owners to use a £74.99 mouth swab kit on their pets, which allows the DNA of a dog suspected of being stolen to be checked against the database to see if it has been flagged as missing. It could also be used to catch criminals – if incriminating DNA is found on them or their belongings.
At the same time, increasing numbers of people are getting their dogs’ genetic code examined to understand more about them, including their susceptibility to certain diseases. One of the leading companies, Wisdom Panel, says it has tested more than 2.5 million dogs in more than 50 countries. According to one data analyst, millennials delaying childbearing are a key group fuelling the sector.
But Bill Lambert, of the Kennel Club, said: “My advice would be that they give a probabilistic result and they shouldn’t be relied upon to give accurate information. All it is doing is demonstrating how closely it matches a lot of DNA samples they’ve got on record. So they’re not perhaps as scientific as some people are led to believe.”
In 2018, three scientists warned in the journal Nature that neither the tests’ “accuracy nor their ability to predict health outcomes has been validated”, adding: “Pet genetics must be reined in.”
They cited one case where a family’s test on their pug revealed it carried a mutation linked to a neurodegenerative condition similar to motor neurone disease. They chose to have her put to sleep. However, figures suggests that only one in 100 dogs with the mutation will actually develop the disease.
Lambert does not anticipate DNA sampling overtaking microchipping in the near future because of the amount of time it takes to get results, but he can foresee a time when a breathalyser-style device is able to give immediate readings.
Would the same privacy and civil liberties concerns around human DNA databases apply to dogs? “I think that’s unlikely,” he says, “because at the moment it is compulsory for people to microchip their dogs anyway.”
Griffith agrees. “If there is a canine libertarian movement,” he told the Commons, “that pass has already been sold.”
The owner: ‘Jack Russell was really half collie’
KATE TAYLOR, of Wiltshire, received a dog breed DNA test as a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband
The couple wanted to get a companion for their 11-year-old pooch, Poppy – “a replica as close to her as possible” – but feared they were barking up the wrong tree after becoming convinced that she was not the breed she had been sold as.
Poppy had been advertised as a Parson Jack Russell, but having got to know her personality and behaviour (she is obsessed with tennis balls and has a habit of herding people on walks), Kate and her husband wanted to confirm their suspicions with a Wisdom test, bought through Amazon for about £60. It revealed Poppy to be only 25 per cent Parson Jack Russell – plus 50 per cent collie and 25 per cent Jack Russell terrier.
“Having the test done, and knowing what mix she is has just made me love her even more,” said Kate, who runs the dog-friendly directory, dotty4paws.co.uk.