August 03, 2018

Pet Genetics Testing: The Potential Dangers of an Unregulated Industry

Results from genetic tests for pets are easy to obtain, but are they accurate? A new paper warns of the potential dangers of an unregulated industry.
By Amanda Carrozza
Pet Genetics Testing Danger

There’s no arguing that understanding and studying genetics has the ability to transform the way veterinarians diagnose and treat patients. Separate from the work being done in labs, however, is the market for at-home genetic tests that pet owners, and even veterinarians, are using at a rapidly growing pace.

The tests, a variety of which can be found through a simple online search, require no prescription or veterinary supervision but promise a plethora of information. In most cases, pet owners don’t even need a blood sample for their cat or dog—a swab of saliva is all that’s needed to identify the breeds of a dog’s ancestors or to formulate a tailored nutrition plan that’s unique to a pet’s dietary needs.

But how reliable are these results?

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A new article published in Nature details the story of a 13-year-old pug that started having trouble walking and controlling her bladder and bowels. In an effort to find the cause for the decline in health, the dog’s concerned owners purchased a genetic test kit for $65. The results suggested that the dog carried a mutation that is linked to a neurodegenerative condition comparable to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in humans. Convinced that their dog would suffer progressive and irreversible paralysis, her owners opted for euthanasia. 

However, the paper’s authors argue it is much more likely that the dog’s signs were indicative of more-treatable spinal disorders and that as few as 1 in 100 dogs that test positive for the mutation the genetic test identified will develop the very rare disease.

This example is not an isolated incident. The authors note that because the technology behind commercially available genetic tests is so new, their accuracy and ability to predict health outcomes have not been validated. Many of the 200 tests offered by companies are based on only a single small candidate-gene study. This, coupled with veterinarians who are not well versed in genetics, has led to a growing culture in veterinary medicine that is too reliant on information that is grounded in “weak science.” The paper cites at least 1 instance of a veterinary hospital chain that recommends genetic testing for all dogs, saying that the results allow “individualized healthcare” and can guide behavioral training.

The authors warn that if genetic testing for pets isn’t regulated—and soon—companies will continue to profit by selling potentially misleading and often inaccurate information. They proposed 5 steps that they believe will “bring the untamed wilderness of pet genetic testing under control.”
  1. Establish standards for testing methodology and for reporting test results.
  2. Develop guidelines that specify the standards that should be adopted. As pet genetic testing grows in popularity, the guidelines might eventually need to become law.
  3. Share existing pet genetic data that have been produced by industry, academia, and government agencies.
  4. Recruit tools and expertise from specialists who are best equipped to manage and analyze the volume of incoming information.
  5. Educate counselors who would provide support and advice to pet owners following genetic tests.

Without these measures in place, the authors worry that “pets and their owners will suffer needlessly and opportunities to improve pet health, and even to leverage studies in dogs and cats to benefit human health, might be lost.”

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