I Tested My Dog’s DNA, and I Kinda Wish I Hadn’t
I’m what the French call “obsessed with my dog.” I will compare her to your college-aged child. I will put on television shows I think she prefers (The Bernie Mac Show). And I will say “YES, YES, ONE THOUSAND TIMES YES” to the publicist who generously asks me if I would like to try out a new DNA test for canines.
The product is called Embark. It’s branded, smartly, like 23andMe but for canines. Had my husband, Lincoln, and I already sent Oakley’s DNA to another company almost immediately after adopting her? You bet. But that was six years ago! Technology moves fast, and this company’s research is backed by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine—this is the Ivy Leagues, baby! Hook. Line. Sinker.
While we waited for the package to arrive, Lincoln wondered why I agreed to the test since we already knew her “family history,”—the previous saliva swab informed us that Oakley was part Pekingese, dachshund, briard (whatever that is) and pug. And if you Googled “Pekinese dachshund mix,” you basically got protoclones of Oakley. But Embark, I patiently explained to him, claims to be more accurate (it looks at a whopping 200,000 genetic markers) and provides insights on breed, health, traits and more. Plus, Oakley’s results would help toward its greater mission of “ending preventable disease in dogs.” For me, it was a win-win sitch.
The box arrived. It looked just like the 23andMe package that would go on to inform me I’m Jewish (shocker!) and probably have clammy hands (I'm not sure we needed qualitative genotyping to figure that one out). While I was, uh, busy, Lincoln swabbed Oakley’s cheek with a toothbrush-type thing, popped it into the sterile test tube, sealed it up and shipped it out. Perhaps it was in this moment that things began to crumble out of my control, like sand through a sieve. Was letting Lincoln execute the entire test because I was occupied lying facedown on the couch the beginning of the fallout? I’m not a therapist—and it’d be weird for me to be my own therapist—but the answer was most definitely yes.
The results came in two waves. The first rocked us a bit, but we were able to remain standing, feet on the ground. The second changed my life forever.
First: Oakley was not who she said she was. She was an imposter. Well, at least in terms of the thriller narrative I was writing in my head. Oakley’s Embark results showed that she was actually: 35.4 percent Pekingese, 29.8 percent pug, 12.8 percent poodle (small), 12.6 percent Pomeranian and…only 9.4 percent dachshund. That last percentage shook me.
Why did this rattle me so? I had gotten so used to yelling, “She is definitely dachshund!!!!” to strangers who would comment, “She doesn’t look like a dachshund!!!” Now, I had only 9.4 percentage points of ground to stand on.
Lincoln, on the other hand, responded well to the news: “Now we know—the poodle is what makes her so smart!” I had thought it was the dachshund that had made her smart. Talk about a paradigm shift.
The second wave was more of a tsunami.
Embark looks for 168 genetic conditions that affect dogs. Oakley was clear of 167 of these. But then the call came:
“Oakley’s going blind!!!!” Lincoln cried into the phone.
Back on earth, what Embark had actually told us was that Oakley was at risk for developing Progressive Retinal Atrophy:
Oakley has two copies of a mutated allele at PRCD and is at risk for developing PRA. Remember that PRA is a subtle disease with a variable age of onset, and that the gold standard for diagnosing PRA is a thorough ophthalmologic exam and specialized tests to evaluate retinal function. Please consult with your veterinarian to develop a diagnostic and monitoring plan for Oakley.
Lincoln was freaking out. I remained calm. To Lincoln, this was heartless. But if you grow up around dogs, you know that blindness in dogs is not rare. Did I grow up around dogs? Of course not. My parents hated dogs. But I certainly had many friends with dogs who would say things like, “Oh, Hamburger’s blind as a bat,” or “Remember to close the gate because Nacho can’t see head from tail.” I interpreted this as: All dogs go blind, and that’s OK! Also, Oakley might not even go blind! This was some Gattaca sh*t.
But none of that calmed Lincoln down. He came home with a hundred dollars’ worth of “don’t go blind” vitamins (aka Ocu-Glo Vision Supplement) to help with her problem. (She proceeded to throw up three times that first night.) I couldn’t believe he would make such a down payment on something that was clearly, in my opinion, canine quackery. When he asked me if I could roll a vitamin in peanut butter to feed to her, I aggressively challenged him with “They’re a scam!!!” But he did not relent. He continued his nightly vitamin routine. He bought her carrots—after never purchasing a vegetable in his life—and gingerly fed them to her, hoping they’d help with her eyes.
The problem, like Oakley’s possible PRA, evolved and mutated. Lincoln couldn’t look at her without thinking about making appointments with multiple canine ophthalmologists to, you know, get differing opinions. (If you’ve been to one vet appointment, you can only guess how expensive specialists can get.) And now that we have the verification of her breed and genetic traits, does this mean our pet insurance won’t cover future health issues relating to this since it’s a pre-existing condition?!?!
What had we done?!?!
How I longed to go back to the days of naively thinking Oakley was mostly dachshund with perfect vision. But, then I realized…maybe Oakley’s vision hadn’t been that great.
After a couple weeks of swallowing Lincoln’s million-dollar vitamins, I noticed she actually caught a ball with her mouth for the first time…ever? I had always blamed the misses on her little mouth. She also seemed a little less clumsy jumping off and on the couch. And, suddenly, she was staring at Bernie Mac with a new-found adoration, as if seeing him for the first time. Were the vitamins...could they be…working?
Could I admit this to Lincoln? Of course not. But, since he did purchase a mortgage’s-worth of vitamins, perhaps I will get up from lying facedown on the couch to roll a vitamin in peanut butter and feed it to Oakley every night until eternity. After all, if you Google “Pekingese-pug mix,” you basically get protoclones of Oakley.
Here’s hoping Lincoln doesn’t opt in to the health reports on 23andMe.