DNA Tests For Cats
DNA testing for humans has become extremely popular within the past few years thanks to affordable at-home DNA kits that can tell you more about your heritage, personal health, and family connections. But now, DNA tests that are meant to help you learn more about your family’s beloved pet are also hitting the market, leading many pet owners to wonder if they should send their pet’s DNA off to a laboratory.
Are there benefits to purchasing DNA tests for pets? And what can these tests tell you? You may be surprised to learn that DNA tests for pets can offer up helpful information that can improve your cat’s quality of life and health. Are you interested in learning more? Keep reading for more details on how DNA tests for pets, specifically cats, can be a useful tool for feline owners.
What Can You Learn About Your Cat From DNA Testing?
While some pet owners might think that testing your cat’s DNA is silly, you should know that submitting a DNA test for your feline friend can actually offer a lot of benefits, especially in situations where your cat may have health issues.
For some time, the majority of people who submitted DNA tests for their cats to laboratories were breeders of pedigree cats, hoping to ensure that their prized and beloved animals were truly the breed they were believed to be. Now, newer DNA technology has allowed everyday cat owners of pedigreed kitties and unknown-breed house cats alike to find out more about their cats.
Unfortunately, the field of cat genetics isn’t as advanced as the research around surrounding the genetics of other animals. Much of genetic research on non-humans revolves around dogs, mice, and rats, meaning this new foray into house cat DNA is a big step in uncharted genetics territory.
But despite the newness of DNA testing technology for cats, veterinary genetic scientists are able to still glean quite a bit of information about the genetics of your cat, and many others, through modern DNA tests for pets. Some of the most relevant and helpful information you will receive if you choose to submit your cat’s DNA sample include:
Your cat’s gender: Sure — you probably already know whether your cat is male or female, especially if you’ve been a responsible pet owner who’s scheduled a spay or neuter appointment. But, this will likely be part of the results you get back. DNA tests for cats are able to look at a gene called zinc-finger XY (ZFXY) to let you know for sure that your cat is male or female.
Your cat’s likely genetic ancestry: Depending on the DNA test you choose, you may receive your cat’s likely genetic ancestry information back in one of two ways — either by saying that your pet shares a certain percentage of its DNA with known cat breeds, or by saying that your cat is more like one breed than other.
Because there are fewer distinguished and known cat breeds that other animal species (such as dogs), determining your cat’s genetic ancestry is a bit more tricky, but advancements in feline genetic science are getting more accurate every day.
Interesting traits about your cat: Have you ever wondered why your cat is a certain color, why they respond wholeheartedly to catnip (or aren’t bothered by it at all), or why they’re happily content sleeping the day away or being more playful than other cats? Your cat’s physical appearance, response to their environment, and personality (along with other unique features that makes them who they are) are all predetermined by their DNA.
Some DNA tests for cats can explain just why your cat is the way they are based on the sequence of their DNA and how their genes impact just how cuddly they are.
Your cat’s current health: If your cat was recently diagnosed with a particular health condition, or if you are struggling for more information about an illness that may be causing health issues for your cat, a DNA test can provide answers. Because many feline illnesses can share symptoms, it can be truly difficult to hone in on exactly what is causing your cat discomfort.
Feline DNA tests can look at your cat’s genetics and pick out answers as to gene disorders that could be making your cat sick. In addition, these DNA tests can also pick out genetic traits that identify your cat as a carrier of a disease, which can be especially important information to know for cat breeders and cat showers.
But, even if you’re not a cat breeder and don’t plan to put your feline in a cat show, your cat’s DNA sequences can show traits that make your cat prone to certain health conditions, even ones that aren’t so major.
Potential health issues that could arise in the future: It’s common knowledge that pedigreed, breed-specific animals often have more health conditions that good old “mutts.” That’s because decades (sometimes centuries) of breeding to maintain certain features can cause genetics to go haywire, leading to a variety of ailments that are often breed-specific.
Even if you don’t have a pedigreed, known-breed cat, it’s still possible that your feline companion could have potential health issues that are related to their genetics. Unknown or undetermined breed cats may not exhibit features of a specific breed, but they can still carry some of the genes of their pedigreed or breed-specific cat ancestors.
This can increase the risk that they develop certain ailments or health concerns during their lifespan. Having this information can help you better plan for your cat’s medical care, while also clueing you into early warning signs or symptoms of high-probability illnesses.
In addition to all these things that you can learn about your cat from a feline DNA test, know that by submitting your cat’s DNA sample, you can also be helping other domesticated house cats. That’s because by expanding the currently limited pool of feline DNA samples, veterinary genetic scientists are able to explore the specific genes that impact health, such as genes that cause certain disease or help protect cats from illnesses.
Much of genetics research has focused on other animals, specifically mice and dogs, meaning that there isn’t a wealth of information about cat genetics. After submitting your cat’s DNA to a genetic testing lab, you’ll be able to say that your cat is a productive member of the scientific community, even if he is a lazy house cat who sleeps for 12 hours per day.
What Should I Know About DNA Testing For Cats?
Unlike DNA tests for dogs, cat DNA tests are newer to the market, and there just aren’t as many options available.
For some time, veterinary science has had more difficulty DNA testing cats than other animals, for several reasons — unlike dogs, cats are more likely to be randomly bred, meaning that there are fewer known breeds of cats, and that the average house cat doesn’t have a breed.
In fact, according to UC Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, there are only 50 to 60 different, known cat breeds across the globe, and of those, only about 30 are considered major breeds that have offshoots of other breeds (creating what’s known as breed families). Plus, unlike dogs, breeds of cats are not as well defined as dog breeds, making it less clear what exactly constitutes a particular kind of cat.
In addition, unlike dogs, the global population of cats includes an exceptionally large feral cat population.
So, when it comes to analyzing the DNA of your cat to understand their family origins, veterinary geneticists take a different approach to looking at cat DNA. Instead of looking at breed information, cat DNA is categorized by eight major regions — Arabian Sea, East Asia, East Mediterranean, Egypt, India, Iran/Iraq, South Asia, and Western Europe.
From there, geneticists are able to compare your cat’s DNA from specific breeds to see if there are any similarities and matches.
Even though feline DNA tests aren’t 100 percent precise and can’t give you exact information about your cat’s possible breed if they aren’t of a known genetic line, there’s still information you can learn from a feline DNA test. With insight to how DNA differs among different animals, veterinary genetic scientists are able to gather quite a bit of information about what makes your cat uniquely them, and can help you better understand your cat’s specific needs and ancestry.
How Do DNA Tests For Cats Work?
You don’t have to be a scientist with an advanced degree to understand the basics of how DNA tests for cats work.
In many ways, the process of DNA testing cats is very similar to how DNA tests are conducted for humans, but how the results are analyzed is somewhat different due to the difficulties in understanding what exactly makes up a certain cat breed. To explain just how cat DNA tests work, we’ll walk you through the entire process, from DNA collection to analysis.
After obtaining the DNA test for your cat, you’ll need to collect a sample that can be sent back to the laboratory for testing. Most at-home DNA tests for pets use a cheek swab (also called a buccal swab) to collect DNA through a cheek swab.
Open your cat’s mouth, and insert the sterile cotton swab, rubbing it along their inside cheek to pick up DNA cells. It’s important that you swab the cheek instead of just collecting kitty saliva, because these oral cells can provide a stronger, more accurate sample that that of saliva. In addition, you’ll want to wait about 30 minutes from the last time your cat has eaten or drank water before taking the sample so that it’s as pure of a sample as possible.
Some pet DNA testing laboratories will also recommend sending in multiple swabs, and depending the animal’s age, swabs that contain DNA collected over a period of several days to ensure higher chances of you having properly collected the DNA sample (in fact, for best results, many pet DNA companies suggest testing animals older than one month of age).
Some feline DNA tests can also use drawn blood. This means that unless you’re a trained phlebotomist, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with your vet to draw a vial of blood.
Normally, DNA samples can work with small amounts, often as little as 1 mL of blood, to complete the genetic testing. In addition, some DNA tests for pets can also use fur to extract DNA; if the DNA test you select requires this, you may need to pluck a few hairs from kitty before getting the test in the mail and on its way to the genetic testing laboratory.
And because some DNA tests can actually look at your cat’s gut microbiome to pick up on potential health problems, a less enjoyable to collect (but just as useful!) DNA sample can be obtained from feces. In fact, DNA research on the feline gut (done through analysis of the litter box samples) has helped scientists better understand chronic digestive issues that many cats face, and has lead to new treatments for ailments such as diarrhea, irritable stomachs and bowels, and more.
If you’re wondering why this kind of information would be helpful, know that research into feline microbiomes suggests that around 10 percent of cats in the United States and UK regularly deal with chronic digestive issues — and, that research has contributed information to how human gut microbiomes may function.
After sending your cat’s DNA off to a laboratory, you’ll wait several weeks for the results to be analyzed and returned to you. This is when the real work for genetic scientists begins.
At the lab you’ve chosen, the DNA from your cat’s sample will be digitized for computer analysis. Computer algorithms help geneticists explore hundreds of DNA markers that create impact your cat’s health and are related to ancestry, as well as the interesting features that cause your cat to be a yellow Maine coon or a black and white mutt.
This DNA is then compared to a database of other feline DNA, which helps scientists begin to trace the ancestry of your cat.
To do this, scientists will explore how much DNA your cat shares with cats in one of the eight origin regions described above (Arabian Sea, East Asia, East Mediterranean, Egypt, India, Iran/Iraq, South Asia, and Western Europe).
Locating a particular area is actually pretty accurate considering that cats share more than 99 percent of their DNA, so any variants (also known as gene mutations) that match up with particular regions can be considered spot-on.
After determining the region of origin for your cat, veterinary geneticists can begin to hone in on specific breeds within that geographic area that your cat may share DNA with. At the lab, scientists will explore features such as your cat’s fur and fur type, fur length, coat color, and other traits to get clues as to what kind of ancestry your cat may have.
With this information, your cat’s DNA test can give you more definitive answers about their specific genetic makeup, though you should know that because there are so few defined cat breeds, it is possible that you may not get much of an answer at all.
Following this analysis, depending on the kind of DNA sample you have sent in as well as the DNA tests for pets that you have purchased, your cat’s genetic sample will also be examined for features related to their health, genetic conditions they may carry, and more information on genes that impact their personality and lifestyle.
How Accurate Are DNA Tests For Cats?
Just like DNA tests for humans, some people get back DNA test results for the cats and are shocked to find that their kitty isn’t the exact breed they suspected.
How can this happen, and why? Many at-home cat DNA tests say they can offer high levels of accuracy when it comes to matching your cat’s DNA to databases that include other cat’s DNA, which are used to determine how your cat links up to know breeds and other felines. Yet, some people are shocked that their cat doesn’t look anything like the breeds that are listed on test results.
Veterinary genetic scientists say that’s because your cat’s outward appearance is uniquely dependent upon their specific genes. Just like humans, your cat has both dominant and recessive — thinking back to science class, you’ll remember this means that dominant genes can show up on your cat’s physical appearance by overpowering recessive genes, though in some cases, recessive genes can show through despite the features they power being different from what your cat’s identified breed may have.
Another factor that is important to understand when considering the accuracy of DNA tests for cats is that because the number of identified cat breeds across the globe is much less than that of dogs, it’s possible that your cat may not have a specific, defined breed.
This doesn’t mean that the DNA test for your pet is null and void; instead, it just goes to show that cat genetics are much more varied and breeds of cats are less defined than other animals.
You should also know that if you’re looking to see if your indoor house cat is a relative or descendent of lions, tigers, or jaguars, you will want to specifically look for a test that can provide this kind of information, because not all do. That’s because many feline DNA tests are able to interpret specific genetic markers that are attributed to domesticated cats and not large, wild cats.
This is true even for domesticated cats that come from more wild-like breeds, such as Bengals. Though, as more companies enter the cat DNA testing industry, the chances of having these kinds of test results are greatly increasing.
In fact, cat genetics testing company Basepaws provides a “wild cats index” with its DNA test results, which can offer insight to whether or not your domesticated house cat shares DNA with nearly 20 different wild cats — including pumas, snow leopards, and servals.
How Much Do DNA Test For Cats Cost?
Like all kinds of services that you shell out for in the name of pet care, cat DNA tests can vary widely in price.
Whether you choose to use an at-home DNA test or decide to go with a veterinary genetics lab, you can expect prices to range from $75 to hundreds of dollars. According to the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Laboratory at the University of Missouri, DNA testing labs all set their own prices for a DNA test, and what’s included in the test results varies by price and by lab.
If you choose to work with a specific genetic testing lab instead of using a consumer-market kit, know that it is possible to negotiate pricing, especially if you plan to test more than one cat, or if you are looking for specific genetic information.
Because cost of DNA tests for pets can vary substantially, the lab at the University of Missouri recommends heavily researching DNA testing companies before submitting a sample. In doing so, you should consider how well the laboratory understands feline genetics and cat breeds, the lab’s reputation for accuracy and skill, and whether the lab does additional research in cat genetics.
If you choose to go with an at-home testing product, there aren’t many options for cat owners (unlike the plentiful options for dog owners). Two of the most popular at-home DNA tests for pets that specifically cater to cats include:
Basepaws: This feline-focused company specifically works with cat DNA, and cat DNA only. While Basepaws is new to the industry, it has big goals surrounding the understanding and eradication of feline illnesses. One large perk to using Basepaws is that your cat’s DNA is stored forever, and as more cats join the company’s database and more is learned about feline genetics, the company vows to update you on new findings about your cat’s DNA.
Optimal Selection by Wisdom Panel: Although this test is promoted more for cat breeders, Wisdom Panel (which focuses mostly on dog DNA tests), can give you insights to your cat’s DNA. The test screens for more than 40 genetic diseases, but is generally intended for purebred cats.
That means that if your feline friend is considered a mutt, this test might not be the best choice for you.
How Do I Interpret The DNA Test Results?
When it comes to interpreting the results of your cat’s DNA test, you’ll likely be walked through the information you receive by the testing lab or company you’ve chosen.
Many consumer-based DNA testing companies, such as Basepaws and Wisdom Panel, will explain your cat’s results. When interpreting your cat’s DNA results, you should know that most DNA tests don’t provide proof that a certain cat is related (though there are DNA tests that can provide this information if necessary), so it won’t be possible to build a family tree for your cat the way that many human family historians use DNA to do so for their families.
It’s also good to understand that as the science of feline genetics becomes more popular and more cats are sampled, new information about your cat and cats that have similar genetic traits could emerge. Genetic testing companies such as Basepaw, which specifically focuses on feline DNA, promise to regularly update information about your cat’s DNA as researchers learn more about cat genetics.
If you choose to use a company that has similar approach to DNA testing, it never hurts to occasionally review your cat’s results, because you never know what you might find.