Is the Embark dog DNA test worth the money? If you're curious about your dog's breed and want to be proactive about potential health risks, Embark is an excellent option. But is it worth the extra investment compared to some other dog DNA tests?
I tried the Purebred Embark Kit on my little dog, Sofie, to determine whether this is a test worth doing, and I'm happy to share what I learned in this article.
Some background information about my dog
My partner and I bought Sofie from a pet store in Taiwan while we were teaching English there 11 years ago. This was before I realized why buying a puppy from a pet store isn't necessarily such a good idea.
We didn't speak Mandarin and the pet store clerk didn't speak English, so we weren't even sure what kind of dog we were buying. The clerk pointed at a little white dog on a dog food bag and then at the puppy, to indicate that's what kind of dog she would be.
While you’re cooking, suddenly, your dog looks at you. You want to give them a little treat but wonder if they can eat the food you are holding in your hand.
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Since coming back with us from Taiwan, Sofie has gone with us on countless adventures. She is perpetually confident, happy, and affectionate. She has also had more than her fair share of health problems. While we weren't sure what kind of dog she was when we bought her, we became fairly confident that she was a Maltese as she got older. However, we were never completely sure.
I was curious to do a DNA test on Sofie to find out if she was, in fact, a Maltese, and to determine whether she was purebred. I also wondered whether a breed health kit would predict any of the issues she's had or tell us anything we need to know about her health for the future.
Why You May Want a Dog DNA Test
Learn About Dog Breeds in Your Dog's DNA
Because we were pretty sure that Sofie was a Maltese, we did the Embark dog DNA test for purebred pets. However, If it had turned out that Sofie was a mixed breed, we would have found that out using this test.
If you don't know what your dog's breed is, an Embark DNA test is a superb way to find out. If your rescue dog was labeled a particular breed by the shelter, don't put too much stock in their assessment.
Experts are astoundingly bad at guessing a dog's breed ancestry. A dog DNA test is the only way to know for sure what your dog's breed really is. Understanding a dog breed is important for a few key reasons:
● Size. If you adopted a puppy, knowing how big they're going to grow can be very helpful. Should you get a crate with dividers that can size up with your dog? How important is a house with a fenced yard? Is that apartment you're considering that has size restrictions for dogs an option?
● Behavior. Different dogs were bred to do different things. If you find out that your dog's genetic makeup includes a German Shepherd, you shouldn't be surprised when your german shepherd mix shows herding instincts or has a high prey drive. Understanding what your dog's traits are likely to be can help you to predict behavior and train and/or manage them appropriately.
● Avoid breed restrictions. Many apartments, landlords, and entire cities or states ban certain breeds or put heavy restrictions on a dog depending on their breed. If you have a pit bull or American Staffordshire terrier breed mix, be ready to have your housing options narrow. Your rescue dog may look like a banned breed but actually not have any of that breed in them. DNA tests can prove what your dog's breed really is.
● You're curious. You will surely love your dog no matter their breed. However, it can be a lot of fun to find out what breeds went into your dog. At the very least, A dog DNA test can give you an answer the next time somebody at the dog park asks what breed your dog is.
Your dog's genetic diversity can be an important predictor for your dog's overall health. The more inbred your dog, the more likely they may be to have a genetic health issue. Knowing that your dog is inbred can warn you to be more on guard for genetically related health issues than if your dog was not inbred.
Genetic Health Conditions
Embark tests for over 200 genetic diseases that may affect your dog's health. Some of these conditions are specific to your dog's breed while others are genetic conditions that may come up in any breed.
Knowing that your dog has one of these genetic conditions can help you to be proactive about your dog's health and provide better health care overall. In some cases, such as with a variant known as MDR1 gene defects often found in herding dogs, knowing that your dog has the variant can prevent serious issues from occurring.
In this variant, dogs are highly susceptible to the heartworm medication ivermectin commonly used in veterinary medicine. If you know that your dog has this variant, you can avoid giving them this medication and prevent a potentially serious problem from occurring.
Testing Sofie's DNA with the Embark Dog DNA Test
Getting the Sample
Doing the Embark DNA test on Sofie couldn't have been easier. The test requires putting a cotton swab against your dog's cheek and gently swabbing until plenty of saliva is collected.
I was a little bit worried that I'd have trouble collecting the sample since Sofie has a very small mouth, but it was very simple to insert the cotton swab between the gum line and her cheek and rotate it to get the saliva sample.
Holding a treat in front of her nose both helped her to stay still for the test and probably caused her to produce a bit more saliva. After I collected the DNA sample, it was just a matter of putting it in the test tube and sending it back in the included envelope.
Waiting for Results
The wait to get Sofie's dog DNA test results back typically takes two to four weeks. However, Embark informed me that due to delays caused by Covid-19, it would take a little bit longer. In the end, genetic testing was ready in a little less than four weeks.
Getting the Results
I was pretty excited (and a little bit apprehensive) when I finally got the email that said the results were available. Here's what the Embark test told me:
The first thing I found out was that Sofie is, in fact, 100% Maltese. Embark includes a fun description of the Maltese which was interesting to read.
I learned that Sofie belongs to the A1D haplogroup and the A41 haplotype.
Since Sofie is female, she only has the maternal haplogroup. Had she been male, she would have had the maternal and paternal haplogroup. According to the Embark breed health kit, the haplogroup that Sofie belongs to can be traced back 1500 years to the Central Asian wolves that were originally domesticated. The group is also found in such diverse dogs as Rottweilers, Afghans, and Wirehaired Griffons.
Sophia's haplotype, A41, was inherited directly from her mother. The type Sofie belongs to is found in three breeds: Alaskan Malamutes, Posavac Hounds, and Bichon Frise. Since Maltese are in the same family group of island dogs that include Bichons and Havanese, it's no surprise that a haplotype common in Bichon Frises also occurred in Sofie.
I learned that Sofie has a score of .9% wolfiness, which is a medium level of wolfiness. If you met Sofie, I think you'd agree that she does not appear to have any level of wolf. However, wolfiness in the way that Embark means it does not imply that Sofie is related closely to a wolf or is wolf-like.
Instead, the level of wolfiness in your dog shows how many wolf genes have survived as dogs have been domesticated over thousands of generations. These genes may even date back to their original domestication. Sofie's score of .9 is average, as most dogs have a score of 1% or less.
Some degree of inbreeding is very common in purebred dogs. After all, breeding dogs with similar characteristics are how we have ended up with breeds in the first place. However, the degree of inbreeding is very important.
The more inbred a dog is, the more likely they may be to have a genetic condition. Just because two dogs who are closely related are inbred doesn't necessarily mean that their puppies will have a genetic condition, and a dog whose parents were not at all closely related could still end up with a genetic condition. It's all a matter of luck. However, the probability that a dog will have a genetic condition is higher with dogs that are more closely related.
Embark told me that Sofie's coefficient of inbreeding, or COI, which is a measure of how many genes are identical on the mother and father's side, was 13%. Since this number doesn't mean much to me, it's very helpful that Embark also let me know how this number compares to other Maltese and other purebred dogs.
When compared to other Maltese and to all purebred dogs, Sofie's COI is actually average. Most Maltese fall at about 13% COI, as do most purebred dogs in general. That means that Sofie is not unusually inbred and that it's not something I need to worry about.
Embark tested for over 200 variants, some specific to Sofie's breed and many more that are general genetic conditions. She only had one variant that Embark thought I should know about, but it is an important one, particularly for Sofie.
Sofie has a baseline Alanine Aminotransferase Activity that is low-normal. This matters because Alanine Aminotransferase Activity, or ALT, is used to measure liver health. When Sofie's ALT is measured, it can fall within normal limits according to reference ranges but actually be an indication of liver damage.
In other words, when veterinarians look at ALT to check for liver damage, they may incorrectly believe Sofie's liver to be doing just fine when in fact there may be damage. This is important for Sofie because she is on several medications to manage pain which may affect her liver health.
This is definitely something I am going to tell my veterinarian. Embark makes it easy to share this important information with my vet with a simple button to send the report. You can send the report by email, print or download it, or copy a link.
The description of Sofie's traits is very accurate. There are a lot of traits covered, including base coat, coat color modifiers, body features like muzzle length, and much more. In general, Embark got it right.
The Embark kit predicted that Sofie would have light-colored fur and a black nose and feet. It also predicted that she has a long coat that may well be wavy and does not shed much. It anticipated that she was unlikely to have blue eyes and that she would have a medium or long muzzle. Embark indicated that Sofie would be eight pounds as an adult, which unfortunately has been true at times, but her veterinarian recommends that she is closer to six pounds at a healthy weight.
The relatives section is fun to explore. You can see what dogs have a close DNA match to your own. It was interesting to see which dogs may share great grandparents or even brothers or sisters with her.
In Sofie's case, the relative section is a fairly long list of little white dogs that look very much like her. She shared between 29% and 27% DNA with dozens of dogs from all over the country.
It was fun seeing which dogs were genetically close to Sofie and learning more information about them. For instance, one of the dogs that Sofie shares 29% of her DNA with is a number 1 American Maltese Association obedience winner and a top rally dog for years in a row.
My Thoughts on the Embark Dog DNA test
I found the information we received about Sofie's DNA from Embark to be extremely interesting. It was great to finally have it confirmed that Sofie is, in fact, 100% Maltese. It was also interesting to learn that she was not inbred. Since we don't know anything about her parentage or her breeder, this information was valuable and set our minds at rest a bit.
Seeing Sofie's relatives was a lot of fun. It was interesting that Embark did such a good job of protecting Sofie's traits. The information about the ALT variant is extremely valuable since it will help us to monitor Sofie's liver values more accurately in the future. That information alone makes this test well worth doing.
I had hoped to see whether the Embark test would be able to predict some of the wide range of health issues that Sofie has had in her 11 years of life. Here are her issues according to her vet paperwork:
Some of her issues are likely genetic in nature.
However, there isn't a known mode of inheritance for them. For instance, caudal occipital malformation syndrome is very likely heritable, but we don't know exactly how it is passed down. It is most common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, although it can also be found in a range of other small breed dogs.
Similarly, Intervertebral Disc Degeneration, or IVDD, likely has a genetic component, but the genetic variants that cause it aren't easily tested for. Luxating patella is another disease that is probably genetic but doesn't have a mode of inheritance that can be tested.
Embark wasn't able to predict many of the genetic disorders that Sofie has, but it wouldn't be reasonable to expect them to have predicted these issues since there aren't yet known genetic markers for these genetic disorders. This is important for pet owners to keep in mind: your dog may have a genetic health condition that won't show up in any breed health kit.
If you would like to test your dog's DNA with Embark, you have three options: breed ID, breed plus health kit, and the purebred kit.
You can easily upgrade to the health kit if all you've purchased is the breed kit. You won't need to send in your dog's sample again.
If you think you have a purebred dog but you're not sure, like me, you'll be glad to find that you can get all of the advantages of the purebred test but also have access to the breed ID kit.
If you're a breeder, there are special options just for you. Breeder kits have discounts for testing entire litters or for testing breeding pairs.
Embark vs. Wisdom Panel
Embark and wisdom panel are the two premier DNA testing kits on the market. To put it simply, Wisdom Panel is more affordable, while Embark is more thorough. Embark also tends to take a bit longer. Here is a quick comparison between them:
|200,000 genetic markers||2000 genetic markers|
|Takes an average of three to four weeks to get results back||Takes an average of two weeks to get results back|
|Allows you to see your dog’s relatives||Offers a call with a veterinarian with a premium kit|
|May attribute more breeds to “supermutt”||Offers more specific breed breakdowns|
|More extensive health screening||Largest library of breeds at 350|
|Backed and researched by Cornell University College|
Is Embark DNA Testing Worth It?
In the end, I gained some very valuable information about Sofie. Features like the ability to see her relatives were a lot of fun.
While Embark testing is a bit more expensive than some other options on the market, I do believe that it’s worth it.
What are people saying?
Here are some reviews that people have about Embark DNA testing.
“This product is not cheap, but the second you get results you realize instantly the price is no longer hard to swallow. We were so entertained by finding our mystery rescue dog’s breed mix and we were so surprised! It makes so much sense now and we received some fantastic and helpful health information. We also found our dog’s cousin!” Ian C.
“While the health feature was really nice and gave us some great information, the breed was completely off. We KNOW we have a mixed breed and it came back as a purebred which, to me, made this test a complete waste of money…” Jordan.
Have you ever done an Embark DNA test? What did your test say about your dog?
My experience as the liaison of integrative medicine, neurology, and zoo medicine at UF Small Animal Hospital gave me valuable insight into the challenges faced by pet owners with animals who have medical conditions. My time there also gave me the opportunity to care for a disabled dog and write a book about the experience.
As manager of a dog daycare, I learned about how dogs play and interact, warning signs for aggression, and how to rehabilitate dog-reactive dogs. During my time there I was under the mentorship of two groomers, from whom I learned grooming essentials.
I currently work with high-risk shelter dogs and manage a blog to help other volunteers and foster families. I have two dogs of my own, a Maltese and a Standard Poodle.