DNA Tests Extend to Cats

What a swab from a cat's cheek will tell you; what it won't.


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Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and other DNA mail-in testing services were among the most popular Christmas gifts this past year. DNA kits to trace a dog’s heritage are selling well, too. And cats? In certain ways, “the world of cat DNA testing has lagged behind that of dog testing,” says Jerold Bell, DVM, an adjunct professor of genetics at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. While DNA kits for dogs look at more than 150 traits and disease risks, Dr. Bell says, the cat kits test for only around 40 diseases and traits, such as coat color, hair length, and type.

Still, cat DNA kits are being marketed, and “parents” of felines are turning in samples of their cat’s DNA gathered either with a swab of the cheek inside their mouths or a sample of fur lifted painlessly with a special adhesive strip. Is it worth it? Can you really find out not just your cat’s breed background but also her disease risk?

“The development of ‘personalized medicine,’ where an individuals’s DNA is sequenced, or many DNA tests are run on a single panel, is the future of both human and animal medicine,” Dr. Bell says. “At issue is whether current DNA panel sets offered for cats, or dogs for that matter, provide useful and actionable information to owners and their veterinarians,” he comments. The answer? Not so much.

“The stumbling block is that there are not yet DNA tests available for common feline genetic disease susceptibility: lower urinary tract disease, diabetes, allergies, and so on,” Dr. Bell explains. “Even the testable genes for Maine Coon or Ragdoll hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease common to those breeds, are not specific enough for identifying cats that will develop the illness. Furthermore, many cats testing negative for the identified DNA mutation still develop the disease. Clearly, this is a continually evolving field.”

Nevertheless, cat DNA kits do give some information — “mostly for common cat color and hair types and uncommon breed-specific diseases,” Dr. Bell points out. If you want to scratch an itch for learning something about your cat’s DNA, here are the commercially available tests. They are in alphabetical, not any preferential, order.

Basepaws. For $95, this California-based start-up formed by basic research geneticists mirrors what is done on the human side by 23andMe. By crowdsourcing DNA samples from all cats along with health information, the company hopes to be able to get to the point of being able to identify genes for common diseases across all purebred and mixed-breed cats. It also provides the usual established cat DNA tests for diseases and traits and estimates the relationship of your cat to different species of wild cats (kind of like how some DNA tests for people will tell you how much Neanderthal you have in you).

Cat Ancestry. Run by the University of California, Davis, this $120 test compares your cat’s DNA to that of established pedigree breeds and their ancestral lines.

CatDNAtest. This $45 basic test, with additional costs for add-ons, is provided by the Cat Fancier’s Association. It covers traits, diseases, and a DNA profile that can be used for parentage testing (with DNA from parents).

Mars Optimal Selection/My Cat DNA. This $100 assay tests for genes connected to diseases and traits, “as well as genetic diversity estimates that purportedly allow breeders to breed healthier litters,” Dr. Bell says. “But the science behind the genetic diversity breeding recommendation is questionable,” he adds, “and may even be detrimental for cat breeds.”

Orivet Cat DNA Health Screen & Life Plan. A $120 kit from an Australian company now branching out in the U.S., the Orivet gene testing panel is offered through several different licensed companies. Orivet partners with your veterinarian to provide information to assist with keeping your cat as healthy as possible with what amounts to a genetic health plan. But “again,” Dr. Bell says, “current DNA test results that could actually impact your cat’s health are uncommon.”

That is expected to change with more accurate information gleaned from research and growing numbers of analyzed cat DNA samples.


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