October is Adopt a Shelter Dog month. According to the ASPCA, a dog arrives at a shelter every 10 seconds of every day. That adds up to millions of dogs each year that find themselves in need of a home. Often, there is little known about these dogs in terms of their breed mix, background or medical history. If a pup is still growing, prospective adopters may not even know how big the dog will eventually be! But it doesn’t have to stay that way. DNA testing can fill in some of these missing pieces and help dogs and their new owners get off to a stronger, smarter start together.

Why breed makeup matters

People are often curious about the ancestry of their pets. It’s fun to look at your dog’s physical appearance and personality and speculate which breeds may be in their heritage, and then find out if your guesses were correct. But knowing your dog’s breed background can also provide a lot of really useful information about their health, behavior and nutritional needs.

Let’s start with their health. Some breeds are predisposed for certain medical conditions. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, for example, are more likely to develop heart conditions. Boxers and Golden Retrievers are more likely to suffer from cancers. By knowing if your dog has one of these breeds in its ancestry tree, you and your veterinarian can use this information to tailor the care you provide. You’ll know better what signs to look for, what diagnostics to run, and what proactive choices you can make to try to prevent or lessen the impact of these conditions.

Knowing your dog’s ancestry can also help you understand their personalities and natural tendencies. This information can be useful when training your dog. Sporting breeds like Retrievers or Spaniels were bred to retrieve things for their owners. So, for their safety, a critical first command they need to learn is to “stay,” and not run off. This command is followed closely by “drop it!” (which can apply to everything from the ball that you threw for them to the brand-new pair of shoes that they sniffed out on their own).

Understanding your dog’s breed can also inform what kinds of enrichment or exercise they need. A hardworking, energetic breed like a Border Collie will require more exercise and mental stimulation than a less active Bulldog or Basset Hound.

Uncovering gene mutations

Genetic testing also enables us to identify if dogs carry particular DNA changes that could affect their health. One of the more well-known examples is a genetic mutation found in the MDR1 gene that causes a condition called multi-drug sensitivity. Dogs with the MDR1 mutation might have severe adverse reactions to some common medications. Knowing that a dog has the MDR1 mutation helps a veterinarian give a dog the best care and avoid unfavorable reactions. But that’s just one example. The WISDOM PANEL™ Health test screens for over 150 genetic conditions, giving you a better overall picture of your dog’s health.

DNA testing allows us to fill in so many gaps about a shelter dog’s background, but some questions will always remain. As a pet owner, you may never know everything that transpired in their lives before you took them in. But you will know this: the day you chose to adopt from a shelter, you gave a dog the second chance they deserved.