Does Your Dog Have Nine Lives, Too? This DNA Test Can Tell You

Animal shelters often have to estimate a dog’s age, which may compromise their health care. Embark Veterinary takes out the guesswork.
Jan 6, 2023 9:15 AM ET

Originally published on Illumina News Center

In 2019, Rachel Miro was living alone in a studio apartment in Pittsburgh when she decided to foster a four-legged friend. She went to a local shelter and was immediately taken by a floppy-eared mutt with dark, expressive eyes: Milo. The shelter told that he was almost a year old.

Milo was in pretty bad shape at the time; he had parasitic worms that were affecting his health. And after Miro helped nurse him back to health, she decided to adopt him.

As a self-proclaimed “crazy dog lady,” Miro was enthusiastic to learn more about her pup. “I’ve always been fascinated by any product promising to provide more information on my dog or enrich my dog’s life,” she says. She found a DNA test—one that not only traced lineage and breed specificity, but also uncovered genetic mutations associated with health risks—manufactured by a company called Embark Veterinary. The test revealed that Milo had a relative who was a few years older, and it made her want to dig deeper.

Then, in 2022, when Boston-based Embark launched a test to accurately determine a dog’s age, Miro was first in line for its beta testing. Milo had just been diagnosed with arthritis, and his fur had already begun to gray. “I was puzzled as to why he’d be showing signs of aging at such a young age,” Miro said. Embark’s new test showed that Milo was already six and a half—far older than she’d been told. Suddenly, his arthritis, graying snout, and mature size made more sense.

Embark’s vision is to use science to provide accurate answers to folks like Miro, so their dogs can live longer, healthier lives. Age and breed are the two key questions dog owners have when they adopt, says CEO and founder Ryan Boyko, and understanding a dog’s genetic makeup can help their owners better feed, train, and care for them.

Embark’s Dog Age Test rests on the established link between age and DNA methylation. As animals age, enzymes attach small chemical tags called methyl groups to their DNA base pairs, which regulates the expression of specific genes. Certain methylation patterns change predictably with age, meaning they can act as a sort of clock. Measuring the amount of methylation in a dog’s DNA gives an accurate estimate of a dog’s calendar age.

The test was developed in partnership with Illumina, as the level of DNA methylation is assessed using Illumina’s Infinium Methylation Array. The canine saliva samples received from the consumer are processed using two kinds of fluorescent beads that attach to methylated and unmethylated DNA bases. The samples are scanned and a comparison of the ratio of one fluorescent signal type to the other is performed to help determine the degree of methylation. Embark analyzes the lab results and sends the consumer a report with preventive care tips.

Embark hopes this new test will be just one of many that can produce insights for pet owners. “We’re looking at other technologies that build on our base of genetic and canine knowledge to help us find other ways to improve dogs’ lives,” Boyko says. The age test has already helped a number of dog owners, including Miro. During the company’s beta testing phase, 40% of customers took action after learning their dog’s true age, and about a third of those who took action sought veterinary care.

After learning Milo’s true age, Miro began taking preventive measures. To limit the impact of his arthritis, she cut back on his exercise. Before, she took him on runs and hikes, but now she tracks his activity to make sure he’s getting an appropriate amount without overdoing it. She also began feeding him supplements.

She’s thankful that Embark’s age test provided such clear answers, which should help her keep Milo happy and healthy by her side for years to come.

Learn more about how Illumina is expanding access to genomics, click here.