Categories: DNA testing

Is DNA testing of your cat for lineage and health issues worth it?

I’m told that cat DNA testing is booming. In the USA you can buy a test kit online for $40-$125. You use it to swab the inside of your cat’s cheek and send it to the DNA testing business who will provide results for you. One such business is Basepaws. They say you can get to know your cat better with a DNA test. With their test results you can learn about your cat’s “genetic similarity to different breed groups”. You can also learn whether your cat has “genetic disease markers”. This means that they can provide information about 38 genetic health markers which represent 16 inherited diseases.

The issue with respect to health I think is interesting and certainly more interesting than knowing whether your cat is linked in any way to a cat breed.

Image: PoC.

Origin of domestic cats

Understandably, a lot of cat owners would like to know whether there cat is a member of a cat breed. They may have adopted a cat from a rescue centre or informally. Their cat may look like one of the recognised cat breeds. For example, they may have a cat which is totally grey and very beautiful. They would like to know whether their cat is a Russian Blue. The Russian Blue is an all grey, elegant cat which comes from the north of Russia, the city of Archangel in fact. Or at least that’s the story.

A DNA test almost certainly won’t tell you that your cat is purebred because it is highly likely that your cat is not purebred (98% of cats are random bred). What the DNA test will tell you is the region of the world where your cat might have originally come from thousands of years ago and I am note sure this is very useful. They provide you with a bit of ancient DNA history if you like about the origins of the domestic cat and your cat in particular. However, the DNA test won’t say that your cat is a Maine Coon or a Russian Blue. It may say that your cat came from a region of the world where it is believed that e.g. the Persian cat comes from and therefore there could be a link between your cat and Persian cats.

Selective breeding has taken the breeds away from their origins

Basepaws say that they can estimate your cat’s origins to more than 17 breed types in four regions. In other words, they can tell you whether your cat is connected in some slight way to one of the recognised breeds. This is not saying your cat is purebred. It just means that your cat has a genetic inheritance which might be similar to that of a known breed. A good reason why this is of limited value is because, for example, the Persian cat that we see today has absolutely no genetic connection to the original Persians that ostensibly comes from Persia which is Iran today. Today’s purebred cats are created through selective breeding and that process has taken them away genetically from their origins. Sometimes there is no connection with the orginal cat (if the breed was not created from a relatively recent genetic mutation such as the Sphynx).

I’ll cite another example. If you want a true purebred Turkish Angora or Turkish Van cat you should go to Turkey and pick up a street cat rather than buy one from an American breeder. This is because the Turkish street cat is more purebred in terms of his/her connection to the original Turkish Angora than the purebred cat you buy from a breeder.

The point I’m making here is that the genetic connection of modern purebred cats to their original ancestors is either broken or very weak. This muddies the whole process of DNA testing to understand whether your cat is associated with a known breed.

Advantage: your cat can tell you where she comes from

You might think that I have painted a rather negative picture of DNA testing of your cat but I’d say it is being realistic and truthful. However, to be fair, there is certainly some use to having the test done because it may, as they say, unlock the mysteries about your cat. And it is nice to know a bit more about the companion animal that you love. It’s almost as if they have a voice as to their origins. When you meet a person you my ask where they come from. It’s a natural question. It interests people. Cats can’t speak human languages. We have to give them a voice and DNA testing give them a voice about where they came from or at least where their ancestors came from.

Predisposed to Polycystic KIdney Disease. Photo copyright Helmi Flick.

Health issues the more important aspect of DNA testing

The more useful aspect of a DNA test, in my view, is whether your cat has inherited a genetic mutation which can cause illness. This is about inherited diseases. For example, it is now well known that there is a high degree of propensity for the Persian cat to inherit a disease of the kidneys called polycystic kidney disease (PKD). The kidneys develop cysts which eventually kills the cat. A DNA test can check for genetic markers which will tell you whether your Persian cat will get polycystic kidney disease. About 35 percent of Persian cats have it which reduces their average lifespan of the breed to about 12.5 years, considerably less than the average lifespan of domestic cats. Cats with PKD live for 7 years approximately, it is said.

With respect to Persian cats and polycystic kidney disease (because this is a good example) you would hope that a breeder selling Persian cats would already have had a test done on her breeding cats so she would know if they were clear of the disease or not. This would preclude the need for you having a DNA test done. I’m just highlighting the point that a DNA test probably has limited value.

Question

P.S. On Facebook I asked Basepaws a question. Their response received after I wrote this article more or less supports what I have said.

Question asked of Basepaws on the origin of domestic cats

“Thank you so much for reaching out with your questions! Many of our customers purchase a Basepaws DNA Test for the genetic health marker report: https://www.basepaws.com/blog/basepaws-health-marker-report-list-of-genetic-condition/

To fully understand the breed report, please first know that we are NOT a breed verification test, our product is mainly geared towards mixed breed kitties. The report we offer allows you to see the breed breakdown within groups (Western, Eastern, Exotic, and Persian by percentage), and the top breed within those groups! Our tests show a relativity to the other cats in our database, so we have pedigreed samples of each of the cat breeds that we include in our tests. This means, we understand enough of the breed’s genetic profile to determine a relationship between your cat and this breed.

Please let us know if you have any other questions! For more information, please take a look at our White Papers, where our team has documented how we doing our testing: https://www.basepaws.com/ebooks/ “

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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