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New DNA kits unlock pet pedigrees

Curious dog owners can now determine their mutt's ancestry.

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Rip and Marcy Wilson adopted Drake, a fluffy black pup with floppy ears and a curly tail, four years ago from an animal shelter near their home in Chevy Chase, Md. The sign on the cage proclaimed Drake as a spaniel/Plott hound mix. But that didn't satisfy the couple's curiosity.

"We were always dying to know what breeds came together to create this perfect family pet," says Ms. Wilson about their "incredibly loyal, smart, and well-behaved" 38-pound pooch.

But for the Wilsons, and millions of other mixed-breed dog owners in the United States, there was no way to know for certain – until now.

MetaMorphix, a life sciences company headquartered in Beltsville, Md., began offering the Canine Heritage Breed Test earlier this year that genetically identifies 38 American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized breeds. (The company says an advanced version due out in September will detect 116 breeds.) Mars Veterinary – a division of Mars Inc., a global company that sells candy and pet food – plans to release a competing DNA test, called the Wisdom Panel MX, through veterinarians nationwide later this month.

When the Wilsons learned of the Canine Heritage test, they didn't hesitate to order the $65 cheek-swab kit. "We ended up spending more for the test than we did for the dog," says Mr. Wilson with a laugh.

After gently scraping the inside of Drake's cheek with a tiny bristle brush, the Wilsons mailed the DNA sample to the company's California laboratory.

About a month later, a letter arrived with the results. Drake is mostly Siberian husky. In the mix are Labrador retriever and cocker spaniel as well. "We were completely blown away," says Ms. Wilson.

Genetic identification tests, however, do more than satisfy owner curiosity, says Scotlund Haisley, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League in Washington, D.C. They could also expedite adoption and placement of animals. "This could be a major asset to our work, revealing possible health and behavior information that will help us find just the right home for the dog," he says.

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