By Paula Fitzsimmons
You’re the proud pet parent of a mutt and wouldn’t have it any other way. Things like his capacity to display unconditional love are what’s important to you—not what breed of dog he is. Still, learning about your dog’s lineage can provide you and your veterinarian with an invaluable wealth of information about his health, and can even offer insight into his behavior.
This National Mutt Day, find out the benefits of getting a dog DNA test and meet the six most common mixed breed dogs that show up in the results.
Knowing your dog’s breed profile makes it easier to identify illnesses he may be predisposed to, says Dr. Jason Sweitzer, a veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California.
“Certain breeds have heart problems, and so you can have cardiologist consults more often to catch heart disease early. Other breeds are predisposed to some types of cancers that we want to be screening for earlier. Knowledge is power, and these tests can give you some knowledge about the breed.”
Dr. Angela Hughes, veterinary genetics research manager at Wisdom Health in Vancouver, Washington, recalls a story about Honey, a dog who had become ill with a high fever. After initial blood work failed to provide answers, the vet wanted to run more tests that would have been invasive and costly.
“The owner mentioned they had just done a Wisdom Panel dog DNA test and that Honey was half Chinese Shar Pei,” says Dr. Hughes. “This is when the veterinarian realized that Honey was likely suffering from a condition called Shar Pei Fever. They were able to treat her appropriately and she was home by that evening. The owner and the veterinarian also now have a plan for treating any future fevers that may arise.”
Besides uncovering predisposed illnesses, dog DNA tests can also give you insight into your furred family member’s behavior, which can potentially make training more effective.
“An example of this is when people are having difficulty training their Lab mix, only to discover it is a Hound mix. Changing the training method can lead to successful communication with your dog and ensure their breed-specific needs are met,” says Mindy Tenenbaum, who has an MS in Veterinary Forensics and is president of DNA My Dog in Toronto, Ontario. DNA My Dog makes the DNA My Dog breed identification kit.
According to the dog DNA test results from Embark, Wisdom Health and DNA My Dog, these are the six mixed dog breeds that show up most often:
German Shepherds are known for their abilities as guide, guard, and search and rescue dogs, says Dr. Hughes. “They are prized for their strength, intelligence, herding ability and temperament.”
Depending on which breeds they’re crossed with, German Shepherd mixes can assume different appearances, says Tenenbaum, “But they can typically have the black and tan coats—a double coat that is fuller and thicker than some breeds.” Traits that may pass to German Shepherd mixes include their upright ears, dark face mask and dark saddle over their back, says Dr. Hughes.
One health issue to watch for with this group is joint problems, including hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital and Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. They’re also prone to arthritis later in life, she says.
Breeds in this group include the American Staffordshire Terrier, Bulldog, American Pitbull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Bull Terrier. “The Bully type breeds typically have heads that are more square, and larger, smooth coats and can be broader-chested,” says Tenenbaum.
The American Staffordshire Terrier is considered to be generally intelligent, hardworking, loyal and stoic, which Hughes says may explain their rise in popularity over the past few decades. “Often these traits are shared with their mixed breed counterparts, as are some of their physical traits, like overall strength and athleticism.”
Because they’re larger breeds, Dr. Jeffrey says they may have joint issues similar to German Shepherd mixes.
Crossing Poodles with breeds like the Labrador Retriever (hence, the Labradoodle) is currently very popular, says Dr. Hughes.
“The Labrador Retriever is one of the top family dogs due to their usually friendly, happy-go-lucky natures. They can also be very energetic and thus often benefit from regular exercise.” This group of mixed breed dogs share several of the more standard Labrador Retriever traits, like a yellow, black or brown coat color, short hair and drop ears “that are often, but not always, passed down to Labrador mixes,” says Dr. Hughes.
Labrador Retrievers are prone to a condition called laryngeal paralysis, says Dr. Jeffrey. “So [Lab] mixes may be at a higher risk for developing this compared with other mixes.”
Dr. Hughes says the Chow Chow may no longer be popular as a purebred (they were a top 10 AKC-registered breed in the 1980s). “We do still see their prevalence in the mixed breed population, particularly mixed in with the American Staffordshire Terrier.”
Chow mixed breed dogs often have a “permanent eyeliner” look (because of their darkly pigmented mucosal membranes) and the usual spotted tongue,” says Dr. Erin Chu, senior veterinary geneticist at Embark Veterinary in Boston, Massachusetts. Embark Veterinary makes the Embark dog DNA test kit. “But a lot of this is going to depend on what else is mixed into the dog.”
The consensus is that Chows are loyal. “The ones I've met have decent personalities, although sometimes they can be unpredictable if there's a lot of Chow Chow. They may be a bit more standoffish than other dogs primarily because of the Chow Chow part. They are not as excitable as other dogs, from what I've experienced,” says Dr. Jeffrey.
Chihuahua mixes are generally small (from 4-10 pounds) and have a variety of coat colors and face shapes. They tend to have a lot of personality and make great watchdogs, says Tenenbaum.
“Their alert, active and often playful personalities make them favored companions, and their small size means they can easily adapt to live in smaller spaces, like apartments,” says Dr. Hughes.
Chihuahua mixes often share many of these traits, as well as potential physical traits like upright ears, a shorter muzzle and rounded head, she adds.
They can also carry a gene that causes then to have shorter-than-normal legs (a condition called chondrodysplasia), Dr. Hughes says. “It may be more obvious in their mixed breed counterparts depending on their overall body size than in the more diminutive purebred Chihuahuas.”
Boxers are known for their playfulness and boundless energy, says Dr. Hughes. “They are also known for their ‘boxing’ ability, where they will jump up and try to box with their front feet. Some owners of Boxer mixes will report this tendency as well. As for physical traits, you may notice a bit shorter muzzle, the dark facial mask, the muscular body and a brindle coat color.”
Boxers are prone to developing a type of cancer known as mast cell tumors, “So I would think the crosses would have an increased susceptibility compared to other breeds,” says Dr. Jeffrey.
Although a dog DNA test can offer important clues about your companion’s behavior and health, it’s only a part of the equation.
“Traits like behavior, sociability and athleticism are just as likely to be influenced by environment (that’s you!) as genetics. I always tell clients not to forget that their dog is who they are because of their humans, too,” says Dr. Chu.