Dog DNA tests not only determines your dog’s breed but also helps discover if your canine has any underlying health conditions. We spoke to Ryan Boyko, Co-Founder and CEO of Embark, a canine genomics and biotechnology company who provide comprehensive dog DNA testing services to consumers, breeders and veterinarians.
Could you tell us a bit more about what Embark does and the inspiration behind starting the company?
Embark is a tool that looks at dogs’ genetics, gets their breed, health information and traits and helps owners, veterinarians or breeders not only know more about their dogs’ past but also gives them a roadmap to their future care. We look at almost 200 health conditions and can help owners really provide the best care to help extend their dogs’ healthy life as well as filling in their past with the breed information. We also take all that information and use it for research, which is really my passion and background. We have built the largest database of dog genetic and health information in the world and have a team of scientists using it to make breakthroughs to improve dogs’ lives in the future as well.
I had an opportunity to start a research project with my brother Adam, collecting genetic and health data from dogs around the world. When you look at the value of this kind of data in order to answer health problems you really need hundreds of thousands of samples before you can reach the full potential and start understanding genetically complex diseases. We initially received some small grants that helped us collect samples here and there but at the end of the day no private foundation or government entity really wanted to devote the kind of money that was going into human genetics where you could build hundreds of thousands or millions of samples, we could maybe get a few thousand. From the genetic tests there was so much that you could tell people, useful information about their dog and so we saw a great synergy where we could sell our tests to people, provide them with a lot of value in helping them understand their dog better, help their dog live a longer healthier life, help a breeder breed healthier generations of puppies and also collect the data, then use that data to be able to make more discoveries helping dogs live longer, so it made a lot of sense to step out of the lab and provide people with actionable, useful information and by doing so would also turbo charge the research.
What are some of the benefits of doing a DNA test on your dog and what kind of information can a pet owner expect to receive?
A lot of people are just very interested in knowing their dog’s origins and understanding their dog better, for most people they are the only member of their family whose background is unknown. One of the most frequent questions a mixed breed dog owner gets is “Oh, what breed is that” and being able to answer really takes on an outsized importance for a lot of people and I think part of it is being able to know the story of your dog and for many people that it is actionable, useful information.
We had somebody write us about a dog that they adopted from a shelter and the dog was just a complete terror, ruining the curtains and all sorts of things. From taking our test they found out the dog was half Australian Cattle Dog. This led them to do more research on the breed and found a farm that does herding lessons for dogs, spending a day on the farm. Now the dog does that twice a week and gets the needed stimulation resulting in being much calmer at home.
Increasingly people recognize the actual health benefits. We now test about 200 health conditions and many of them are found in one or two breeds. Some of them are more rare but there are several of them that are more common and the best part is for most of the more commons ones there are things that you can do something about. One example is drug sensitivity. There is a range of drugs that dogs with a mutation react poorly to, up to and including deaths in some cases. There are things used in veterinary surgeries sometimes for certain parasitic infections, certain cancer medications so just knowing that and sharing that information with your vet can completely prevent a very bad problem. Another is IVDD which makes the dogs predisposed to have their discs slip and by knowing that the dog is at risk you can greatly reduce this risk which can cause paralysis or require many expensive surgeries by minimizing trauma to the back. You wouldn’t let them jump off a high place, you may build ramps or assist when getting into a car for example. Another example is predisposition to bladder stones that you would want to consult your vet and change your dog’s diet. There are certain specific steps that can be taken for many of the things we test for to enhance the dog’s quality of life or prevent problems.
After receiving the results from a dog DNA test does Embark offer any follow up assistance in terms of resources or recommendations to pet owners?
When a dog is at risk for a disease or has a mutation that gives them higher risk for a known disorder, we have emails sent by our veterinary geneticists that go out to the person before they actually get the email that says you can go check out your results online. This helps put it in context and hopefully makes it clearer to them in what they can do or how worried they should be – to give a better understanding ahead of time which is more personal than just seeing the results on the website. We then offer a free consultation with the veterinarian, because of the way veterinarian law is in the United States our veterinarians can only really talk about the general features about a disease and what can be done, we can’t legally give specific veterinarian advice without physically examining the dog, so at the end of the day you would want to talk to your own vet in person and we have a vet report that you can send to your vet for consultation.
What sets Embark aside from other companies that offer dog DNA testing?
For one, we are very customer focused and through the entire lifeblood of the company is a focus of empowering people. Our belief is that the information does not really have any value in itself, it is somebody being empowered with it to actually take action. This has led us to build a couple of features that people really love, we are the only dog DNA test that has a genetic relative finder so you can find your dog’s relatives if they have tested with us, there are some great stories of siblings actually meeting up. There are some other features that are really popular like what we call Mix Match Buddies where you can see dogs that are a similar mix to yours, you can chat to them through our interface which is not only fun but also useful in both the relatives and the similar mixes where somebody might have behavioral issues that you share etc.
The other thing that really makes us, my co-founder and I, different is as we came from a science background, we built the test off of a research-grade genetic array that he had originally helped design and now we have our own version that is significantly bigger. We are the only test where when you test, if you opt-in to research we give you all these surveys and your dog’s data is actually helping make discoveries for the future. We are working on behaviors, hip dysplasia, cancer, the biggest causes of dogs having to be given to shelters or loosing length of life or quality of life, so you are really helping drive health to the next generation. That is really at the heart of our company, our company mission is to end preventable diseases in dogs and that is why the company was started. It felt like we could do so much for owners now and by doing that we would be able to shave decades off the amount of time it would have taken to build up to this research with only academic grants and really everyone at the company is very in tune with our mission and at the end of the day we are thrilled to help people and I think we will be able to add 5 years to dogs lives in the next 15 years.
What is next for Embark in the near future?
We have a few discoveries that we are at different stages of making so some exciting things going on with that. We have focused some research the past few years on the impacts of inbreeding and really made a lot of discovery related to the negative health consequences there. I am very excited that we are building some breeder tools that will help breeders breed away from that. What we are seeing is very inbred dogs having a wider variety of health problems and living less than when matched with the same sized dog that is not as inbred, about 2 and a half years less. We are looking at how to get that message out to people who are looking to get a dog from a breeder, where they insist that their dog was bred this way – which is good for them because they will get a dog that is healthier and live longer but it is also good for all dogs if breeders know that this is what is expected, you are just going to be breeding healthier dogs.