Canine genetic screening: VMX 2023

At VMX 2023, Dr. Jenna Dockweiler discussed using canine genetic screening in general veterinary practice as part of the convention’s continuing education offerings. A board-certified theriogenologist, Dockweiler works for Embark, a company that produces breed and health-related dog DNA tests and other diagnostic products. 

The company was founded with the mission to end preventable diseases in dogs. Embark’s dog DNA tests use a research-grade microarray that allows assessment of the canine genome at over 230,000 locations.

During her VMX presentation with the Telford Veterinary Hospital, Dockweiler shared several case studies — ranging from bladder stones to bleeding disorders to MDR1 drug sensitivity — that illustrate the power of genetic screening in veterinary medicine. 

Dockweiler earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Kansas State University and previously worked at a small animal specialty clinic in Colorado, where she is based. Her background in theriogenology encompasses all species, including dogs and horses. She has built and led theriogenology services for veterinary practices. 

At Embark, Dockweiler and other veterinarians are currently focused on canine genetic screening. 

“Embark is able to determine if dogs are at-risk for known inherited conditions or those that have the potential to pass on disease-associated alleles to their offspring,” she said in an interview at VMX.

Embark for Veterinarians is designed for veterinary professionals and is based on trusted science.

“We want the veterinarian to be at the center of that genetic health conversation,” Dockweiler said. Veterinarians or vet techs use a simple cheek swab on the dog and send it to Embark for processing. Results are sent directly back to the veterinarian, who receives a comprehensive report. 

Embark’s veterinary products tests for over 350 dog breeds and varieties as well as over 230 known inherited health conditions. If a veterinarian has questions about a result or the report, Dockweiler is available to talk with them.  

The products are prognostic rather than diagnostic, she explained. 

“Testing can help clinicians refine differential lists based on what inherited conditions a patient is and is not at risk of developing,” she said. “We’ve also seen the products used as an ancillary diagnostic, if a pet is showing symptoms of a disease.”

Embark’s DNA tests were launched at VMX 2022. 

Dockweiler said that people are excited about the products. 

“Clients are demanding genetic screening,” she said. “We wanted to ensure we offered a product that fits seamlessly into the veterinary workflow.” 

Some pet owners don’t share health results like a DNA test with their veterinarian. 

“It’s better to have the vet involved from the beginning,” she said.  

Embark conducts outreach with customers to learn more about the health of dogs that have been tested on its platform each year. Owners can share any diseases dogs have been diagnosed with as well as behavioral and physical traits. 

Dockweiler said once the company has sufficient data on a particular condition, she and her colleagues can look at anonymized genotyping data to find genetic links for diseases. 

What diseases can be prevented with genetic screening? 

There are a lot of actionable insights, she said. One big example is the diagnosis of certain types of bladder stones. 

Dockweiler said these stones can sometimes be mitigated entirely by changing a pet’s diet. 

“It’s a straightforward and easy thing to do,” she said. “Hopefully, the pet parent can avoid a costly surgery down the road.” Testing for bleeding disorders can be important before surgery, too. 

Dockweiler said the company's mission is to increase the lifespan and health span of all dogs.

“We want to increase the length of a dog’s life, increase the quality and health of life and hopefully end preventable diseases in dogs,” she said. 

Embark recently discovered a genetic variant associated with early-onset adult deafness in Rhodesian Ridgebacks and is currently enrolling dogs in targeted research studies on canine cancer and dilated cardiomyopathy.

Veterinarians and their team can visit a vet-specific website for more details and information:

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