Close to a third of American households include dogs, and half of those pooches are mixed breeds. If you own one of those mutts, you've probably wondered about its ancestry. Is that hound-like creature part pit bull? Does that face betray a hint of poodle? Recent advances in DNA research make it far easier to find answers to such questions.

There are currently two main tests. The more expensive test is the Wisdom Panel MX Mixed Breed Analysis Test, released in 2007 by Mars Veterinary . It costs more because it includes the most complete range of breeds in its analysis of your dog's biological background. The analysis is based on a blood sample drawn by a veterinarian, and is compared to 134 of the 159 AKC-recognized canine breeds. The firm claims that its test is 84% accurate in determining the breed makeup of your mutt.

Makai Is Half Golden Retriever
Photo: Peter McDougall

Your vet sets the price tag for the test, typically between $100 and $200; the process requires a vet visit for a blood sample. Bear in mind that most pet-insurance companies don't cover it. If your vet's staff doesn't know about the test, the Mars Web site offers a form letter that you can use to put them in touch with Mars.

Once the vet draws the dog's blood and sends the sample to the lab, the results take about three weeks to make their way back to your vet. Those results will include an icon representing each of the breeds identified in your dog, along with a high, medium, low and trace qualifier indicating how much a particular breed is present in your mutt's patchwork pedigree. In addition, brief descriptions and histories of each breed accompany the test results; that information can be useful for discussing a dog's potential health concerns and long-term health care planning.

Fewer Breeds, Less Money

The Canine Heritage Breed Test from MetaMorphix Inc. also came out last year. Instead of a blood sample drawn by a vet, the test relies on cheek cells taken by a simple mouth swab at home. The kit is ordered online or over the phone, and comes with the cheek swab, instructions, a sample submission form and a pre-paid return mailing tube. It costs just $80, but the test references only 38 breeds .

Sandy Is Half Golden Retriever, Too
Photo: Ossinger

In the event that your dog's breed isn't one of the 38 validated reference breeds, don't worry; you'll still get results. The test would turn up one of those breeds if it's an ancestor of another breed that's part of your mutt's family tree. For example, the list of 38 breeds doesn't include the pit bull, but does include the bulldog, which is a chief ancestor of the pit bull terrier. As a result, a dog with pit bull blood will show up as part bulldog on this test.

The results take four to six weeks and arrive in the form of a certificate outlining your mutt's breed composition. If you submit a digital photo along with your sample, the firm will include that on the certificate as well. The certificate will list a primary breed if 50% or more of your dog's DNA consists of a single breed, but this is relatively rare with mutts. A secondary-breeds category reports breeds that are easily recognizable in your dog's DNA. The final category is called "in the mix" and includes breeds that are present but have relatively little impact on your mutt's DNA.

The two options -- the Wisdom Panel MX and the Canine Heritage Breed Test -- offer different combinations of cost, convenience and accuracy. But either one is a good bet to provide at least some insight into your mutt's ancestry. That can help you get in tune with your pooch's personality quirks, or be alert for diseases or problems that are common in those breeds. And for many folks, that's not too much to ask for a member of the family.
Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.