Embark - Pop Science or Useful Tool for Breeding

Updated: Mar 16

I Embark all of my dogs (Amalu's test is currently being processed at Embark). What is Embark, for those who aren't keeping up with the new genetic testing options for dogs? Embark largely started as another company, like the Mars Wisdom panel, that used DNA markers and testing to determine the breeds in a mixed breed dog. I've been following the company practically from its inception, and while it did start with dubious accuracy like many of the other determine the breed DNA panels, I've also seen it correctly determined multiple purpose bred sports mixes with up to eight breeds in the mix in recent times.

Over time, Embark has begun marketing more heavily to breeders. Their breeders kit, which focuses less on the breed of a dog, and more on the health and genetic diversity has seen a huge rise in popularity. With this rise in popularity has also been a lot of pushback. "But why should I test my dog for a full health panel when there's only two tests that impact my breed?" Breeders ask. "Why should I test for genetic diversity when I can just run a pedigree COI on my dogs?"

Earlier in spring of 2020, Embark started offering packages for breeders. These packages included discounts if you order multiple kits such as for a planned breeding or for a full litter. For instance, their litter kit allows you to order a minimum of 4 kits or more starting at $99 per kit as opposed to their usual price of $149. They also have had a huge series of sales to make their product more accessible to breeders. Is this a sales tactic? You betcha. But it also seems to be a genuine response to wanting to help expand breders' toolkits, especially after they started partnering with Pure Dog Talk.

Are there reasons to be skeptical? Certainly. But here's the reasons why I like Embark, will continue to use them, and prefer them to other companies.

1. Cost - ultimately, even if you are paying full cost for a breeder kit $150 for color testing, health testing, and genetic diversity is a really good deal. With all the sales and discounts available, you can usually pick up a kit for substantially cheaper than this.

One of the frequent arguments I hear about breeders not wanting to use Embark is that it isn't cost effective, because they don't want to pay for additional tests that aren't relevant to their specific breed. So let's look at a quick example. Let's look at a common breed like Golden Retrievers.

First let's look at the Golden Retriever Club of America's position on genetic diseases that effect the breed: https://grca.org/about-the-breed/health-research/

Then let's pop over to Paw Print Genetics, one of the more common labs used to test various genetic diseases. With most labs, the standard is that you pay for a genetic test. Each test is bought independently, unlike with Embark. Most labs will also offer a breed specific panel/suite, which can save you some money.

For a full panel, included the supplemental (less common diseases) within Golden Retrievers, you would be paying $548. Even if you pick up a full price Embark kit, this is still far more expensive than the $149 Embark kit.

If you look at the list of diseases that Embark tests for, almost all those diseases are covered by Embark. Now, there are labs that have tests for diseases, traits, and markers that Embark doesn't or doesn't yet offer. For instance, the starred example above: Sensory Ataxic Neuropathy. This is not tested for by Embark, so it would have to be purchased independently through another company. However, Embark is always adding tests, so there is also the possibility that this will be added in the future.

2. Transparency - one of the big complaints I see about Embark is about their specific tests. Genetic testing is an ever expanding science and industry. There have been known instances of Embark's tests turning up inaccurate.

It turns out, as is really common sense, genetics is truly complicated. Yes, both humans and dogs have a distinct genes for each individual, but did you know ttherehat not every gene is always expressed in an individuals phenotype (physical appearance)? Did you know that an individual's experiences, diet, and environment can switch on an off genes that express? This is called epigenetics. So to me, it seems perfectly natural that not every test is going to be perfectly natural, especially since gene expression can also be controlled by what other genes express.

One of the big complicated diseases that Embark tests for is Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), which is a progressive disease of the spinal cord that can cause degenerative muscle and gait issues. Embark's test has been proven to be flawed/less than reliably applicable in a number of instances. Instead of hiding from this fact, Embark has written multiple times on the subject, explaining the intricacies of the disease and how people can help contribute to further research. And so for that test in particular, I would look to UC Davis or Michigan State who have more reliable tests for DM.

Similarly, Embark tests for Hypothyroidism. Both of my dogs have tested as clear for this. However, like DM, Hypothyroidism is a complicated disease, has been seen in Azawakh more than once, and thus I choose to run an OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) thyroid panel on my Azawakh, which examines the actual physical expression (phenotype) of my dogs' thyroid functionality.

The OFA accepts some results from Embark (an increasing number), but some test results it only accepts from certain labs. I've found OFA acceptance to be a pretty good measure of how accurate a particular test is, whether it be through Embark or another lab.

All of this takes research into your specific breed, but I can combine both genetic testing and phenotype testing to get the best information about my dogs' overall health. And I appreciate that Embark has a proven track record of transparency when their tests are showing to be unreliable.

3. Genetic Diversity Testing - there are other companies that run tests on genetic diversity within a breed. The big limiting factors are how many individuals of a breed have contributed to a particular company/lab and how that diversity is measured. The two other companies besides Embark that are popularly used to look at genetic diversity are UC Davis' Better Bred program and Mars' My Dog DNA/Optimal Selection.