Dogs, Cats and DNA

Feb 15, 2000 No Comments


Dogs, Cats and DNA

By Teresa Platt, Executive Director, FCUSA (April 1998 – May 2011)

AMERICANS ARE NOTED FOR THEIR LOVE of domesticated cats and dogs, our cherished pets. We have selectively bred a wide range of animals that are clean, loyal and rewarding companions. There truly is a pet for everyone, no matter what the lifestyle or need.

In 1998 and 1999, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claimed that by using DNA testing, it found the fur of domesticated dog and cat mislabeled and used as trim in garments and figurines sold in the US. Obviously, most Americans would find such a trade unacceptable and reject the products immediately if they were correctly labeled.

Mislabeling any product, no matter how inexpensive, is consumer fraud, and comes under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Fines and penalties can be severe.

Trade in Animal Products

Canines and felines, as with many other species, occur both in the wild and in domesticated settings, plus there are feral populations of domesticated animals now living wild. The meat and fur of wild canines and felines, such as raccoon dog, coyote, fox, wolf, bobcat and lynx, are utilized in most societies and traded widely. International trade in any wild species at risk is, of course, tightly controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Farmed production complements the wild harvest – an important tool in wildlife management – by stabilizing prices during times of high demand and ensuring wildlife caretakers respond to the needs of biologists, not the market. Although we have a thriving global market for mink and fox pelts, farmed production ensures their wild cousins are never depleted.

Cultural taboos exist in the US and elsewhere against using products from domesticated dogs and cats, even from controlled feral populations, and so the remains of these millions of animals are discarded. In parts of Asia, however, domesticated dog and cat remains are fully utilized and even sold.

According to Rick Swain of HSUS, China is “killing hundreds of thousands of cats, and about 20 percent of the figurines sold in the United States are made with real cat hides,”(1) with the balance coming from rabbit skins and synthetic materials.

The key questions: are illegally mislabeled products entering the US? Can DNA testing help in this area? And what is a discerning consumer to do?

Labeling Controls and Consumer Fraud

International brokers, of course, know their goods and, when trading across cultural lines, take care to purchase products acceptable to consumers while meeting the labeling laws of importing countries. No one, for example, would attempt to develop a business selling beef to India.

In the US, the FTC is charged with ensuring all products are labeled correctly so consumers can buy or reject them for any reason. It is consumer fraud and illegal to mislabel a product, no matter how inexpensive. Additionally, the Fur Products Labeling Act, also administered by the FTC, has specific controls for the labeling of fur products costing over $150.

Questions, Questions on DNA Testing

In 1998, HSUS claimed that, using DNA testing, coats labeled “Mongolian dog” had tested positive for “domesticated dog”. In 1999, it claimed to have found figurines labeled rabbit but made with “real cat hair”.

FCUSA asked HSUS to share its raw data and DNA test results. When it refused, we became curious and began questioning genetic experts. What we learned was fascinating.

From watching the O.J. Simpson trial, every American knows that a clean sample is vital for DNA testing. So, Question No. 1 was: Can finished, tanned or “dressed” garments, even dyed fur, provide “clean” samples? Can they give accurate readings?

A specialist in canine DNA testing replied:

“The main problem with using fur as a source of DNA is that the chemicals used to preserve the hide have two deleterious effects-1) they probably degrade most if not all of the DNA in a piece of hide and 2) the chemicals themselves are toxic to the enzymatic reaction used in the testing. …

“It is often challenging … to extract DNA from tanned leather or fur but it can be done, though it may not be successful with every sample. In order to provide this service to the industry, it would be necessary to refine the DNA extraction method and to build a referral data base of information on all species used for fur.”

Hmm. We were told that HSUS took samples from dressed furs so we wonder how “clean” the samples were and if the DNA readings were accurate. But HSUS won’t share the data or the results. Odd.

Question No. 2: Is there a good library of DNA in existence now?

Our expert replied:

“I do not know if any other laboratory has put together a DNA data base with the purpose of distinguishing fur-bearing animals. To do so – it would require time and money – I would say about 6 months and approximately $250,000. It would also require samples of animals other than fur (ideally blood samples) that you would be absolutely confident of the species.”

Hmm. Does HSUS maintain a DNA library? Strange it makes no mention of this breakthrough.

Question No. 3: If a clean sample could be provided, can DNA testing distinguish “domesticated” cats and dogs from wild or farm-raised species? Simply put, is a wolf is a fox is a poodle? And is a calico is a mountain lion is a bobcat, or what?

Again we went to the experts:

“There is a type of DNA test that can distinguish species of animals. It is done by amplifying the cytochrome B gene and doing one of several forms of sequence analysis. … It is my belief that the fur of wild cats such as tigers, lions, lynx, etc. could be distinguished from domestic cats. There would obviously be a problem with cats derived from hybrids such as ‘pixiebobs’ (a cross between domestic cats and bobcats).

“In the case of distinguishing wolf from dog, unfortunately dogs have descended from wolves too recently such that they are essentially still the same species and can not be distinguished by this method. However, dogs/wolves can be distinguished from fox, raccoon, and other canid-type species used for fur.”

Thus, goods labeled as “rabbit” but made from the fur of other species would easily be exposed by DNA testing. But the lack of differentiation between sub-species of canines and some felines takes us back in time. Man’s ancestors branched off from other primates 4-5 million years ago, with Homo sapiens appearing 100,000 years ago. Domestication of animals by humans, 10,000 years ago, is a relatively recent experiment.

In the Kingdom of Animalia is the Class Mammalia, where resides the Order of Carnivora, which includes the Family Canidae, canines, a species we call “dog”. Coyotes, wolves, foxes, jackals, bush dog, dingo, dhole and more, canines include a vast array of animals. With about 21 distinct species, foxes, of the genus vulpes, comprise the largest canine group. Which one of these is “dog”?

The Family Felidae, felines, include domestic cats and at least 34 other species. Lion, tiger, jaguar, jaguarundi, spotted cat, lynx, bobcat, ocelot, pampas cat, puma. Which one of these is “cat”?

So, according to the experts, the Asian wild and Russian farm-raised raccoon dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides, and wild and farmed fox, vulpes, which branched off early in the canine family tree, could be distinguished from domesticated dogs by DNA testing. Wolf, coyote and Mongolian dog, however, would all simply test positive for “canine”. So would German Shepherd and poodle. Although easily distinguishable to the eye, the many variations present in some segments of the canine family are not revealed through DNA testing.

But HSUS says it has a DNA test that tells the difference, in direct contradiction to the experts.

Crossing the Line

Late in 1999, HSUS announced it had found figures made of cat fur illegally labeled “rabbit”. Provided a clean sample can be obtained, DNA testing can distinguish cat fur from rabbit fur. However, if the clean sample shows “feline”, it may be difficult to tell the sub-species involved. And absolutely no test will tell us whether a product was made from a cherished household “pet” or the result of measures to control feral domesticated cats.

Consumers have the right to know exactly what they are purchasing, and to expect that purveyors of mislabeled products will be punished.

But it is also important for consumers to understand that different cultures value animals in different ways, and incorporate animal products into their markets and selected animals into their homes as pets, just as Americans do.

When crossing cultural lines and borders with trade, we must respect the world’s diversity of opinion and carefully think out solutions to real issues. Otherwise, we will all end up in one big dog and cat fight.


(1) Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 31, 1999, “China Kills Cats, Uses Fur on Figures”. For comparison purposes, each year in the US (population: 250 million), shelters euthanize and discard the remains of millions of domestic and feral dogs and cats. China has 2.5 billion people, ten times as many as the US.

See also:

FCUSA Press Kit special feature: H$U$ Resource Center.

What’s In a Name? Or, the Wolf Among Us By I. Lehr Brisbin, PhD. A discussion of the changes in the Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. “In this volume, it was agreed that our domestic dog should be designated Canis lupus instead of the more customary Canis familiaris, thereby confirming consensus of the scientific community that the dog is indeed exactly the same species as the wolf, the species from with it is generally assumed to have been derived through the process of domestication.”

Proposed Legislation Could Disrupt Responsible Organic Fur Trade (HTML or PDF) FCUSA commentary on HSUS’s campaign to ban sales of “dog” and “cat” fur. (July 13, 1999)

“Fur Free 2000”, Stage Two FCUSA analysis of HSUS’s latest campaign with a trade barrier twist. (May 6, 1999)

Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment Direct link to “American Scientist” magazine. (Apr. 16, 1999)

HSUS Howls for Attention. FCUSA press release on the launch of HSUS’s “Fur-Free 2000” campaign. (Dec. 24, 1998)

Ho, Ho, Ho! Plastic Santas? (HTML or PDF) FCUSA analysis of HSUS’s “Fur-Free 2000” campaign, focusing on “Evolutionary Fur”. (Nov. 24, 1998) HSUS information on “Evolutionary Fur” can be found

Cat resources provided by the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation: New Look at Cats! by Fiona and Mel Sunquist, from International Wildlife, March/April 2000; and Cat Links.

For further information contact Fur Commission USA.


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