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A Los Angeles company called Basepaws values good dental hygiene for cats – and wants cat owners to feel the same way.
The company is rolling out a $ 70 home prevention dental test that analyzes more than 600 microbes in a cat’s mouth and looks for disease signatures before they become visible to the naked eye.
This first test of its kind follows Basepaws’ $ 129 home DNA test for your cat’s genealogy that was introduced a few years ago.
“Our pets can’t talk,” Anna Skaya, the company’s CEO and founder, told me. “Genetic testing is one of the few things you can do to better understand your pet.”
She’s right – up to a point.
We have two rescue cats in our house, although one of them, as my Twitter friends know, thinks he is a dog.
Pets can’t talk, that’s true. But they certainly communicate with their human servants. Dogs can do this better than cats in my opinion. They’re more expressive and, I would say, more emotional.
But cats also make their point of view clear. Often times, when they feel bad, they lose their appetite. They sulk around the house or disappear under the bed or in a closet.
In other words, they make it clear that something is wrong.
So the question with the Basepaws tooth test at home – which involves wiping your cat’s mouth and sending the swab in for laboratory analysis – is whether you can gain meaningful insights from all of these microbes.
Skaya says yes, of course.
“You probably don’t brush your cat’s teeth every day,” she said.
I don’t know a single cat owner who does this, including me. If that makes me a bad person, so be it.
“Genetic testing,” said Skaya, “is a door that will change the way you talk to your vet about your cat.”
Okay I get that. When you have test results for a bite of microbes, you can actually ask your veterinarian what this or that data point means. As Skaya says, “This way you are ahead of all problems.”
But that assumes that the test actually delivers worthwhile results.
I have reached out to a number of animal dentistry specialists. I shared with them the Basepaws press release announcing the dental testing kit.
Nobody said they were convinced the product was worth the money.
Santiago Peralta, associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said Basepaws’ claims made “very little or no scientific or medical sense to me”.
“The information suggests that the people behind the product don’t understand the clinical or mechanistic features of periodontal disease or other dental diseases that often affect cats and other animal species,” he told me.
Jason Soukup, clinical professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, said Basepaws’ test could be “over-relied upon, very easily misinterpreted and lead to unsupported care recommendations.”
“I don’t think there’s enough data,” said Stephanie Goldschmidt, assistant professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota.
Basepaws’s Skaya countered that her company’s dental test had been checked by veterinarians. It works as advertised, she said.
Skaya shared a paper with me that has been submitted to the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry and has not yet been peer-reviewed.
“The area of oral microbiome research in domestic animals has received little attention and is still in its infancy,” confirm the authors of the paper.
They admit they are working with limited data. Even so, they conclude that the Basepaws test “has the potential to facilitate the diagnosis of early-stage dental disease”.
That is not exactly a sounding confirmation. But it at least raises the possibility that the smear-and-sight approach to dental care in cats has scientific value.
However, a 2018 study in the journal Genetics in Medicine found that up to 40% of home DNA test results for people who indicate a risk of disease turned out to be false positives – that is, they were false.
Also, be very careful about putting your hands near a cat’s mouth. I spent a week in the hospital after a cat bit me, resulting in medical bills of nearly $ 55,000. It turns out that cat microbes can be poisonous. And expensive.
Even so, I bravely tried the Basepaws teeth test on Jupiter, one of our cats who was only willing to have the inside of his cheek wiped because I caught him doing a power nap. I’ll post the results on Twitter in a few weeks.
As for Basepaws’ home DNA test to delve into your cat’s genealogical history, take all of these results with a grain of salt.
I did DNA tests (not from Basepaws) on myself and my dog. Apparently I’m 11.3% Scandinavian, 7.8% Spanish or Portuguese, and 3.1% Italian – all of this was new to my parents who don’t know any such ancestors.
My rescue dog Teddy genetic mug is said to be full of St. Bernard DNA. Maybe if you screw up your eyes, but I’m not so sure.
Sheldon Krimsky, professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University and author of a number of books on genetics, told me it was best to think of parentage testing “more as a recreational activity.”
That said, they can be more fun than facts. Like your horoscope in the newspaper.
Also, and I’m not sure why exactly, I find it more interesting to look under the hood of a dog’s DNA than that of a cat. Like a person, a dog can be the sum of many parts. A cat is a cat. And I mean that in the most beautiful way.
In any case, I think Skaya is probably right when she says, “Home products are a big part of the future of animal health”.
I’m just not sure we’re still there.