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How Dog DNA Testing Helps Willie Nelson Prevent Kidney Stones


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When Julana and her husband adopted Willie Nelson, they suspected he was 100% German Shepherd Dog, due to his black and tan coat pattern. But as he got older, they noticed that his size was smaller than they expected for a German Shepherd. They decided to use an Embark dog DNA test to find out his true ancestry.

Genetic testing with Embark revealed that Willie’s breed mix actually contained seven different breeds, but his ancestry wasn’t the most surprising finding. The Embark test also uncovered a surprising health risk that might affect Willie later in life.

Willie Nelson, the “perfect dog”

Julana describes Willie as having “the perfect dog personality.” He loves to play and go for walks, but he’s equally happy to sit on the porch and relax with his humans. He is protective, loves to play fetch, and is very attached to his family. He enjoys camping, hiking, and kayaking with his humans.

“He’s very smart,” Julana says, “so I try to do a lot of enrichment activities with him. Sometimes we’ll take his toys, hide them around the house, and tell him to go search for them. He has so much energy. He’s always doing a job, even if it’s just sitting on the balcony, keeping watch and looking at cats.”

“He’s just excited to be living life with us,” she says fondly.

A lifelong animal lover, Julana has a background in animal sciences. She became an animal trainer and worked with small mammals and birds, training them for educational shows. She now lives in Los Angeles and works in entertainment.

Julana grew up with dogs and knew she always wanted a dog of her own. She adopted her first dog, Annabelle, while in college, and she and her husband adopted Willie Nelson together in 2019.

“We adopted Willie Nelson right before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Julana says. “As soon as we met him, we were obsessed.”


Dog DNA testing with Embark

“I had always been interested in dog DNA testing, but I thought you could only test for breeds,” she says. “I didn’t know about the health testing. When I heard about Embark, I learned that I could get Willie’s breeds tested and also get a genetic health screening done.”

“The Embark test was really easy,” Julana says. “They sent me a kit with a swab. You just swab the inside of your dog’s cheek, put it in a tube, shake it, and send it back to Embark.”

Willie Nelson’s breed reveal

Willie’s breed results surprised Julana. His ancestry contains seven different breed results, with the dominant breeds being German Shepherd Dog, Australian Cattle Dog, and Border Collie.

Willie Nelson is 32.7% German Shepherd Dog, 18.4% Australian Cattle Dog, 12.1% Border Collie, 9.8% Chow Chow, 6.8% American Staffordshire Terrier, 4.6% Rottweiler, 4.6% Collie, and 11.0% Supermutt.

Willie Nelson is 32.7% German Shepherd Dog, 18.4% Australian Cattle Dog, 12.1% Border Collie, 9.8% Chow Chow, 6.8% American Staffordshire Terrier, 4.6% Rottweiler, 4.6% Collie, and 11.0% Supermutt.

Genetic testing uncovers a risk for developing kidney stones

Julana didn’t expect to find any health risks for Willie, but his DNA told a different story.

“I got an email from Embark, and they told us that Willie is at risk for kidney and bladder stones,” she recalls. 

Willie is at risk for developing canine cystine stones, a type of urinary stone that occurs when an amino acid called cystine accumulates in the urine and creates a hard mass. Cystine stones can irritate the lining of the urinary tract, resulting in urinary accidents, straining, bloody urine, or even the inability to urinate (a medical emergency). Some breeds are at increased risk for developing cystine stones, including the Australian Cattle Dog, one of the breeds in Willie’s breed mix.

“After receiving Willie’s Embark results, I had a consultation with a veterinarian to learn more about it. The veterinarian said one of the best preventative measures we can take is to get a urinalysis done every six months to test the pH of his urine.”

Julana now knows what signs to look for. She makes sure Willie is drinking enough water and keeps an eye out for any changes in his urination habits that could indicate that something is wrong. If that happens, she knows to consult his veterinarian.

Knowing Willie’s risk helps with prevention

“Once cystine stones form and clinical signs occur, they typically require surgical removal,” says Dr. Jenna Dockweiler, Veterinary Geneticist at Embark. “In some cases, stones can lodge in the urethra and cause an inability to urinate, which is a life-threatening medical emergency. 

“Knowing a dog’s genetic predisposition to develop this type of stone allows both pet owners and veterinarians to take proactive steps to hopefully prevent stone formation from ever occurring. In the case of Type II-A Cystinuria (which Willie is at risk for), specially formulated diets can help prevent the urine from becoming too acidic or too concentrated, reducing the risk of stone formation.”

—Jenna Dockweiler, MS, DVM, DACT, CCRT, CVAT

With a genetic risk for cystine stones, diet change can be one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent or mitigate disease later in life. Julana now feeds Willie canned food, so he gets more moisture and hydration at mealtime, and switched him to a low-protein diet on the advice of his veterinarian. Decreasing protein intake can be important for dogs at risk of developing certain types of kidney stones.

“Having this knowledge makes us feel really good, because we know it’s something we can prevent,” Julana says. With these preventive measures, she’s hopeful that Willie won’t need surgery to remove bladder stones later in life.

“Whenever someone tells me they’re interested in finding out what breed their dog is, I tell them about Embark,” Julana says. “The health benefit is so important for people to know, especially if they love and care about their dog and want them to have a long, healthy life.”

Interested in learning about your dog’s breed ancestry and genetic health risks? Get started with an Embark Breed + Health Test.

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For more dog DNA testing stories, read about how an Embark dog DNA test helped save Molly’s life.

Mimi Padmabandu Contributor

Mimi Padmabandu is a scientific writer and Content Strategy Lead at Embark Veterinary. She has over a decade of experience writing about science and genomics for leading biotechnology companies. She holds a bachelor's degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from UCLA and a master’s degree in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London.

Read more about Mimi Padmabandu

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