The ultimate mission of Basepaws is to help you learn more about your kitty on a molecular level and to, subsequently, build a comprehensive feline database. Fortunately, many of you have already joined us on our mission towards a better future for cats. With an increasing number of people joining us, we get more questions about the science behind our work than ever before. One of the most frequently asked questions we get is: "What if my cat passed away, but I still want to do a DNA test?"
In order to analyze DNA of any organism, living or deceased, one must acquire a viable DNA sample. A viable DNA sample is a sample that contains enough DNA that is not fragmented or contaminated. Most commonly, DNA samples from living cats are collected by way of buccal swabs, plucked hairs and/or blood. Basepaws does not collect blood samples, as this method of sampling is invasive and not well-suited for our DNA tests. Buccal swabbing is non-invasive and simple, but we only recommend this sampling method for hairless cats. Fur samples, on the other side, showed to be best-suited samples for our particulate DNA tests.
What to keep in mind regarding fur samples
Basepaws' DNA extraction and analysis methods are well-optimized for fur samples, but hair sampling can still be challenging. It is often assumed that shedded hair collected from cat toys, brushes and furniture is an ideal source for DNA extraction. However, this is usually not the case. DNA can only be obtained from the hair follicles, not actual strands of hair. This is because DNA can be collected only from cells whose life cycle is not over and whose nucleus is not already degraded (which is the case for any hair that falls out/sheds naturally on its own). DNA is obtained from epithelial cells around the hair follicle. This means that if the hair fell out on its own, it is quite unlikely that there will be any DNA left suitable for analysis. Hairs pulled out directly from the animal will make for a much more reliable source of DNA. This is because when hair is taken directly from the root, the epithelial cells from the follicle are still attached. This is crucial, which is why Basepaws asks its customers to obtain hair directly from their cats, and a fairly large amount of it too.
Sampling DNA from deceased pets
So...is it even possible to collect a suitable fur sample from a deceased cat? In theory, yes. In practice, there are certain challenges to overcome. The fur samples can be hard to obtain from deceased cats and there are several things you need to keep in mind:
1. The fur needs to be collected directly from the animal. While a hair sample does not necessarily need to be collected from a living animal, as explained above, a sample has to be collected directly from the actual animal. Unfortunately, hair collected from toys, bedding, grooming tools or cut off the body most likely will not contain viable epithelial cells needed for DNA extraction.
2. The sample can only be obtained if the death was recent or the animal has been preserved below freezing conditions. DNA can often be collected successfully if the death was recent. If the time of death is not recent, DNA can still be extracted as long as the animal has been preserved below freezing conditions. It is important to remember, however, that the animal should not have been preserved for longer than two weeks. This is because once the cells die, DNA begins to rapidly deteriorate.
3. Do not defrost the preserved cat prior to sampling. In case you have had your cat's carcass in a freezer, and it's been less than 20 days or so after death, you can try to collect a fur sample but it is not advised to allow the cat to "defrost" first. Additionally, since plucking hair off a frozen body without snapping off the strand can be challenging, it is advisable to provide us with a tissue sample along with the hair (by cutting the follicle & its hair out of the skin). This sample will need to be placed on ice immediately. Any "thawing" of the tissue/hair can pretty much kill any DNA that may still be there.
4. Old samples are usually not viable. If a cat has been dead for longer than 20 days, if it has been stored at room or warmer temperature or if the sample itself is old, the chances of getting any DNA are slim to none.
Do you have more questions we didn't cover with this blog? Please drop us a message on social media or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about DNA and the science behind our DNA analysis please read our blog about Behind the scenes at Basepaws. Here you will find information about DNA sampling, extraction, sequencing and the Basepaws database. If you are interested in reading more about the DNA molecule itself, then please refer to this blog.