Three Genes Behind the Canine Coat

Scientists identify the genetic variants that influence dog hair.
By JoAnna Lou, August 2009, Updated June 2021

From the Puli’s cords to the Poodle’s curls, the canine’s array of coats makes them one of the most diverse species in the world. Until now, little was known about the genetics behind their fur. Recently, a team of researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) studied 1,000 dogs representing 80 breeds and identified three genetic variants that account for all dog hair types.

Long hair is linked to the variant in the FGF5 gene, curly coats to the variant in the KRT71 gene, and wire hair to the variant in the RSPO2 gene. But the combinations are what make up the many canine coats we see today, and account for what researchers call furnishings, like a Schnauzer’s mustache. 

Here is a list put together by Science Daily, recapping the combinations:

  • Short-haired dogs (i.e., Beagle): No variant genes
  • Wire-haired dogs (i.e., Australian Terrier): Varient form of the RSPO2 gene
  • Wire and Curly-haired dogs (i.e., Airedale Terrier): Varient forms of RSPO2 and KRT71 genes
  • Long-haired dogs (i.e., Golden Retrievers): Varient form of the FGF5 gene
  • Long-haired dogs with furnishings (i.e., Bearded Collie): Varient forms of FGF5 and RSPO2 genes
  • Curly-haired dogs (i.e., Irish Water Spaniels): Varient forms of FGF5 and KRT71 genes
  • Curly-haired dogs with furnishings (i.e, Bichon Frise): Varient forms of all three of the genes

In addition to explaining dog fur, scientists believe that this breakthrough in genetic research will shed light on human biology and disease. The true discovery doesn’t lie in the genes themselves, but in the way they interact. Elaine A. Ostrander, Ph.D., chief of the Cancer Genetics Branch in NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research, believes that this approach will pinpoint multiple genes involved in complex human conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. 

 Image: Shutterstock

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.