Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome? A Primer for Pet Owners

By Charisse Miller

When it comes to health issues, there are many overlaps between humans and dogs. Both you and your furbaby can struggle with anxiety, diabetes, cancer and seizure disorders.

But what about genetic disorders like Down syndrome? Is there such a thing as a Down syndrome dog?

Down syndrome is a common disorder in humans. In the United States, 6,000 babies are born with the disorder each year (that’s about one in every 700 babies born). But with the dogs, the statistics remain unclear since there is a debate as to whether dogs can have Down syndrome or not.

Before we discuss if there is such a thing as dogs with Down syndrome, as well as the potential symptoms, let’s discuss what Down syndrome is.

What is Down Syndrome?

The Mayo Clinic describes Down syndrome as a genetic disorder that occurs when a person has a full or partial additional copy of chromosome 21 due to abnormal cell division. The additional genetic material leads to physical features and developmental changes associated with Down syndrome.

This genetic disorder is categorized by distinct physical features (which include slanting eyes and a flattened face). People with Down syndrome often struggle with developmental delays and intellectual disabilities. They also experience other medical issues like eye diseases, heart defects or hearing loss.

Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome in humans is easy to diagnose. But what about dogs? Can dogs have Down syndrome?

The answer is — not really.

Genetically, people and dogs share many similarities, but they have drastic differences too. For example, humans have 23 sets of chromosomes while dogs have 19 more (they have 39 in total). Down syndrome occurs when there is a partial or full copy of chromosome 21. But the duplication of chromosome 21 would have different effects on humans and dogs.

That said, dogs can still experience genetic abnormalities. These abnormalities can still manifest in physical characteristics and symptoms that resemble Down syndrome in humans. Dogs can also struggle with developmental or congenital conditions that share clinical similarities with Down syndrome.

What Does a Dog Look Like with Down Syndrome?

Even though there isn’t any scientific evidence supporting the claim that dogs can struggle with Down syndrome, there are genetic conditions that mimic the symptoms of the genetic disorder. Pituitary dwarfism, for example, is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Urinary health problems (e.g. kidney failure)
  • Short limbs
  • Alopecia
  • Growth retardation

Dogs with congenital hypothyroidism were born with low or zero levels of thyroid hormone, which leads to the combination of the following symptoms:

  • Cognitive delay
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Short limbs
  • Large, protruding tongue
  • Slow growth

Other congenital conditions in dogs that can mimic the symptoms of Down syndrome in humans include:

  • Portosystemic shunt
  • Growth hormone deficiency
  • Congenital hydrocephalus
  • Pituitary dwarfism

How To Tell If Your Dog Has Down Syndrome

Photo of Person Standing Beside Dog on Grass Field
How can you care for your dog with special needs? (Photo by Laura Stanley via Pexels)

So, does your dog have Down syndrome or any congenital disorder? Your family veterinarian can help answer that question. Genetic testing is an option. Your vet might recommend taking specific tests to determine the reason behind your dog’s Down syndrome-like symptoms. However, confirming that your dog has a genetic disorder or chromosomal abnormality can be tricky. The results are often correlated with symptoms your vet will observe during the check-up.

Consider asking your vet about genetic disorders if your dog is exhibiting the following symptoms:

  1. Difficulty in hearing
  2. Poor eyesight
  3. Odd behavior such as unusual reserve or wailing (due to malformed internal organs)
  4. Congenital heart disease
  5. Unusual physical features: frequent hair loss, deformed hips or legs, skin patches and a nose that’s always dry or warm
  6. Unusual facial features: protruding tongue or a broad nose

Even if your veterinarian doesn’t have a definitive answer yet, they might declare your dog as “special,” aka a dog that requires special care and attention.

How to Care for Dogs with Down Syndrome

So, how can you care for a dog exhibiting symptoms similar to Down syndrome?

Improve Their Living Space

People with special needs don’t just have people caring for them; they also live in secure spaces. The same concept can apply to dogs with special needs. Improve the quality of their life by removing barriers or obstacles that they could run into.

Let your dog roam around your home comfortably, but make sure to always check on them in case they get in trouble.

Water, Food and Comfort

Dogs suffering from genetic disorders can experience significant changes from one day to the next. Sometimes, they can drink too much water or stuff themselves with food. The next day, they might starve themselves.

Dogs with special needs must have access to healthy, fresh and quality pet food. Don’t forget to toss in treats, too.

Sometimes, your pet might be in pain, so their sleeping situation should be comfortable. Be generous with the pillows. Also, let them sleep in the most comfortable pet bed so your furbaby can sleep well throughout the night.

Since dogs with special needs also have different physical features, they might need assistance with their daily routines. For instance, installing a dog ramp can help short-legged pets climb on couches or on their owners.

Regular Check-Ups

While most healthy dogs need to see their vet once a year, this isn’t the same for dogs with symptoms comparable to Down syndrome. Ideally, your dog should be seen by their veterinarian once every two to three months. Regular vet visits help you monitor your dog’s special needs.

The life expectance of dogs with special needs is low since they live about half the time healthy dogs do. By taking your dog to the vet regularly, you can increase its life span. Medical problems are easier to treat when they are diagnosed early.

Exercise

Any genetic disorder can make it difficult for dogs to get some exercise, but this doesn’t mean you should never encourage it. Animals with symptoms similar to Down syndrome can have issues with their joints and muscles. They often have poor cardiac health, too.

Dogs with special needs should avoid overdoing any exercise, but they can still do some light exercise. Walk your dog as often as possible. Once you come home, give them a massage. Let your dog blow off some steam by giving them the right toys, too.

Attention

Special needs dogs do not have the same brain development as regular dogs. Sometimes, they can get aggressive.

With this in mind, ask your veterinarian for natural products that can help calm your dog. There are many diffusers and calming chews that can help manage your dog’s episodes.

 

In summary, it’s unclear whether dogs can have Down syndrome. However, dogs are still susceptible to congenital disorders. If you suspect your furbaby with symptoms of special needs, get in touch with a veterinarian today.

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