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Can cats have Down syndrome? Veterinarians hear this question more often than you might think. People typically ask it when their cat seems to look and behave abnormally, in a manner that resembles Down syndrome.
Cats with unusual facial features and certain behavioral abnormalities have become popular in social media circles. Claiming they have a "Down syndrome cat," some pet parents created social media accounts for them, thereby advancing the belief that Down syndrome can occur in cats.
Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?
Internet buzz notwithstanding, cats don't develop Down syndrome. In fact, they can't.
First, a bit about Down syndrome: It's a disorder that affects one in 700 human babies born in the U.S. each year. It occurs when the developing fetus's genetic material is copied incorrectly, resulting in an extra chromosome 21 (or a partial chromosome 21). This condition is also called trisomy 21.
Essentially, chromosomes organize the DNA in each cell into bundles, helping cells to pass on this genetic material when they divide. An extra chromosome 21 (or partial chromosome 21) causes a variety of birth defects that give people with Down syndrome their shared physical traits.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, people with Down syndrome tend to share some or all of the following traits:
- Low muscle tone
- Small stature
- An upward slant to the eyes
- A single, deep crease across the center of the palm
It's important to note that people with Down syndrome do not all look the same.
Why Down Syndrome Cats Don't Exist
Humans have 23 chromosomes. Cats have 19. As such, having an extra chromosome 21 is clearly impossible for cats. But that doesn't mean cats can't occasionally have extra chromosomes.
In fact, a 1975 paper published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research identified a rare chromosomal abnormality in male cats that allows for one extra chromosome, resulting in a condition similar to Klinefelter syndrome in humans. These cats are especially noteworthy because the extra chromosome carries genetic material that affects their coloration. This condition causes these male cats to be tricolored ("calico" or "tortoise-shell"), a color pattern normally only seen in female cats.
Abnormalities That May Resemble Those of Down Syndrome
There have been some particularly noteworthy cats on Instagram that became internet sensations after their parents claimed that their cats owe their unusual appearances to extra chromosomes. It's unclear, however, whether these claims of chromosomal disease have ever been verified through genetic testing.
Despite the questionable claims and biological realities, "feline Down syndrome" has become a popular term. It is important to note, however, that the veterinary community does not recognize feline Down syndrome as a veterinary condition and, furthermore, does not advocate the transference of human conditions to animals on the basis of physical appearance or behavior. To do so may be construed as disrespectful to people who live with these conditions.
Nonetheless, there are some physical and behavioral traits that may lead well-meaning people to mistakenly assign human conditions to cats. A so-called "Down syndrome cat" typically manifests some distinctive characteristics, including:
- Broad noses
- Upturned eyes (which may be set widely apart)
- Small or unusual ears
- Low muscle tone
- Difficulty walking
- Difficulty with elimination (urination or defecation)
- Hearing or vision loss
- Heart problems
Cats With Physical and Behavioral Abnormalities
The physical features and behavioral abnormalities of so-called "Down syndrome cats" are indicative of some other condition, one which may not even be genetic in origin.
The appearance and behavior of these cats may stem from a wide variety of problems, including infections, neurological diseases, congenital abnormalities and even trauma. Cats infected in utero with the panleukopenia virus can develop several of the relevant physical and behavioral abnormalities. Further, some cats have cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition that can cause some of the behaviors and traits of these "Down syndrome cats."
Cats whose mothers were exposed to certain toxins can suffer various congenital malformations affecting facial structure and the neurological system. What's more, trauma to the head and face, especially at a very young age, can cause permanent neurological damage and facial injuries that may appear to have been present since birth.
Expectations for Special Needs Cats
If your cat exhibits some behavioral and physical abnormalities, then she may be what is typically called a "special needs cat." Special needs cats often display many traits that might resemble, to the casual observer, those associated with Down syndrome, even though cats cannot actually develop the condition.
Special needs cats require special care. Their pet parents must take extra care to protect them from the hazards of, for example, pools and stairs, as well as from predators and other dangers to which they're vulnerable. They may need help performing basic functions (cleaning themselves, eating and drinking, etc.) or navigating life with vision or hearing loss.
Whatever you do, be sure to enlist your veterinarian as an ally. Anyone whose cat requires special care should learn about the full range of healthcare options.
Dr. Patty Khuly
Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.