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Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?

There are many diseases and conditions that can affect both cats and people: Cancer, influenza, and even the plague have all been found in both humans and their pets. With that in mind, it’s worth asking: Can cats have Down syndrome?

As it turns out, the answer is no, cats can’t have Down syndrome. But if you’re worried about your cat’s development, other conditions need to be ruled out instead.


What Is Down Syndrome, Anyway?

A British Shorthair cat looking up
Image Credit: MelaniMarfeld, Pixabay

Down syndrome is a congenital disorder in which a child is born with an extra chromosome — specifically, the 21st chromosome. This extra chromosome can have far-reaching implications on how both the body and brain develop as the child matures. It’s the most commonly diagnosed chromosomal condition in the United States, and roughly 1 in 700 children is born with it.

No one knows for sure what causes the extra chromosome to form, but there is evidence that the birthing parent’s age may play a role, as those who are over the age of 35 when they become pregnant are more likely to have a child with Down syndrome. There are thousands of people who give birth to children with the condition even though they became pregnant at a younger age, however.

Typically, a person with Down syndrome will exhibit some or all the following features:

  • Flattened face, especially around the nose
  • Smaller ears
  • Thick, short neck
  • Almond-shaped eyes with an upward slant
  • Small hands and feet
  • A tongue that sticks out
  • Shorter stature

Those affected with Down syndrome can also be at higher risk of other health problems, such as ear infections, eye diseases, congenital heart defects, and sleep apnea.

There is currently no cure for Down syndrome, and treatment options are mainly focused on helping children with Down syndrome develop as much as possible. The impact of the condition will vary from person to person, and while some can lead relatively independent lives (such as in an assisted-living facility), many will need permanent full-time care.

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Why Can’t Cats Have Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome is caused when a human has an extra 21st chromosome. Cats can’t experience this for one simple reason: They only have 19 pairs of chromosomes.

Even so, there appears to be something about humans that makes Down syndrome possible, because dogs have more than 21 chromosomes and some have an extra 21st chromosome, yet they don’t seem to exhibit signs of the condition either.

That’s not to say that cats can’t have genetic mutations that affect their development, however. There are several conditions found in cats that can mimic some of the issues caused by Down syndrome.

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Conditions That May Resemble Down Syndrome in Cats

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Image Credit: suju-foto, Pixabay

While cats can’t have Down syndrome, there are various conditions and abnormalities that can cause issues similar to those caused by that mutation. These can be caused by everything from diseases, infections, and congenital abnormalities to physical trauma.

One of the most common issues is something called the panleukopenia virus. This is a viral disease that’s caused by the feline parvovirus (and while it’s similar to the one that affects so many dogs, feline parvovirus is caused by an entirely different virus). Many cats who suffer from the panleukopenia virus will only develop mild symptoms, but some can suffer extreme (and potentially life-threatening) issues.

Mothers can pass the virus down to their kittens, and kittens typically fare the worst from the disease. They can be born with something called feline cerebella ataxia, which causes issues with balance, coordination, and shaking.

Physical trauma to the face and head, especially when it’s suffered as a kitten, can cause both brain damage and physical deformations that may be mistaken for something else. These can often be thought to have been congenital in nature, even if they happened after birth.

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What to Do If You Think That Your Cat Has Down Syndrome

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Image Credit: Stock-Asso, Shutterstock

If your cat is suffering from issues that make you suspect that they have Down syndrome, you can rest assured that something else is the cause. However, that other issue could potentially be quite serious, so you shouldn’t ignore it.

The most important thing to do is take them to the vet as soon as possible and explain the symptoms that you’ve noticed. The vet may want to run tests to rule out certain diseases and other conditions, but even if nothing is wrong with your cat, having that confirmed by a doctor will give you valuable peace of mind.

Unfortunately, many of the issues that could cause Down syndrome-like behavior in cats aren’t curable. There’s not much that can be done for the panleukopenia virus, for example, and long-standing physical trauma may not be fixable.

That said, your vet may help you figure out a way to better accommodate your cat’s physical needs. This could mean buying them ramps or stairs to help them access high surfaces, getting them a special collar, or simply handling them with more care than usual.

If your cat has had these issues for quite some time, there’s likely little reason to worry that they would suddenly become life-threatening. You should still get them diagnosed, though, so you can learn the best way to make your little buddy as comfortable as possible.

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All Cats Need Love

While it’s impossible for your cat to have Down syndrome, if you’ve noticed them exhibiting strange or troubling behaviors, you should get them checked out immediately. There are plenty of other things that could be causing issues for your cat.

Regardless of whether something is wrong with your kitty, the most important thing is to offer them plenty of love and attention as often as you can. This may not cure what ails them, but it will certainly make you both feel better about the situation.

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Featured Image Credit: Maria Sbytova, Shutterstock