Do cats have Down syndrome? Veterinarians hear this question more often than you think. People typically ask this question when they feel some differences in their cats, similar to Down syndrome.
Cats with unusual facial features and certain behavioral abnormalities have gained popularity on social media. Some pet parents who claim to have “cats with Down syndrome” create social media accounts for their cats to spread the idea that cats can have Down syndrome.
Do Cats Have Down Syndrome?
Internet gossip aside, cats do not have Down syndrome. It cannot even be seen.
First, let’s talk about Down syndrome: It is a condition that affects one in 700 babies born in the United States each year. It occurs when the genetic material of the developing fetus is copied incorrectly and produces an extra chromosome 21 (or partial chromosome 21). This condition is also called trisomy 21.
Basically, chromosomes help cells carry this genetic material when they divide by organizing the DNA in each cell into bundles. The extra chromosome 21 (or partial chromosome 21) causes a variety of birth defects that give people with Down syndrome their common physical characteristics.
According to the National Down Syndrome Association, people with Down syndrome share some or all of the following physical characteristics:
- Low muscle tone
- Upward slant in the eyes
- A single deep line in the middle of the palm
- It should be noted that not all people with Down syndrome look the same.
Why Cats Don’t Have Down Syndrome
Humans have 23 chromosomes. 19 in cats. Therefore, it is clearly impossible for cats to have an extra chromosome 21. However, this does not mean that cats will sometimes not have extra chromosomes.
In fact, an article published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research in 1975 revealed a rare chromosomal difference in male cats that results in a condition similar to Klinefelter’s syndrome in humans due to an extra chromosome. These cats are particularly notable as the extra chromosome carries genetic material that affects the cat’s color. This condition causes male cats to also be tricolored (“calico” or “tortoiseshell”), although it is normally only seen in female cats.
Differences Similar to Down Syndrome Symptoms
In particular, several cats have gained attention on the Internet after their parents claimed on Instagram that the extra chromosomes were the cause of the unusual appearance. However, it is not clear whether these claims of chromosomal disorders are confirmed by genetic testing.
Despite these controversial claims and biological realities, “feline Down syndrome” has become a popular term. It is an important point to say that the veterinary world does not accept feline Down syndrome as an animal disease, nor does it advocate the transmission of human ailments to animals on the basis of physical appearance or behavior. Such statements can be interpreted as disrespect to people living with these disorders.
However, there are some physical and behavioral traits that may cause well-meaning people to mistakenly attribute human ailments to cats. The so-called “cat with Down syndrome” typically displays some distinctive features; e.g:
- Wide noses
- Upturned eyes (eyes may be apart)
- Small or unusual ears
- Low muscle tone
- Difficulty walking
- Toilet difficulty (urinating or defecating)
- Hearing or vision loss
- Heart problems
- Cats with Physical and Behavioral Differences
- The physical and behavioral differences of so-called “cats with Down syndrome” are indicative of another condition that may not even be genetic in origin.
The appearance and behavior of these cats can be caused by a wide variety of issues, including infection, neurological disorder, congenital anomalies and even trauma. Cats infected with the panleukopenia virus in the womb may have several of the same physical and behavioral abnormalities. Also, some cats may have cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition that can cause some of the behavior and characteristics of these “cats with Down syndrome”.
Cats whose mothers are exposed to certain toxins may have various congenital deformities that affect their facial structure and neurological systems. In addition, trauma to the head and face, especially at a very young age, can lead to permanent neurological damage and facial injuries that seem to have been present since birth.
Expectations for Cats with Special Needs
If your cat exhibits certain behavioral and physical abnormalities, it may be a cat typically referred to as a “special needs cat”. Cats with special needs display many of the features that, to the casual observer, might be associated with Down syndrome cat, although they are impossible to see in cats.
Special needs cats need special care. Parents of these cats should take extra care to protect them from dangers such as pools and ladders, as well as from predators and other dangers to which they are vulnerable. These cats may need help performing their basic functions (cleaning themselves, eating and drinking, etc.) or living with vision or hearing loss.
Whatever you do, be sure to get the support of your veterinarian. Anyone whose cat needs special care should learn about all possible health care options.