Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?

As a pet owner, there’s no doubt that one of the most rewarding friendships we will ever experience is that shared with our feline charges.

After all, there aren’t too many furballs who can quite manage to be regal and adorable all at once. But in spite of the special bond we share, our beloved cats remain a mystery to us in so many ways. And more than ever, we’ve become especially determined to find out all there is to know about them and as a result, unearth the answers to those widely asked questions which have piqued our curiosity.

One of the most common of these is the issue of Down Syndrome and whether it can possibly occur in cats.  And although this condition is one which solely affects humans and does not occur in cats, I will be examining just why some of us may think it might possibly affect felines too.

A Brief Introduction to Down Syndrome

Every living creature gets to pass on its genetic material to its offspring. This material is arranged in structures known as chromosomes which get passed down in pairs in humans and animals, with each parent contributing an equal number of them.

Any anomaly in this pairing results in certain genetic conditions which come with varying symptoms.  Down Syndrome which is an example of this arises when three chromosomes occur rather than the normal pairing at chromosome 21.

Yet the catch for cats is that they only have 19 pairs as opposed to humans who have 23 – every species has a different number of them. This difference between humans and felines means it’s virtually impossible for Down Syndrome to occur in cats. And although it’s possible for an extra chromosome to occur at certain positions in felines, vets are pretty clear about the fact that this condition doesn’t occur in them at all.

Similar Symptoms In Cats With Non-Genetic Causes

Certain felines may exhibit certain symptoms or possess certain features which cat owners may feel are similar to Down Syndrome. These include impaired muscle function, incontinence, mental health issues, etc.

However, it’s worth noting that these symptoms may not necessarily be due to genetic problems and may actually be as a result of more common issues such as poor nutrition, emotional distress, illness or simply age-related problems.

Hence these conditions may easily be resolved by obtaining a proper diagnosis and the appropriate treatment from a vet. In these instances a change in diet, lifestyle and some medication, as prescribed by a vet, are all that’s required for the cat to be as right as rain, again.

Genetic Disorders With Similar Symptoms

However, there are certain instances in which these symptoms may not be resolved as easily. As noted above, cats just like every other living creature can suffer from genetic disorders. And quite a few of these give rise to conditions which are considered by several cat owners and enthusiasts to be similar to Down Syndrome.

I have examined a number of the most common of them below:

Feline Dysautonomia (Key-Gaskell Syndrome)

This condition is rather rare and most frequently occurs in cats below the age of 36 months (although it’s also known to affect cats of all ages and both genders). According to Pet MD, this illness involves the malfunction of processes which are carried out involuntarily – excluding breathing, however – such as sweating, digestion, blood pressure, etc.

One of the peculiarities of this illness is the fact most cases seem to occur in the United Kingdom as well as North American states such as California, Oklahoma, and Indiana.

Symptoms of Feline Dysautonomia include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Depression
  • Dyspnea
  • Difficulties urinating
  • Nasal discharge

Distal polyneuropathy

Widely considered a degenerative neural disease, distal polyneuropathy affects Birman cats which share the same parentage. Its symptoms show up pretty early – after a couple of months – and are known for their rather slow progression. It’s also believed to only affect female cats and is caused by the degeneration of nerve fibers in the central nervous system.

Felines affected by this condition tend to walk as though they suffer from arthritic pain and find it difficult to walk normally.

Feline Klinefelter Syndrome

Genetics and colour go hand in hand in every living thing.  But in cats, it all seems to take a rather unique turn with the X chromosome exerting a particular influence in this regard (it carries the particular gene which determines whether a cat’s coat will end up with orange or black).

It’s for that reason that female cats tend to have a greater variation – since they end up with a double set of them – as opposed to male cats which get only one X chromosome since they also receive a Y chromosome as well.

And that’s where calico cats, i.e. felines with tricolor coats (black, white and orange) come in since they are a key example of this influence. Due to the reasons explained above, they’re also overwhelmingly female, leading to the widespread belief that there’s no such thing as a male calico cat.

Except that it isn’t quite true since one out of every 3 000 of these felines is actually a male. However, it’s worth noting that such a cat also possesses the extra X chromosome which is necessary to achieve the tricolor coat.

This condition is known as Feline Klinefelter Syndrome and only one in 10 000 of them is fertile. They may also be particularly prone to health issues depending on what breed they are. What’s more, they require extra careful grooming (just like their female counterparts) since parasites have a much easier time of concealing themselves in their multicolored fur.

Cerebellar Hypoplasia

This condition is characterized by the improper development of the cerebellum in cats. Its underlying causes include poor nutrition, genetic issues or infectious diseases. According to VCA Hospitals, however, it most commonly occurs as a result of an infection passed from a pregnant cat to its young and may even affect the entire litter. It may also arise if the expectant cat suffers from malnutrition.

Symptoms of feline cerebellar hypoplasia are generally noticeable in newborn or very young kittens.

Common examples include:

  • Clumsiness
  • Limb tremors
  • Head bobbing

Important Points Worth Noting

As pet owners who have the best interests of our charges at heart, it’s all too easy for us to frequently pick up on any slight issue and worry incessantly about it too. And while such attentiveness does enable us to notice anything which may be harmful to them, it’s worth noting that each cat is unique and has its own personality and appearance. 

Hence slight differences in this regard may not always denote the presence of an anomaly.  However, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution and speaking with your vet on any issues of concern.

Here’s a video of a cat that has the look of down syndrome but actually has a chromosome disorder.

Concluding Thoughts

As can be seen from the information above, it’s impossible for cats to be affected by Down Syndrome. And the main reason for that is due to the fact that they do not possess a sufficient number of chromosomes for the condition to occur since they only have 19 as opposed to humans who have 23.

However, they do experience a number of conditions which cause symptoms considered similar to those which occur as a result of Down Syndrome: Feline Dysautonomia (Key-Gaskell Syndrome), Distal polyneuropathy, Feline Klinefelter Syndrome and Cerebellar Hypoplasia.

It’s also worth noting that the underlying causes of these symptoms are not limited solely to chromosomal anomalies, but may also be due to malnutrition, trauma, infection (distal polyneuropathy in Birman cats) or simply aging.

The main red flags which will alert you under these circumstances include: clumsiness, depression, limb tremors and head bobbing.

And in the event of symptoms out of the ordinary, it’s always best to seek the advice of your vet.

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