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Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

Alpha Paw Sale

Sep 29, 2021
AUTHOR Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Reviewed by Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Dr. Cristina Vulpe is a board-certified small animal veterinarian. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2011 and her PhD in veterinary oncology in 2015.



  • Dogs do not have the same number of chromosomes as humans, so they cannot have Down syndrome.

  • They can suffer from genetic and hormonal conditions whose symptoms could be similar to that of Down syndrome in humans (e.g., growth hormone deficiency, hydrocephalus, and others)

  • Dogs with special needs have to be taken to the animal hospital for a check-up once every several months.

Can A Dog Have Down Syndrome?

Down’s syndrome in dogs does not resemble the same genetic disorder in people. First of all, people are equipped with 23 pairs of chromosomes while their canine counterparts have a total of 39.

People with Down syndrome have an additional chromosome 21. While there are genetic abnormalities that dogs can suffer from, there is none characterized by the presence of a copy of chromosome 21 in their genetic material.

However, most dogs that do have a chromosomal abnormality, whether pertaining to chromosome 21 or not, have a low chance of surviving. A genetic disorder in animals usually makes it difficult for them to feed and drink properly or defend themselves in case of danger.

Some vets claim that Down syndrome in dogs does exist, especially since they’ve seen very similar physical features in some pets, such as a short neck, small head, hearing loss, or poor eyesight.

The truth is that there haven’t been enough studies performed on this disease in our canine friends and the similarities that the disorder has in dogs and humans.

Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

What Causes Down Syndrome In Dogs?

If Down syndrome in dogs does exist, it is not caused by something in particular, such as a pathogen or a disease that can be transmitted from one dog to the other. It is merely a genetic disorder that makes puppies have an extra copy of chromosome sets.

For this reason, there is no way of knowing whether a puppy is going to get Down syndrome or not, not even if you take the mother to the animal hospital for ultrasounds and a variety of tests during pregnancy.

There are several diseases like Down syndrome in that they cause the same symptoms. Moreover, many are congenital, meaning that dogs are born with these health issues.

Here are several examples:

Symptoms of Down Syndrome

Even though there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that a dog can be born with Down syndrome, since there are some genetic conditions that mimic it, they will cause the same symptoms. For example, pituitary dwarfism is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Growth retardation
  • Bilateral alopecia
  • Small physical stature (especially short limbs)
  • Urinary health problems (kidney failure)

Dogs with hypothyroidism show the following clinical signs:

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Absence of reproductive instincts (a too low thyroid production often inhibits heat periods)
  • Poor eyesight and eye health problems (keratoconjunctivitis sicca)
  • Thin hair coat
  • Possible heart disease (slow heart rate)

Although it’s hardly comparable to Down syndrome in humans, portosystemic shunt in dogs does have some similarities:

  • Occasional disorientation
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Circling or other behavioral manifestations
  • Occasional diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive urination (and water consumption)

Although there are no dogs with Down syndrome documented to date, dogs can be born with a similar condition that has some of the most severe manifestations — Congenital hydrocephalus. This disorder is neurological, and it is caused by a lack of proper drainage of the cerebrospinal fluid, which leads to too much pressure being put on the dog’s central nervous system.

Unlike some of the other physical and neurological conditions that we’ve mentioned previously, hydrocephalus can also be acquired. Dogs can develop it due to infections, especially viral and fungal ones, and it can also be caused by tumors of the nervous system. In dogs suffering from this condition, pet owners can notice the following symptoms:

  • Spasms, convulsions, or seizures
  • Behavioral disorders such as circling, pacing, or being restless all the time
  • Blindness or very poor eyesight
  • Facial features suggestive of sadness/depression
  • A domed/fontanel head appearance

Most genetic conditions cause neurologic and appearance abnormalities, and in dogs that have a genetic material issue, it’s not uncommon to see facial features similar to those in people with Down syndrome.

Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

How to Care for A Dog with Down Syndrome

In order to give the right care to a dog that has a syndrome like Down’s, pet owners have to first find out what their canine friend is exactly suffering from and only then decide on the right course of therapy and care.

Genetic testing is possible. Based on the symptoms they see in the dogs they examine, vets can recommend specific tests. However, confirming that your dog has a specific chromosomal abnormality can be quite difficult. Usually, the test results are correlated with the symptoms that the veterinarian can observe during a check-up.

Most dogs whose number of chromosomes is abnormal are going to need life-lasting care. Every pet owner should know that adopting a dog with congenital heart disease, dwarfism, or hydrocephalus involves a lot of work, effort, and money.

Besides the primary disease, a dog with a genetic problem is likely to develop other health issues. The syndrome may affect their life to the point that the dog doesn’t realize what they are doing, so they could bump into things around the house and get themselves hurt by accident.

Improve Their Living Space

Humans with special needs have people that care for them, but they also live in a secure space. The quality of life of a dog that has a so-called Down syndrome can be improved only by first securing their living environment. Remove all of the obstacles or barriers that the dog may run into and that could cause them harm.

Let your dog move around the house comfortably and as they desire, but make sure to always keep an eye on them just in case they get in trouble.

Regular Check-ups

While most healthy adult dogs have to be seen by a veterinarian once a year, that is not the same for dogs that have disorders comparable to Down syndrome in humans.

Ideally, they should be seen by a vet once every two to three months. That might seem like a lot, but there’s no way of knowing, especially as the puppy becomes an adult, what changes are going to happen in their brain.

The life expectancy of dogs that have full or partial neurologic or hormonal conditions is low as they tend to live about half the time healthy dogs typically do.

By taking their dog to the vet on a regular basis, pet parents can effectively increase their life span. All medical problems are easier to treat when they are discovered early — that can be the key to maintaining a pup’s quality of life.

Food, Water, and Comfort

Dogs suffering from a syndrome like Down’s can go through significant changes from one day to the next. Sometimes, they can eat too much or drink too much water. But on the next day, it might be the other way around and the dog might not want to eat or drink anything.

A dog with special needs has to have fresh and quality pet food readily available and delicious treats all the time.

Some of these animals can often be in pain, so the dog’s sleeping situation has to be as comfortable as possible. Get plenty of pillows and choose the softest and most comfortable pet bed you can afford if your canine friend has Down-like syndrome.

Since the physical features of dogs experiencing symptoms of Down syndrome make them different from other animals, you might want to assist them as best as possible. For example, a dog ramp might be necessary for short-legged pets that can’t climb on the couch to be with their owners by jumping.

Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

Patience

Besides the physical inabilities, they might have, dogs with Down-like syndrome can be quite difficult to train. In fact, training is rarely successful in their case, which means that their human friends have to be particularly patient.

Diapers, pee liners, and a variety of accessories that can protect the floors in a house are going to be necessary when caring for a pet that has symptoms of Down syndrome. Everything that can make cleanup easier is a great idea.

Do not try to force your dog to learn tricks or use the potty if it doesn’t work. Dogs suffering from genetic disorders are more likely to develop anxiousness.

Attention

Special needs dogs and humans can live happily together, but you do have to consider that since their brain development isn’t the same as that of regular dogs, they can sometimes get aggressive.

For this reason, you should ask your vet whether there are any natural products that you can use to soothe and calm your pup. There are many calming chews and diffusers available these days and some actually work quite well.

Just to be on the safe side of things, if you have a dog with a history of aggression and there are little children living in your household, try to keep an eye on the dog’s activity as much as possible. Teach your kids to play responsibly with their canine friends.

Making Sure Dogs with Down Syndrome Get Enough Exercise

Any genetic syndrome in dogs can make exercise a bit difficult, but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid it altogether. Animals that have symptoms similar to Down syndrome can experience lameness in their limbs and have issues with their muscles and joints.

They can also have poor cardiac health. So, while dog owners shouldn’t overdo it, light exercise is still necessary to keep a dog’s body healthy. Walk your dog as often as possible and give them a massage several times a day. Take it easy and one step at a time. The right toy can make a huge difference in keeping a dog with special needs happy and get them to blow off some steam, too.

Is Dog With Down Syndrome Similar To Down Syndrome In Humans?

Even though there is no current evidence according to which dogs can get Down syndrome as some people do, they can be born with genetic conditions that have clinical signs similar to Down syndrome. Here are some examples of health issues that such dogs can experience:

  • Short limbs or a shorter body than average
  • Incomplete development due to a lack of thyroid growth hormone
  • Poor eye health
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Full or partial hearing loss
  • Heart health issues
  • Abnormal gait
  • A larger tongue than normal
  • A broad head

Only a very small number of dogs get to grow and show these symptoms as most of those that have an abnormal number of chromosomes die when they are born or right after.

Down Syndrome In Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

Should Dogs with Down Syndrome Be Used for Breeding?

No. Dogs that have genetic conditions should not be used for breeding, but not only because their health problem can be transmitted genetically to the offspring.

The truth is that a female dog that has a genetic issue with clinical signs similar to those of Down syndrome in humans has a much higher likelihood of dying early because of the pregnancy.

If the dog does have a chromosomal abnormality, it’s quite likely that it will be infertile, which automatically eliminates any issue in this sense.

But if the dog has a serious health condition that’s causing the symptoms, such as congenital hydrocephalus or dwarfism, a pregnancy can represent a real risk to their health and life – not to mention that they could easily lose it during a seizure.

Alpha Paw Sale
author image

Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Cristina Vulpe is a board-certified small animal veterinarian. She earned her veterinary degree in 2011 from USAMV in Iasi, Romania, and her PhD in Canine Oncology in 2015 from USAMV in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She is passionate about anything from animal nutrition & welfare to veterinary parasitology & infectious diseases. As a responsible pet parent herself, she enjoys giving reliable medical advice that pet owners can trust, which is why she joined Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts on our mission to help our readers give their pets the happy & healthy lives they deserve.

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