Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently studying lab sciences. She enjoys researching various health topics and writing about her findings.
Our planet is one big ball of mystery. Millions of animals roam the earth and a number of them are yet to be discovered or documented. Just when we think we have learned all we can about animals, a new species or genus appears to catch us off-guard. Sometimes, we are suddenly made aware of traits and behaviors that should not have been possible in the first place. There is always something new to learn and discover about members of the animal kingdom.
One reported discovery is the incidence of Down syndrome among cats. Though this claim needs further scientific investigation and validation, pictures of cats with Down syndrome have made their rounds in cyberspace and divided public opinion.
Felines are unique and interesting animals. They can be quite different compared to other pets—often exuding an aura of pride and majesty. Cats are highly intelligent and they tend to be more independent than dogs.
Their appearance is also quite distinct. Even if they belong to different breeds, they still tend to possess pretty much the same look, their feline eyes and alert ears are quite consistent even with their larger relatives.
Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?
There are some rare cases, though, when certain cats do not possess the same glorious look that most of their species share. They also don't behave how normal cats would. Some owners call these differences in behavior and appearance Feline Down Syndrome. But, can cats have down syndrome? How much do we know about cats?
There are more questions than answers. The likelihood is not altogether impossible, but until further proof has been presented, much of this claim will remain to be conjecture.
So what exactly is feline Down syndrome? Perhaps one of the following:
- Just a way for people to justify their cat's weird behavior
- An anomaly similar to that of Down syndrome in people
- An entirely new disorder
Down Syndrome in Humans
Down syndrome, or DS, is a genetic disorder in humans caused by the presence of an extra part or a whole chromosome in the twenty-first pair. It is also known as trisomy twenty one.
The irregularity in chromosome count gives people with Down syndrome some distinct physical features, like slanted eyes, a short neck, abnormal outer ears, a small chin but large tongue, and a single crease on the palm. These are only some of the most common physical features – note that not every case develops these distinct physical traits.
People who have Down syndrome also have poor muscle tone and stunted growth. Their physical appearance is not the only thing that is stunted, but their mental ability is also impaired. Average Down syndrome adults have an IQ of fifty, which is equivalent to the mental ability of an eight or nine-year-old child. Although effects of the anomaly vary from person to person, Down syndrome sufferers generally tend to develop later and slower than their normal counterparts.
People who have Down syndrome also have higher health risks than those who do not suffer from the chromosomal anomaly. Some of the health problems associated with Down syndrome include impaired vision, heart diseases, gastrointestinal problems, and an increased potential of infertility.
Feline Down Syndrome Characteristics
Cats who are said to suffer from feline Down syndrome have wide-set and round eyes compared to the closer-set and slightly slanted eyes normally associated with felines. Instead of pointy and alert-looking ears, they have stunted ears that may appear droopy. Their noses, instead of appearing gracefully pointed, looks upturned and button-like. Their faces' shape may also appear slightly off.
Felines who are diagnosed with Down syndrome also behave abnormally compared to other cats. Cats are known to be very agile and graceful but the ones who have Down syndrome move pretty clumsily and wobbly. They have bad coordination and may bump and fall constantly. They also develop weird habits like sitting or meowing differently.
How they socialize with other cats, other animals, and humans are also affected. They usually behave differently from other cats in their litter. When most cats shy away from new companions, they tend to be friendlier. They also seem to not respond to being called or reprimanded.
Cats can also develop health problems that a human suffering from Down syndrome is usually susceptible for. Some cats have impaired vision and develop poor muscle tone. They may also have heart problems that can be detrimental to health.
Technicalities and Terms
The following facts may be helpful in deciding whether or not cats are susceptible to Down syndrome:
- Humans and cats have different pairs of chromosomes. Cats only have 19 pairs of chromosomes compared to humans who have 23 pairs. People with Down syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, which is not possible for some animals due to their shorter chromosomal number. Since cats only have 38 chromosomes, it means they only have nineteen chromosomal pairs. They cannot suffer from trisomy twenty one. In addition, a cat's chromosome structure is significantly different from that of a human being.
- Behavioral deviations do not automatically translate to having the ailment. Owners whose cats have allegedly contracted Down syndrome complain about behavioral differences ranging from poor balance and coordination to extreme idleness. Not all cats exhibit odd behavior, but just because a cat is behaving oddly, that does not mean it already has Down syndrome. The behavior may be merely part of the cat's unique traits, or this could be a simple case of the wrong diagnosis. Dysfunctional behavior is a symptom of many types of health problems. The cat may actually be suffering from another disease, causing him to behave in a certain way.
- Vet diagnosis needs further validation. Cats thought to have Down syndrome may have been subjected to misdiagnosis. The veterinarians who diagnosed them may not have been aware of other genetic disorders. Cats purportedly afflicted by the ailment usually have one thing in common—irregular facial features. This commonality serves as the basis for owners' claims. They make generalizations or hasty conclusions based on the deformity without realizing that other feline genetic disorders, like the Klinefelter syndrome, can also trigger a physical mutation. There is no sufficient medical evidence to prove that cats do suffer from Down syndrome. Vets should check with their organization before finalizing their diagnosis.
- Breeding within the family can cause abnormalities. Inbreeding may be normal for cats, but when two species with the same genetic structure mate with each other, the chances of giving birth to defective offspring is high. The union between members of the same family doubles the risk of passing on recessive (and often unwanted) traits and diseases to the next generation. The risk is halved for cats who mate outside of their direct lineage.
So, can cats have down syndrome? Technically speaking, cats cannot have Down syndrome. What other anomalies in cats that make their owners think they have Down syndrome is another health issue altogether.
They may pose the same physical and physiological characteristics as that of the Down syndrome in humans but it is not the same. They may, however, be still a product of a genetic disorder or chromosomal anomaly.
Further research is still needed to get to the bottom of the feline Down syndrome issue. As with any other animal disorder, it is best to know what it is and what causes it to know what necessary steps there are to take to remedy or prevent it from happening at all.
The Cat Files: Cases of Feline Down Syndrome
The Internet has a pool of write-ups about cats with Down syndrome. Some of these cats received some attention when their owners shared their stories online. Monty and Max were raised by different owners but were both diagnosed with the purported feline equivalent of the chromosomal disorder.
Monty the Social Media Star
Adopted and raised by Denmark natives Mikala Klein and Michael Bjorn, Monty grew up differently from other cats. Not only did he look unique, but he also displayed a number of unusual characteristics. Most cats knew when and where to pee. Some would even let their owners know. However, Monty did not seem to mind peeing in his sleep.
Baffled, the couple consulted a vet and they were told that their pet's behavior was something that aging cats normally exhibit. Old cats can't control their peeing because the aging process kills off a great chunk of their neurons. The diagnosis came as a surprise since Monty was pretty young at the time his odd behavior was noticed.
The couple thought that maybe Monty had his own way of marking his territory. They tried to leave him in the care of his friends in hopes of understanding the situation better. The results were unfavorable.
Not long after, Mikala and Michael finally understood what made Monty different from other cats. This was also the cause of his random peeing. Monty had a chromosomal abnormality, which Michael explained as something that could be compared "a bit with Down's syndrome in humans." Since research studies on chromosomal abnormalities among cats are few and far between, there is not much information to be gleaned from Monty's case except the fact that his oddness gave his owners more reason to love him.
Monty is a social media star and his unique situation earned him the support of many netizens. He even has his own Facebook page with more than 300,000 followers. Through his page, supporters can buy various items marked with a Monty logo. Cat Vaern, the shelter where Monty was first raised, will receive the bulk of the proceeds.
Max the Ginger Cat
Max was nine years old when he was diagnosed with what was believed to be feline Down syndrome. The owner named Glen was distressed over Max's situation and wondered how he can help his ginger cat. Already considered old for his age, Max could not control his movements and was usually out of focus. His balance and coordination were so poor that he even walked straight into a glass window. The owner feared his condition would worsen each year, though for the most part he seemed to be fine.
Dr. Arthur Fruaenfelder, a seasoned veterinarian and then-president of Albury RSPCA, evaluated Max's behavioral oddities and said they were "typical" of a cat with Down syndrome. According to him, the condition is "very rare" among cats. A cat diagnosed with Down syndrome does not have a well-developed lower brain. As a result, it lacks coordination and balance.
Normally mammals have spinal cords attached to the back of their brains. The spine sends messages to and from the brain. For those with Down syndrome, however, the messaging system does not work as well as it should. Messages are not relayed properly to the brain.
Dr. Fruaenfelder's diagnosis showed that Max got a "minor degree" of Down syndrome. To some extent, the cat was able to move with discernment but coordination was limited. The lack of coordination caused by aging usually shows up in cats aged 12 years and more. Nerve fibers and neurons significantly go down as species age, but because Max did not have some of those nerve fibers and neurons, the gradual loss of coordination manifested itself earlier.
At his age, Max would still be in good condition. Dr. Fruaenfelder said that total incapacity is inevitable, but will not occur until after a few years.
Down syndrome is a progressive disorder, which runs at a slow pace but there is only so much the owners can do. Dr. Fruaenfelder suggested reducing the additives in Max's diet so that the bad effects of the disorder will not accelerate. Diet changes may include switching to natural foods and giving the cat enough vitamins, prepared in varied proportions.
Genetic Disorders That Could Be Mistaken as Down Syndrome
Until a consensus about feline Down syndrome can be achieved, owners should also be aware of other genetic disorders lest they immediately mistake unusual behavioral patterns for Down syndrome. Cats suffer from a number of genetic defects that are not easy to detect unless thoroughly examined. The following genetic disorders are often diagnosed as Down syndrome:
One key indicator of Down syndrome besides behavioral and physical irregularities is cognitive impairment, which may vary from one cat to another. However, if your cat is perfectly capable of responding normally despite having renal problems or poor balance, it is possible that another disorder is taking hold of it.
Mothers with distemper or Feline Parvovirus (FPV) may give birth to kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia. Feline cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological condition, which affects a cat's walking and balancing abilities. It is not contagious or progressive. Kittens born with this condition have underdeveloped cerebellums. The cerebellum is that part of the brain responsible for coordination and maneuvering fine motor skills.
Cats with cerebellum hypoplasia walk like "drunken sailors." Their movements are wobbly and, at times, aimless. Even if they can see where they are going, they have no control over their movements and end up running into things. The condition varies per kitten in the same litter. Some may have a higher degree of complicated motor mobility, while other littermates will show hardly any sign of the condition.
Owners should avoid administering FPV vaccines to pregnant cats for they may give birth to kittens with this condition. Wait for the kittens to be born and old enough to fend off for themselves before administering any vaccine. Follow the vet's advice or consult him prior to making any major decision concerning your cat. Spaying is another viable option if you intend to prevent any onset of cerebellar hypoplasia.
If your cat shows signs of poor motor skills, refrain from concluding it has Down syndrome. Go to the vet for expert guidance. When in doubt, consult with another vet just to see if their findings match. For all you know, it was not Down syndrome but cerebellar hypoplasia that caused your pet to behave in such a way.
Another feline genetically inherited neurological disease that shares some similarities with Down syndrome is the Klinefelter syndrome. Vets have confirmed that this disorder is indeed present among cats, but it is most prevalent in cats with tortoiseshell color (calicos). Tricolor cats could not carry this disorder because they have different chromosome patterns.
Cats with Klinefelter's syndrome have sex genes that contain XXY. Normally, male cats have XY genes while females are characterized by two XX chromosomes. Much like Down syndrome, cats with Klinefelter's syndrome have extra chromosomes. The excess sex genes result in the usual genetic code of XXY. These cases are rare, but they do occur once in a while.
Male cats with Klinefelter usually have difficulty developing secondary sex characteristics, making them impotent and unable to reproduce or procreate. Physically, cats with XXY genetic makeup do not appear any different from normal cats. They do not have disfigured appearances.
Behaviorally, the Klinefelter-afflicted male cats are too feminine for their own good. This is probably because they were originally supposed to be females. There is nothing wrong with them for the most part, but their feminine traits may confuse onlookers and make them think they have an identity crisis.
Owners of cats with Klinefelter syndrome can opt to spay or neuter their pets if they want to reduce some of their undesirable traits.
Distal Polyneuropathy is a degenerative neurological ailment that mostly affects Birman cats born from the same parents. Scientists suspect this disease is inherited from recessive genes. According to a series of tests, the disease starts manifesting in cats aged 8 to 10 weeks. The characteristics may sometimes be mistaken for Down syndrome because cats diagnosed with the polyneuron ailment fell frequently. They wobbled and had a hard time standing and walking on their paws.
According to studies, cats with this neuron disease have normal blood levels, but they walk in an awkward, sometimes slow, fashion. Cats with Distal Polyneuropathy are also diagnosed with pelvic limb ataxia – a condition, which occurs in older cats, dogs, and other animals. They walk like they are in pain or suffering from arthritis. Ironically, such cats do not have any major nerve processing problems.
At present, there is no known cure or treatment for Distal Polyneuropathy – not even DNA manipulation can help. The future for cats born with it is momentarily bleak. Breeders (especially those who breed Birman cats) are advised to subject their cats for DNA testing just to ensure that there is no genetic defect that can lead to Distal Polyneuropathy. If such is the case, they should choose another cat with no genetic defects for breeding purposes.
This lesser-known neurological disease, otherwise known as Key-Gaskell syndrome, is prevalent among a number of animals besides cats. The disease is characterized by dysfunctional sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A cluster of nerve cells in a cat starts to degenerate, causing his autonomic nervous system to fail. The disease may have originated in Britain as cases of animal dysautonomia are more rampant in Britain compared to other countries.
Cats exhibit poor motor skills, much like those with supposed Down syndrome. They fall frequently and are unable to steer themselves in the right direction. They also suffer from diarrhea, constipation, tear secretion problems and a number of physical deformities (e.g. third eyelids, dilated pupils and different-sized pupils).
Again, it is necessary to consult an expert veterinarian to ensure you know your cat's real condition.
Can These Genetic Disorders Be Controlled?
Inherited genetic disorders among cats can be controlled to a certain degree as long as they were inherited in a "relatively simple" way and more DNA testing mechanisms are available in the market. Otherwise, it would not even be possible to tamper a cat's genetic makeup.
In a previous experiment, scientists were able to control the inherited polycystic kidney disease (PKD) in a select group of Persian cats and similar breeds. Before this breakthrough, more than half of the Persian cat population suffered from the disease, which usually resulted in chronic kidney failure and premature feline deaths. Though further research is still necessary, genetic manipulation drastically reduced the incidence of PKD among cats. The reason why this experiment succeeded is that there was only one gene to correct.
Some cat breeders and owners now send their cats for testing before letting them breed. Accurate DNA testing helps identify errant genes so that the right intervention can be administered (either the cat is banned from breeding or scientists will tweak their DNA to prevent future abnormalities in their offspring).
If you plan to breed your cat, you can certainly send it for DNA testing. Down syndrome, however, is a much more complex disease in comparison to PKD. It is not certain whether current DNA manipulation methods can address it. Scientists are making good progress, but they are constrained by the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done in the field of feline genetics.
On the brighter side, DNA testing will make you aware whether or not the cat you intend to breed carries with it genetic irregularities that can lead to Down syndrome. From there, you can decide to continue the breeding process or put it on hold.
Care for Cats With Feline Down Syndrome
Just because cats have a lesser number of chromosomes, does that mean that the possibility of contracting Down syndrome is zero? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, there are no conclusive findings at present. The possibility is still there, but researchers have yet to show concrete evidence that there is indeed a feline version of the chromosomal disorder. Assuming the disorder does exist for cats, owners have to step up and provide their afflicted pets with more than the usual care.
When you know that something is wrong with your pet then you must make sure that they are taken care of properly. Cats with feline Down syndrome should be given extra attention compared to their normal companions. Regardless, all cats need to be loved and cared for. If you suspect that your cat has Down syndrome, here are ways to show you care:
- Do Your Research: Know everything there is to know about cats. Read more about common diseases that befall them, their anatomy, their ancestry, the best ways to treat feline-specific ailments and other important pieces of information that will help you provide the care they need. There are several paperbacks and online reading materials you can dig your nose into. Look up previously diagnosed cases of feline Down syndrome and see if the description matches the symptoms exhibited by your cat.
- Talk to a Veterinarian: Even if you already have an existing veterinarian whom you confide your pet concerns to, do not hesitate to consult another vet for a second opinion. Should you feel the need to find more enlightenment, consult as many vets as your time and resources can afford. Some of these consultation sessions may require your cat to undergo a series of tests. You must be willing to subject your pet to them so that you can provide an accurate diagnosis. Upon successfully identifying the health issue, the appropriate intervention or treatment method will be administered.
- Focus on Your Cat's Well-Being: Knowing that your cat has Down syndrome is disheartening but that should not stop you from nurturing your pet. Always give the benefit of the doubt that it may not really be the dreaded disorder that causes your cat to behave in a particular way. Perhaps the cat has a slow development and just needs to be raised in an environment where it can develop its full potential. Some pet training centers offer to take up the cudgels on behalf of owners by exposing behaviorally challenged pets to various activities that intend to normalize their behavior or developmental phase. At the end of the day, however, owners can still choose to be hands-on and take care of their cats on their own terms.
- Look After Them at All Times: They need extra patience and a watchful eye to prevent them from being harmed. Don't subject your cats to an environment that may expose them to dangers, like heights and aggressive animals. Do not expose them to electrical wirings and appliances. Also, make sure that harmful chemicals and substances are out of reach. Do not rely on their ability to comprehend your instructions especially on things that may harm them. They may not have the physical and mental capacity that is needed to deal with these situations.
- Provide Them With Routine Check-Ups: Bring them to a vet to have their check-up and official diagnosis. The vet is more equipped to deal with such cases and can find out whatever disorder your feline friend may have. He or she can best advice on what appropriate preparations and solutions there are to aid your cat's special needs. Even though your cat isn't displaying any irregularity, a routine check-up will help ensure that he or she is in top shape.
- Monitor Their Diet: Feed them with healthy food items and let them have a comfortable place to rest. Because of the heightened risk of health problems in cats with Down syndrome, a healthy lifestyle for your cats may help a lot.
Be very observant with how your cat looks and behaves. Some slight changes may be early warning signs of a bigger problem. Do a routine checking of your cat's appearance and behavior so you are immediately alerted if something different is happening.
Can cats have down syndrome? A cat with a disorder may have a high risk of passing it on to its offspring, so even though there is a lower chance for your cat to be sexually active when he or she is suspected to have feline Down syndrome, it is still safer to be really certain that they don't procreate. The risks of having feline Down syndrome in one cat is already quite a burden– imagine having a whole litter of cats with the same anomaly. It won't only affect the pet owner but the cats as well. It is difficult to live with an abnormality and contend with other animals who do not have the same physical and physiological difficulties as you. Have your cats neutered or spayed if necessary, or keep him or her isolated from other cats of the opposite sex if needed.
Love is the Answer
When your cat happens to have Down syndrome after all, your best course of action is to accept the situation and continue to shower him with love and affection. Genetic predispositions are difficult to overturn. No coping mechanism is available other than acceptance. Down syndrome, or any genetic disorder for that matter, means that your cat will have its own quirks. In other words, it will not be easy to train. It will not respond the same way normal cats would. Do not be discouraged.
Although the irregularity in your cat's looks and actions are interesting and can sometimes be funny, do not ridicule your cat. Animals are empathetic and despite their condition, they can sense your feelings in the way you treat them, so avoid poking fun at your cat and treat him the way you would any other healthy and fun-loving cat. Just love your pet and the rest will fall into place.
Feline Down syndrome is still a long way to being fully understood, and all that pet owners can do for their cat friends right now is to ensure that they are well-taken care of and are surrounded by love and companionship.
Love your cat, regardless.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Sam on January 14, 2018:
I have Down syndrome so I need a Down syndrome cat
Marie-Claude Madera on August 04, 2017:
I have always known that my cat was different and under diagnosed. Now it makes sense to me but I know one thing that I will always love her
Zacchaeus on July 07, 2017:
Down syndrome is caused by 3 chromosomes in the 22nd pair but cats have 19 pairs it has been proven that all animals have a disorder for 3 chromosomes on the last nonsex pair for cats it would be the 18th pair
T McRae on August 26, 2016:
I beg to differ.
The symptoms of Down Syndrome appear to come from one or more (probably more) genes on human chromosome 21q. This entire region is found on cat chromosome 2. If a cat were to have three copies instead of the normal two (one from Mom and one from Dad), the cat absolutely should have similar symptoms to human Down Syndrome. The only reason this might not be true would be if cats aren't viable (never get born) with three copies of chromosome 2.