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"Down Syndrome" in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Expectations

Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently studying lab sciences. She enjoys researching various health topics and writing about her findings.

A normally developing dog?  Or one with a group of genetic defects?

A normally developing dog? Or one with a group of genetic defects?

Dogs With Down Syndrome?

Most of us are familiar with Down syndrome and its manifestations in humans. Many of us wonder if dogs also can be affected by Down syndrome. The answer is unclear. Dogs do have genetic defects, but they have not been connected to the same piece of repeated genetic material that causes Down syndrome in humans. But some dogs have the broad faces, slow development, and physical frailty we associate with Down syndrome in humans.

Down Syndrome in Humans

The cells of dogs, humans, and other animals keep their genetic material in paired bundles called chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. An extra chromosome, beyond the 46 expected, usually produces an embryo that can’t develop and grow. But in the case of the smaller 21st chromosome, an extra copy of part or all of the chromosome known as “trisomy 21” can yield an embryo that survives and develops into a baby but has multiple unusual features. This is known as Down (or “Down’s”) syndrome.

People with Down syndrome have distinct physical features which may include slanted eyes, a short neck, a flat-looking face and nose, abnormal outer ears, a small chin but large tongue, and a single crease on the palm.

People who have Down syndrome also tend to have poor muscle tone and stunted growth. Their mental and physical development usually lags behind that of their normal counterparts; Down syndrome adults may have an IQ around 50, equivalent to the mental ability of an eight-to-nine-year-old child.

People who have Down syndrome also have higher risks than others of health problems, including impaired vision, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and infertility. Their life expectancy is shorter, averaging 50 to 60 years even with modern health care.


Do Dogs Get Down Syndrome?

There is no easy answer to this question. Many have speculated that apes, tigers, dogs, and other animals can have clusters of genetic defects that at least look like Down syndrome. A few vets say Down syndrome exists in dogs. But if so, it must be different than Down syndrome in humans. Dogs have a different number of chromosomes than people do (78 as opposed to 46), and their 21st pair doesn’t contain the same information as the 21st pair in a human, so trisomy 21 in dogs would not produce Down syndrome.

Nevertheless, much information that in humans appears on the 21st pair does appear elsewhere on the chromosomes of other species, including dogs. Research on the genes of dogs is not nearly as advanced as research on humans. Few individual dogs have had their chromosomes or genes analyzed.

Usually, the puppy dies before he is even born. If he does actually survive, doctors tend to prevent him from living longer than a few days. At times, the trauma experienced during birth becomes too intense for the puppy to bear that it ends up causing his death.

Even though the symptoms of Down syndrome only appear after one to two years, the puppy begins to show physical abnormalities and mental slowness early on. Also, even though the disorder does not directly affect the survival rate of the puppy, it still causes poor development of organs and body parts.

In addition, he may end up dying after a few days because he is incapable of feeding himself or moving around to fend for himself. Another reason why puppies with Down syndrome die early is that their mother neglects them. In some cases, it may even kill puppies who are abnormal, such as the ones with Down syndrome. The mother attempts to eliminate the sick puppy to isolate him from the rest of its litter.

In general, dogs with this disorder live for an average of five years while healthy ones live for 10 to 15 years.

Does Your Dog Have Down Syndrome?

Your family veterinarian is probably the only one who can identify whether your dog has Down syndrome. Because dog genetics aren't easy to test, he or she might be hard-pressed to provide a diagnosis. But consider asking him or her about Down syndrome, if your dog has symptoms like:

  • Congenital heart disease
  • Difficulty in hearing (he doesn’t react as fast as others in his “pack")
  • Poor eyesight, perhaps with cataracts
  • Thyroid problems, as shown by impaired metabolism and unstable body temperature
  • Odd behavior, such as wailing (from malformed internal organs) or unusual reserve
  • Unusual physical features—suspected traits include a nose that’s always warm and dry, unusual skin patches, frequent hair loss, deformed legs or hips, and odd facial features including a broad nose and protruding tongue

Even if you don’t get a definitive answer from the vet, you and the vet may nevertheless decide you have a “special” dog, one that needs special attention and care because of its genes, its embryonic development, or other reasons out of your control.

Signs and Symptoms

Aside from the ones mentioned above, the following are the most common signs and symptoms of Down syndrome in dogs. Some of the symptoms mentioned above are also discussed in detail below. It is important to take note of them so that you can detect the problem early and take proper action as soon as possible.

While it may be quite difficult to tell, it is still possible. You just have to be observant. For instance, healthy dogs tend to have moist noses while sick ones have dry noses. If you want to find out if your dog has Down syndrome, see to it that you take note of the following:

  • Poor Eyesight: Due to the poor development of dogs with Down syndrome, they also tend to have poor eyesight. In fact, they are also at risk of developing cataracts in at least one of their eyes. Check the eyes of your dog for cloudiness. If you notice cloudiness, it may indicate the formation of a cataract.
  • Unusual Facial or Physical Features: Dogs with this disorder tend to have dwarf-like and deformed facial features. Some of the common abnormalities include short neck, flat-like face, small head, upwardly slanting eyes, and ears that are abnormal in shape. In addition, dogs with Down syndrome typically have warm and dry noses. They also tend to have abnormal skin patches, or deformed or incomplete legs, and suffer from hair loss or shedding.
  • Hearing Problems: While this symptom may be quite difficult to notice, you will see that a dog with Down syndrome is usually the slowest one to follow or react to commands when in the company of other dogs.
  • Congenital Heart Disease: It is evident in dogs with Down syndrome because they have an abnormal circulatory system. They were born with malformations.
  • Random Pain: Because a dog with Down syndrome usually had his entire body affected by the disorder, it may also have abnormally developed internal organs. This may cause him to suffer from pain at times.
  • Discharge: Dogs with Down syndrome may also have other diseases, causing them to have a bloody discharge from their rectum. You may notice such bloody discharge coming out of their body during the latter stages of their syndrome.
  • Skin Problems: A lot of dogs with Down syndrome suffer from skin problems. Aside from having abnormal or missing patches and shedding heavily, they may also be highly sensitive towards minor irritants. This causes them to quickly develop allergies and other health issues.
  • Thyroid Issues: Dogs with Down syndrome may also have a malfunctioning thyroid, causing them to have issues with their metabolism and temperature. Generally, they have a lower temperature than normal dogs.
  • Behavioral Issues: Dogs with Down syndrome often show odd traits and behaviors, such as wailing, howling, or whining incessantly. They may also show an unusual reserve. Puppies with this disorder also do not advance quickly through the stages of development. They become difficult to feed and potty-train. This is because they can’t control their bladders well. They may even go outside then come back in to pee on the carpet. You need to have a lot of patience when dealing with them.
Does your dog have Down syndrome?

Does your dog have Down syndrome?

Managing Your Special Pup's Condition

Unfortunately, there are no treatments available to cure genetic defects in dogs. Despite this, the owner of the affected dog can still give it as normal a life as possible, with special care.

  • Dog foods rich in protein will help the dog strengthen and repair wasted muscle. Some affected dogs may experience allergies to processed foods. It is best to have a vet check your dog food's ingredients to avoid aggravating the dog's condition.
  • Lots of exercise—like daily brisk walking, training for dog tricks, and even sports like Frisbee—will help a dog strengthen his heart and bones. Again, though, a vet ought to be consulted about an exercise plan for a "special" dog; if a dog has congenital heart disease, too much exercise may cause more harm than good.
  • As maintenance, the vet may also advise regular checkups and prescribe vitamins or medications to keep the dog's system functioning well. Proper dosages and time of medication should be strictly observed, as the dog's body may react differently than that of a normal dog. If you suspect a drug allergy, for example, if the dog has seizures, itching, or panting after taking medication, bring the dog to the vet immediately.

Life with a "special" or Down-syndrome-like dog may seem a bit difficult, but in reality, it has its benefits. Those who have taken care of their affected dogs are quite happy and fulfilled in being able to raise these dogs as normally as they could.

To some, just the thought of being able to prolong the life of their "best friends" in ways they couldn't have imagined is a miracle. Some owners of special pets became nurses or health practitioners to both humans and animals, thanks to the nurturing ability they've developed.

What to Expect From a Special Dog

Of course, this is not to say that there are no tradeoffs. Your dog may not live as long as a normal dog. You can’t expect him to do all the things a normal dog can do, for example, “watchdog” duty, because of his mental and sensory impairments. If the dog suffers from a lack of potty training or has bloody discharges from the rectum, pet owners should keep their kids and other sick household members away from the affected dog and its discharges. Frequent sanitation of the dog's living space is a must. The dog's sleeping area must be comfortable, too, as his senses and abilities may not enable him to move around that much.

Would it Be Safe to Have Another Dog in the Household?

Generally it would be, as Down syndrome or genetic defects in dogs aren’t contagious. It can be beneficial to the affected dog to mingle with other dogs. Dogs have their own ways of communicating with each other, including with a sick or impaired dog. If your special dog has a bloody discharge or is not potty-trained, you will want to keep other dogs from consuming its feces, as this could lead to bacterial infection.

Reproduction among dogs affected by genetic defects is not very likely, since such dogs probably have fertility issues. In any case, breeding such a dog would be undesirable, as the offspring would likely have genetic defects themselves.

Owning a Special Dog

Taking care of your dog affected with genetic defects can be more of a gift than a burden. Living a normal life is possible if the dog gets proper medication and guidance. Taking care of such a dog is no easy task, and requires emotional maturity. Owning a special pet will enable a person to realize so many things, including his or her capacity for love, attention, and concern.

Who would have known that despite the circumstances, one can give a dog the life that it deserves? Who would've known that taking care of a sick dog can become a crash course in nursing—sort of? Such realizations only come to those who are experiencing unusual life conditions, such as a dog with special problems. As they always say—those who go through the toughest of situations are the ones who come out the strongest in the end.

Taking Care of a Dog With Down Syndrome

While it is true that having a dog with Down syndrome is challenging, it can also be rewarding. Then again, when it comes to being practical, you need to take note that taking care of a dog with the condition is quite expensive.

His disorder requires you to take him to the veterinarian more often. Frequent visits mean higher costs for examinations, prescriptions and testing. Medications are usually expensive because they are not available at all times. Some dogs may even be allergic to these medications. If your dog is allergic to his medication, you may have a hard time looking for a substitute.

In addition, you need to consider the added costs of furniture and upholstery. If he frequently destroys your things, there is also a need to constantly replace them. You need to have clean carpets, not only to keep your home from smelling awful and turning off your visitors but also to maintain good hygiene. Keeping your home clean at all times is quite difficult if your dog with Down syndrome urinates or defecates indoors since he is difficult to potty-train.

If buying new things all the time is just too costly for you, you can buy dog diapers. This will still cause you to shell out money, but at least, dog diapers are cheaper than a new carpet. However, if you calculate the costs of these dog diapers, you will still get a pretty huge sum over time.

Moreover, you need to keep in mind that a dog with this kind of disorder cannot do what other dogs do. For example, you cannot expect him to perform as a watchdog due to his mental and sensory impairments. He may even cause problems at home. Thus, you need to make sure that you are fully prepared to have a dog like this.

The following are helpful pointers to remember when dealing with and taking care of a dog with Down syndrome:

Get rid of any physical obstacle: As much as possible, have sufficient space in your home for your dog to move around in. Because a dog with Down syndrome has poor vision, he may end up running into large objects or walls. This may cause it to get hurt and be injured. This is the main reason why you need to remove any possible danger in his environment. If you have stairs in your house, then you can install dog gates or baby gates to prevent him from falling down.

You also need to put throw rugs all over your home to prevent him from slipping accidentally and getting injured in the process. You can also use non-slip socks to provide some traction for your dog with Down syndrome. If he has a missing limb due to the disorder, you can purchase adaptive equipment like a wheelchair designed for dogs. Of course, your home should be spacious enough for him to move around in his wheelchair.

Sanitize frequently: Dogs with Down syndrome usually have a hard time exercising bladder control. This causes them to relieve themselves indoors; hence, you need to have some dog diapers with you all the time. These are essential items because you cannot potty-train him and you certainly do not want your home to be a mess. See to it that you change his diapers regularly and clean up his urine and feces to prevent infection. This is especially important if your dog starts to have a bloody discharge.

Do not forget to sanitize his living area as well. The place where he sleeps has to be comfortable and secure, too. Keep in mind that dogs with Down syndrome are naturally fearful of everything around them, making them prone to tearing items due to fear and anxiety.

Get rid of clutter: Before bringing him home, see to it that your place is comfortable, familiar, and tidy. Clear away your furniture to create space for him to move around in. Refrain from putting water or food in bowls because this may confuse him. It is not ideal to keep toys around either since dogs with this disorder are not really interested in toys because of their sensory impairment.

Offer assistance when necessary: If the puppy with Down syndrome is still small, he may need a lot of help finding his food during mealtime. If he has a leg disorder and is weak, he may need some help walking and getting up. You can make him wear adaptive devices, such as a sling.

Treatment and Management to Improve the Quality of Life of your Dog

While there is still no exact cure for dogs with Down syndrome, rest assured that there are ways for you to manage the condition. Veterinarians generally recommend the following tips:

Give him a balanced diet and encourage him to live a healthy lifestyle to lengthen his life span. It is not impossible for dogs with Down syndrome to live normally. You just have to be patient in helping them do so.

Ideally, you have to give your dog foods that are high in protein. These foods will provide him the energy he needs to strengthen and repair muscles, allowing him to stay alert and mobile. Meat jerkies and mashed beef are highly recommended. Then again, you should not forget to consider if your dog is allergic to certain ingredients in processed goods.

If your dog lacks appetite, then you can use appetite stimulants such as dried herbs. Peppermint, dill, fennel, ginger, and alfalfa are helpful in encouraging dogs with Down syndrome to eat. You can also use garlic powder since they generally like garlic. You can mix it with boiled chicken or turkey.

Encourage your dog to exercise on a regular basis. You can walk him around the neighborhood or take him to the park to play. You can also make it do dog training exercises and take part in dog sports to strengthen his muscles, bones, and heart. This is a huge help in preventing and managing heart disease.

Take note, however, that dogs with this disorder tend to have weak skeletal structures too. Thus, you need to ask his veterinarian regarding the types of activities that are safe for him to take part in. Even though exercise is good for his health, too much of it can cause heart issues.

Give your dog a chance to socialize with other dogs and with children, too. Even if they have Down syndrome, they still like to play and run around. These dogs are actually great with children because they tend to be more tolerant and submissive. They also do not typically show aggression.

Make sure that your dog gets all the nutrients he needs. His veterinarian may prescribe him vitamins and other medications. If your dog has thyroid problems or a congenital heart disease, he needs to take the right medications for these conditions as well. Be prepared to spend a lot of money for his medication. The cost of these medications usually depends on how severe the dog’s disease is.

Of course, you should take your dog to the veterinarian for regular checkups. The veterinarian has to evaluate if the medication or management is working properly. In addition, he will determine if surgery may be necessary for the case of your dog.

How About Pet Health Insurance?

You may also consider getting pet health insurance for your dog with Down syndrome. This insurance can be beneficial since it covers many procedures that dogs with this disorder typically undergo. Veterinarian fees, prescription medications, hospitalization, and surgical procedures are often covered by pet health insurance.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


WDR91853 on December 23, 2017:

I Have a 6 week old Pit Puppy with Special Needs. She has odd wide eye spacing for a Pit. From birth she has been a slow developer, not growing for nearly a week, not being able to nurse, poor muscle coordination development, a week late opening her eyes, etc. With a lot of work, and round the clock attention, she is doing well, but it's adoption time, and I want her to find a caring, capable home. She will Never be like a 'Normal' dog. She Will Always need Extra Attention, and understanding.

Any suggestion as to What target range for an adoptive Parent? What kind of person should she get?

JimT on November 02, 2017:

The average bulldog meets the trait requirements for a down syndrome dog. We have an Olde English Bulldog, She is un-trainable. She can't remember what she learned even with constant reinforcement.

Hi on March 25, 2017:

I didn't know dogs can have D's

jussi on February 17, 2015:

Down syndrome occurs due to an excess chromosome 21 in humans, not a missing one. Not sure if it is a missing one in dogs, but... to count as true Down, it would have to affect the set of genes homologous to the human chr 21. Most non human animals have their genes distributed completely differently from humans or each other, especially because the chromosomes in the genome listings of different species are numbered by the order of chromosome sizes, which is not necessarily directly related to the amount of expressed genetic material or the true sequence in which the genetic data is processed in the cells.

There's no doubt there is at least one partial or complete trisomy or comparable condition that can make an animal exhibit Down like characteristics, and could thus be seen as a syndrome analoguous to Down's. Only these would be very likely to occur at a different chromosome number.

JMM on January 15, 2015:

I have a 2 year old Great Dane with DS. It is challenging but not an impossible feat. With love and care - he is doing fine

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on September 24, 2014:

This is very interesting, I didn't know dogs could have Down Syndrome.