White cat with Down syndrome

Cats can develop Down Syndrome-like symptoms

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Can cats have Down Syndrome?

By Ashley Murphy Content Writer

Updated on the

Can cats have Down Syndrome? And if not, what makes these cats look a little different from the other kitties? Well, let's find out. 

You may have noticed the appearance of articles and social media accounts featuring cats that look a little 'different.' In fact, there's been a huge increase in the amount of cat Down Syndrome content over the last few years.

What is Down Syndrome?

Down Syndrome is one of many genetic disorders caused by a chromosomal abnormality. It happens when abnormal cell division creates a partial or full copy of chromosome 21. The extra chromosome leads to physical and developmental changes which impair physical and mental capabilities.

Can pets have Down Syndrome?

Humans have 23 chromosomes in total, while cats have only 19. So, technically speaking, there is no such thing as feline Down Syndrome. This is because cats don't have a chromosome 21. Dogs have more chromosomes than humans (38 pairs, to be exact), yet there is no evidence that they can develop Down Syndrome.

What animals can have Down Syndrome?

Down Syndrome can appear in other animals, including tigers, giraffes, and chimpanzees. 

Can cats have similar symptoms to Down Syndrome?

Though cats can't suffer from Down Syndrome, they may still experience Down Syndrome-like symptoms for a variety of reasons, including head trauma, oxygen deprivation, and exposure to dangerous chemicals or toxins. They can also be born with other chromosomal defects that cause physical and mental symptoms similar to people with Down Syndrome.

How can you tell if your cat has Down Syndrome symptoms?

Down Syndrome-like symptoms occur in cats quite rarely. But when they do, they manifest in either physical or mental ways. Some signs may be spotted at a very young age, while others can take weeks to appear. Here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Problems with vision
  • Difficulty walking
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Flat or upturned nose
  • Disinterest in socialising 
  • Reduced trainability

Feline strabismus

Cats can have an ocular problem known as feline strabismus, where the muscles on one side of the eyeball have reduced tone. As a result, one or both eyes can become crossed to the inside, or pulled to the outside by the corresponding muscles with normal tone.

Feline strabismus has no correlation with mental retardation and is purely a physical condition. The condition is usually genetic, especially in Siamese cats. Luckily, it has no influence on your cat’s ability to live a normal healthy life.

Learn more about Siamese cats

Feline panleukopenia virus

This virus, also called feline distemper, is rare thanks to vaccines, but it does sometimes occur. If a cat is infected with the virus, a part of its brain can be severely damaged. This causes a lack of coordination, resulting in clumsy or unbalanced walking and other movements.

Klinefelter syndrome

This is a rare chromosomal abnormality in male cats that allows for one extra chromosome, resulting in a condition similar to Klinefelter syndrome in humans. The extra chromosome carries genetic material that affects the cats' coloration, causing them to be tricoloured ("calico" or "tortoise-shell"), a colour pattern normally only seen in female cats.

Unfortunately, there are not any readily available tests available to test whether a cat has a chromosomal abnormality, which might manifest as a learning disability. Therefore, it’s unlikely that your cat will ever have a definitive diagnosis. However, you should work closely with your vet to determine what the most likely problem is and how it should be treated.

How to care for a cat with Down Syndrome

Cats with Down Syndrome-like symptoms may require extra care. They might need a special diet, as well as a few more visits to the vet than most other cats. They're also less independent than your average kitty and ill-equipped for dealing with hazardous situations, like crossing the road. As such, these cats are best suited to the indoor life, where their owners can keep a watchful eye over them.

Maya the cat with Down Syndrome

Maya is a tabby cat that was born with a chromosomal abnormality. But it has never stopped her from living her best life. And it's certainly never stopped Maya from getting the love she deserves. And as far as Maya's cat-mum is concerned, there is nothing 'abnormal' about her baby. Instead, Maya is special, a genuine one-in-a-million little kitty.

"We get comments all the time like I hope they find a cure," said Lauren. "But there's no need. She's happy, she's healthy, and she's very well-loved."

Plenty of other people agree that Maya is perfect the way she is. This furry social media star has almost 500K Instagram followers.

Cats can live life to the fullest, no matter what challenges they have to overcome. And while not every kitty born with Down Syndrome-like symptoms can be a social media star, they can still be as happy as any other cat. All they need is a little bit of extra love and care.

Reviewed by Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS 
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