Just like people, cats can be born with genetic abnormalities and congenital abnormalities. These cats will need a little extra care and attention to help them thrive and live good-quality lives.
Unfortunately, some of these cats may not live as long as cats without these abnormalities, but that does not mean they can’t have meaningful quality lives.
While there are various genetic abnormalities of cats, and some that may resemble the effects of Down Syndrome in people, cats do not actually get Down Syndrome.
It is also important to remember that cats are not humans. Diseases and conditions they get should not be extrapolated from human conditions unless the science is sufficiently there.
Down Syndrome & Why Cats Don’t Have It
Down Syndrome in people occurs due to a defect in a person’s chromosomes during fetal development. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. People with Down Syndrome have an extra copy of their 21st chromosome (so, they have 3 instead of just 2).
Cats, on the other hand, only have 19 pairs of chromosomes. They do not even have a 21st chromosome, so they cannot have an extra copy of it. However, cats can have other genetic mutations. They can also be affected by certain diseases that cause them to have symptoms that may resemble Down Syndrome in people.
Down Syndrome-Like Symptoms
Even though cats do not develop Down Syndrome, there are other genetic abnormalities or even ailments that may resemble Down Syndrome. Some of these symptoms include:
- Motor dysfunction
- Balance issues, falling over a lot
- Eyes being far apart
- Flat or upturned nose
- Low muscle tone
- Strange or abnormal behavior
- Heart problems
- Loss of hearing
- Loss of vision
- Small stature
If you notice any of these symptoms in your cat, you should have them examined by their veterinarian. Your vet can recommend diagnostic tests, if needed, to find out what the underlying cause is. This is important because if their condition is due to an infection or other resolvable issue, you can start them on the right medications and prevent things from getting worse.
Scheduling a visit with your vet is also important so that they can discuss ways you can make life easier for your cat, improve upon their quality of life, and help them to thrive. They can also discuss with you about how long your cat may live and what you should expect going forward in caring for them.
Causes of Down Syndrome-Like Symptoms in Cats
There are various things that can cause symptoms in cats similar to Down Syndrome. Most cause the problem before a kitten is born, but some things can affect cats as they grow.
When a kitten is growing inside of its mother’s womb, there are a number of things that can affect their development. If the mother cat is exposed to certain toxins during fetal development, the kitten can be born with neurologic and physical deformities. One major toxin that can cause this is Griseofulvin, which is typically used to treat fungal infections.
If a kitten sustains blunt-force trauma, they can have damage to their neurologic system and have permanent physical and neurological deformities throughout their life. Sometimes it is not known if a kitten sustained trauma or not, and one may think they were born with their abnormalities.
If a developing fetus becomes infected with Feline Panleukopenia Virus, they can be born with a condition called Cerebellar Hypoplasia. This condition shows many characteristics similar to that of Down Syndrome. Cats with Cerebellar Hypoplasia tend to fall over often, have balance issues, will sway from side to side, walk with a wide-based stance, and have “intention tremors”.
Intention tremors occur when they are intentionally trying to do something, such as eat their food. They try to focus on putting their head down to eat their food from their bowl, but they can’t do it smoothly and their head bobs up and down as they try to do such a seemingly simple task of eating. You may also notice intention tremors if they are trying to bathe and groom themselves, or if they are trying to play with a toy.
The incoordination and balance issues occur because the cerebellum is the part of the brain that helps their body maintain balance. It controls their ability to know where their body is in space and helps them know how far away something is from them. When the cerebellum is underdeveloped (hence, the term hypoplasia), their coordination and balance is all off and out of control.
Kittens and cats that suffer from malnutrition can display signs of muscle weakness, loss of balance, and even the inability to hold their head up on their own. Make sure to always feed your cat a well-balanced cat food. Cats that are fed fish-only diets are at a high risk of developing these abnormalities.
If you are concerned about any of these conditions in your cat, or if your cat is displaying any of the symptoms mentioned above, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Depending on the severity of symptoms, age of your cat, and your cat’s history, they may recommend certain diagnostics, including:
- Genetic testing
- Infectious disease testing
- MRI or CT scan
It is important to note that many of the conditions that cause Down Syndrome-like symptoms in cats actually do not have any effective treatments. Therefore, even if diagnostics are pursued, you will likely not cure your cat or drastically alter their symptoms.
There are things you can do that can improve your cat’s comfort level and quality of life, though. It will take extra care and time on your part, which your cat will definitely love you for.
Taking Care of Special Needs Cats
Cats with special needs will need a little more of your time and attention than other cats. It is best for them to stay indoors only, since they are more at risk of getting hit by a car or even attacked by a predator. With balance issues, vision and/or hearing loss, they cannot adequately protect themselves out in the wild and are more susceptible to injury and death.
If your cat has balance issues, you will also need to do what you can to prevent them from falling off of things or down the stairs. This may mean keeping them in areas where they do not have access to stairs, and trying to prevent them from jumping up on furniture. Since cats inherently desire climbing, you could provide them with low rising ramps they could easily climb up and down from.
If your cat has Cerebellar Hypoplasia, you may need to provide them with elevated food and water bowls so it is easier for them to access their food and water without too much struggle. You may also need to help them with grooming and brush them often so their fur does not get matted.
Can cats have Down Syndrome?
No. Cats cannot have Down Syndrome. But, they can have abnormalities that show symptoms similar to the symptoms of Down Syndrome.
Why can’t cats have Down Syndrome?
They do not have 21 chromosomes. Down Syndrome is caused by having too many copies of the 21st chromosome.
Can cats have an extra pair of one of their chromosomes and does it cause problems?
There is a rare condition where some male cats can have an extra X chromosome. They are usually tri-colored (tortishell or calico) and infertile. Most tri-colored cats are female because the color trait is passed down on X chromosomes, so if you see a male one, he is an anomaly.
What causes Down Syndrome-like symptoms in cats?
Genetic and congenital abnormalities, infections developed while in the uterus, toxins, malnutrition, and trauma.
How long can a cat with neurologic and physical abnormalities live?
Cats with neurologic and physical abnormalities may have shorter lifespans than a typical cat who may live up to 20 years. However, they can still have good quality of life and should not be given up on. It will take extra care and time on your part, though, to keep them safe and healthy throughout their life.
Cats cannot have Down Syndrome. However, cats can be born with other neurological and physical abnormalities that may have symptoms that resemble Down Syndrome. We do not always get to the bottom of a specific diagnosis with cats, and rarely are there even any treatments available for such conditions.
These “special needs” cats can still live decent, good quality lives as long as they are given extra care and attention. Consult with your veterinarian on specific needs your cat may have if you are worried about their growth and development.
Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️