This controversial topic is one that can raise some eyebrows, especially when owners most likely have never even heard of a dog with Down syndrome. You may have thought that the disorder was strictly something that developed in humans or perhaps you saw social media post or YouTube video poking fun at an animal’s actions and passed it off as a product of a mean-spirited or ill-informed bully.
There’s plenty of junk to find online, and as long as there are bullies, they will continue to post such things. This article will shed light on the subject in a respectful manner while explaining what is known about the condition, the possibilities of it afflicting dogs, and how to manage with such a diagnosis.
What is Down syndrome?
The best way to discuss the likelihood of Down syndrome occurring in dogs is to make sure that we understand what the disorder is and how it affects humans. In the center of each cell of a living organism is a nucleus. The nucleus contains genetic material, which is comprised of genes. These genes are essentially the building blocks of all living tissue, carrying all of the traits that you inherit from your parents. Genes make up your DNA, which is a long strand of code, like a computer program, that instructs your body on how to build itself.
These DNA strands are wound into tight coils, called chromosomes, and in the human body, the nucleus of each cell typically contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each parent is responsible for contributing one chromosome from each pair. All 23 pairs of these chromosomes work together in order for body systems to form and function properly. If one of them are missing, defective, or otherwise abnormal, there are a number of things that can go wrong with development. This is what is commonly known as a congenital defect.
In the case of Down syndrome, it develops when there is either an extra partial or full copy of Chromosome 21. This extra bit of genetic matter changes how the body develops. It can be in varying degrees of severity, though it is usually in predictable patterns.
Some of the shared physical traits include low or diminished muscle tone, lower than average height, a somewhat flattened and roundish face, eyes that appear to slant upward, and one crease that runs through the middle of the palm. The disorder may not be noticeable in people with a mild case; however, those with higher degrees of severity are almost always immediately recognizable.
The mental and intellectual abilities of those with the condition vary among individuals, but there are several common factors. They generally have a delay in developing the ability to speak clearly, have smaller vocabularies, and short-term memory problems. The IQ of those with Down normally ranges from as high as 69 in the most mild cases, to less than 20 in those who are considered “profound.” Females, on the whole, appear to be less affected intellectually than males. Regardless of how serious the case is, this disability effects every portion of the person’s life.
There are three types of the syndrome: Mosaicism, Translocation, and Trisomy 21. All of these involve either a partial or full copy of Chromosome 21, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on Trisomy 21 because it occurs in 95% of all cases of Down. It is caused by a phenomena called “nondisjunction” that takes place when, upon conception, the twenty-first chromosome in either the sperm or the egg does not separate. When this happens, every cell that is created afterwards contains an extra copy of the chromosome.
Geneticists, scientists who study genes, do know what causes nondisjunction; however, they have found a common link between the age of the mother and the frequency of cases. Basically, the older a mother is, the more likely she is to give birth to a child with Down.
Can it happen in dogs?
So you may be wondering that, with all this talk about humans, can dogs have Down syndrome. Well, the truth is, there is no simple answer. There is much debate in the veterinarian and dog-owner communities about whether nor is it possible for non-humans, let alone dogs, to have this debilitating disorder. Some claim that there is plenty of evidence out there to show that it does exist, while others will say that it is impossible for a dog to be affected in such a way.
Recent studies from the Dog Genome Project show that it is indeed possible for it to occur. Regardless of what side of the argument you are on, there is indisputable evidence that all animals and even plants can develop Trisomy within their genetic makeup.
One of the reasons you may not have heard of an animal with this defect is because the survival rate is extremely low. Most puppies that have it are rarely born, mostly because the defect will not allow organs and body parts to properly form. The fetus usually dies long before it is born. If the puppy actually survives to be born, there are several other factors that will often prevent the little guy from living for more than a day or two.
The trauma of birth can kill the puppy right away, or it may die in a day or two because it cannot feed or even move enough to feed. Another reason for those with Down to die so soon is that the mother rejects it, and may even kill it. Mothers can sense there is something wrong or different about certain members of their litters and more often than not will take steps to eliminate the puppy from the rest of the littermates.
Another reason you may not have heard of it is because it is often misdiagnosed. Many of the symptoms can be mistaken for signs of other diseases or disorders because puppies who are able to survive birth and nursing may not show any other signs until a year or two afterward. Your vet may diagnose Rover’s sickness as a different illness and if he dies later, there is no cause to think that a congenital defect may have been the driving force behind the fatal illness.
Is down syndrome manageable?
There is plenty of evidence to show that humans who are born with the defect can live relatively healthy and productive lives. Parents will tell you that it is never easy, but worth the trouble. When it comes to dogs, however, it is usually much more difficult for owners to manage their symptoms. Every day will be filled with life-threatening challenges and tests of your patience.
The two main reasons for this are that there is little in the way of information, and there is little that can be done medically to help a puppy cope with the many problems that will hinder his development into a mature adult. You may not have to worry about getting your dog spayed or neutered, because those afflicted with Down are rendered infertile. They are unable to pass their genes along to the next generation.
What should I look for?
As stated earlier, Down syndrome in dogs is rare and is hard to identify even for the most skilled veterinarians. Still, there are several signs that you may notice in the appearance or behavior of your dog that may indicate that he suffers from this defect. Some of the common physical features include irregularly shaped facial features. The head will be smaller than those of the same breed, and the face will appear flat with eyes that slant upward. Ears are generally misshapen and the neck is shorter than usual. Noses are always warm and dry to the touch.
Many have skin problems, too. They either shed heavily or have missing patches throughout the coat. Most of these physical attributes aren’t readily recognizable in puppies until they are several months old; however, a large portion are born with missing or partially developed limbs.
On the medical side, the main problems include congenital heart disease, which comes from a malformations in the circulatory system. The thyroid may not be functioning properly either, causing issues with metabolism and poorly regulated body temperature. Other medical conditions can be triggered by the abnormal chromosomal pairing too. Older dogs have been known to bloody discharges from the rectum caused by these conditions.
Rover will most likely have hearing issues. You can observe this by watching how slow he reacts to sounds compared to his littermates. Poor eyesight isn’t something that you can easily detect, however, those dogs who are afflicted develop cataracts rather quickly. If you spot cloudiness in your pooch’s eyes, then a cataract is probably forming. Eye problems are most likely the only ones that your vet can help you improve; the rest are manageable to varying degrees.
Behavioral issues are another area to be concerned about. Your little companion will not advance through the weekly and monthly stages as fast as others. They will be difficult to feed on a regular schedule and potty training may require months of dedication, if he can handle that aspect at all. Many Down puppies just aren’t capable of being trained to hold their bladders. Others will accept the routine of going outside to potty, only to come in and relive themselves on the carpet.
They may also whine and howl at all hours. This could be from pain due to physical abnormalities, or even from heightened need for companionship. These dogs are less likely to be aggressive, but they also display a lack of interest in playing with toys and interacting with the things that stimulate healthy canines.
Can I improve his quality of life?
While there is no cure for this disorder, there are several steps that you can take in order make Rover more comfortable in his home and, in turn, make his life much more fuller (and yours as well). It isn’t easy, so you should be prepared to put in countless hours that may seem like a huge waste of time. Keep in mind, however, that every pet owner has to tackle issues such as potty training, feeding schedules, and general obedience. You’ll be teaching Rover those same things, it’s just that his special needs makes reaching goals little more complicated.
Perhaps the most important way to help your pooch out is to begin with regulating his diet. He is going to need plenty of protein to build and maintain strength. Instead of simply filling his dish from a high-quality puppy food, consider supplementing his meals with meat. A small scoop of lean ground beef, a strip of jerky, or other meat that he can sink his teeth into will go a long way in spurring muscle development.
Just be careful to read the ingredients to any food that you give him, because just like humans, dogs that have Down syndrome can have a number of allergies. By-products and other substances may trigger allergic reactions, and then a whole slew of health problems can follow. Always consult your vet before changing up his diet.
Exercise is another necessary part in any dog’s life. Rover may not be as outgoing as his siblings, but he is still descended from wolves and he will want go outside and romp around the back yard. Take him out for regular walks and give him the opportunity to fetch a ball, chase after birds, or some other play. His muscles require the workout and his bones and connective tissue need to stay strong too.
If Rover has been diagnosed with a heart condition, make sure that you discuss with your vet about his exercise. You need to know if there should be any limitations placed on his exercise. Too much exertion could cause further damage to his fragile ticker.
Socialization ranks up there too. Dogs with Downs are typically excellent when interacting with children and other dogs. This is because they are liable to be more submissive to and tolerant of others. Rarely do they show any sort of aggression. In fact, they thrive off socializing with others within the dog community, and they appear to have no difficulty interacting with them.
For some reason, it does not seem that the disorder hampers them on this level. Give Rover every opportunity to interact with his fellow canines; it may be his only chance to be a “normal” dog. You may even want to consider adopting another furry family member because, with the right choice, they are apt to get along really well.
Not only is adopting a Down syndrome dog as challenging as it is rewarding, it can be extremely expensive. Rover is going to require many more visits to the vet than your average pooch. Along with those appointments comes the costs for examinations, testing, and prescriptions. The medications may be high-priced due to their limited availability, and due to his condition, he may even be allergic to them. There may not even be any substitution’s available.
Whereas puppies require specially training, Down dogs of any age will require special care throughout their lives. They should always have a comfortable place to lay down. A store-bought bed or a generous pile of blankets will soothe his ache-y bones as well as keep him warm on cold nights. This bed should be placed somewhere out of the way of other dogs, as well as small children, because of their rectal discharges. This discharge may contain harmful chemicals or by-products produced by the numerous medications that Rover is most likely taking.
It can also be spread around through incidental contact, so you should monitor him for cleanliness and maintain a regular bathing schedule.
Down syndrome is a genetic defect that mainly effects humans, but it can occur in any animal, including dogs.
If your pet happens to be diagnosed with the condition, knowing how it manifests in humans will help you understand the role it will play in his life. There isn’t much information available, and many vets don’t have a grasp on caring for a dog with Down because they rarely survive birth. Those that do survive can and will grow up to be just as rewarding a companion as any “normal” pet. These special little guys will need extra attention and patience, but as long as you prepare yourself for the long haul, there is nothing the two of you can’t overcome.
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