Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?

Written by: Jamie
Updated: January 18, 2021

Noticing unusual behaviour, characteristics, and health problems in your dog can sometimes raise the question, can dogs have Down syndrome?

Two cute dog dreaming

After all, we know dogs suffer from many of the same diseases as humans. If there are dogs with cancer and heart disease, can’t there be dogs with Down syndrome?

In this article, we’ll strive to answer these questions and shed some light on whether dog Down syndrome exists, what other conditions cause similar symptoms, and how to look after a special needs dog.

What is Down Syndrome?

Let’s start by defining exactly what we mean by Down syndrome.

In humans, it is a congenital condition – which means that it is present from birth. Unless someone is born with Down syndrome, it’s impossible to ‘get’ it later in life. It’s caused by a chromosomal abnormality – an error in the arrangement of chromosomes, which are DNA molecules with genetic material inherited from our parents.

Humans typically have 46 chromosomes arranged into 23 pairs. In each pair, one chromosome comes from the mother, and one from the father.

For Down syndrome to occur, a certain kind of chromosomal abnormality has to develop. Specifically, people with Down Syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21 – meaning that they have a total of 47 chromosomes, rather than the usual 46.

Down syndrome karyotype

The presence of this extra chromosome leads to a series of complications and issues. Most commonly these include cognitive difficulties and physical features that differ from the norm (such as a flat nose, slanting eyes, or short neck). Some people with Down syndrome may be at increased risk of certain health issues, including problems with the heart, eyesight, and hearing.

According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 700 babies are born with Down syndrome, which makes it the most common chromosomal disorder in humans.

Can Dogs Get Down Syndrome?

Is there such a thing as a Down syndrome dog? The short answer is no. Dogs can’t have Down syndrome – and they certainly can’t get it after birth, since it’s an in-born condition.

The somewhat longer answer is that research on the subject is still incomplete, but no evidence has been found that dog Down syndrome exists, and no dog with Down syndrome has ever been identified.

It’s possible that veterinarians and researchers will discover a canine equivalent of the condition at some point in the future, but as things stand now, it’s not a recognised problem in dogs.

It’s important to note that dogs have a completely different genome to humans. Our canine friends have 39 pairs of chromosomes, compared to our 23 pairs. Even if it so happened that a dog was born with an extra copy of chromosome 21 (which is what causes Down syndrome in people), the result wouldn’t be the same as in humans.

Confusing Other Health Problems with Down Syndrome in Dogs

If dogs can’t have Down syndrome, why do we occasionally hear news of a ‘Down syndrome puppy’ being born, or see Facebook posts ‘showing’ a dog with Down syndrome?

While this particular condition doesn’t affect dogs, there are several health problems in canines that can have similar symptoms to Down syndrome in humans.

We’ve all heard of Down syndrome and know how it presents, but few of us are familiar with obscure canine conditions like congenital hypothyroidism. It’s therefore natural for people to see the symptoms in a dog and make the assumption that they have Down syndrome.

dog close-up

In the next section, we’ll look at health conditions in dogs that appear similar to Down syndrome. This will be particularly useful if you’re reading this article because you’re worried about your dog’s unusual behaviour or appearance. The more you know about canine health, the better you can help your four-legged friend.

Recommended: Read this article to learn more about CBD oil for dogs.

Canine Conditions Similar to Down Syndrome

In this section, we explain some conditions that are known to affect dogs and the potential effects they can have.

Congenital hypothyroidism

This rare congenital disorder appears in both dogs and cats, and develops as a result of a hormone deficiency.

Symptoms of congenital hypothyroidism in dogs resemble some of the ways in which Down syndrome appears in humans. They include:

  • Mental impairment
  • Small stature with poor muscle tone
  • Short limbs and spine
  • Broad head with a large tongue

Because of these similarities between the condition, canine congenital hypothyroidism is sometimes called dog Down syndrome. As we’ve already seen, however, it’s only the symptoms that are similar – the causes are entirely different.

Other symptoms of congenital hypothyroidism in dogs may include abdominal hair loss and a visibly enlarged thyroid gland. Because of water retention in the facial folds, dogs with the condition may have a ‘puffy’, sad facial expression.

Diagnosing congenital hypothyroidism in dogs is quite complex, as it requires specialist knowledge from the vet. The condition is diagnosed through a combination of clinical signs (visible symptoms) and hormone screening.

sick dog

Research shows that Boxers, Dachshunds, Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Irish Setters, Miniature Schnauzers, and Poodles are at higher risk of suffering from the condition.

The main form of treatment for canine congenital hypothyroidism involves hormone replacement therapy. If the treatment is introduced early (when the dog is still a puppy), it’s possible to prevent permanent impairment.

Recommended: Want to know if your dog can possibly have autism? Check this article to find out.

Pituitary Dwarfism

Another condition that somewhat resembles Down syndrome in dogs is pituitary dwarfism, caused by a congenital growth hormone deficiency. The condition results in reduced growth and development of the dog.

Symptoms of pituitary dwarfism in dogs include:

  • Slow growth and proportionately small body
  • Mental impairment, usually showing as difficulty with house-training
  • Abnormally soft hair and hair loss, due to retaining the puppy coat
  • Skin problems resulting in frequent infections
  • Delayed tooth growth

For accurately diagnosing pituitary dwarfism, a series of blood tests is required – coupled with an examination of clinical signs and in some cases, brain imaging.

Pituitary dwarfism occurs most often in German Shepherds, though Carnelian Bear Dogs, Spitz, Miniature Pinschers, and Weimaraners are also at increased risk.

Unfortunately, the condition doesn’t just change the dog’s appearance. There is a range of health issues that appear alongside pituitary dwarfism, and treatment is necessary to improve the dog’s lifespan and quality of life.

Congenital Hydrocephalus

This serious condition is the result of cerebrospinal fluid building up in the dog’s skull. It can present with a range of symptoms or, in some cases, no observable signs at all.

Some of the symptoms of congenital hydrocephalus may resemble dog Down syndrome, including:

  • Mental impairment
  • Wide-set eyes
  • Unusual posture or manner
  • Unusual shape of the skull
  • Eyesight issues or blindness

Other possible symptoms of the condition include repetitive behaviour, such as compulsive circling, seizures, irregular breathing, and disorientation.

To accurately diagnose congenital hydrocephalus in dogs, veterinarians conduct a series of tests using brain imaging techniques (CT, USG, RTG, or MRI, depending on the circumstances).

sick dog

The condition most often affects small dog breeds with a shortened head, such as the Boston terrier, Chihuahua, English bulldog, Maltese, Pug dog, Pekingese, and Yorkshire terrier.

Treatment for canine congenital hydrocephalus involves medication and, in some cases, surgery. While it doesn’t guarantee recovery, it can help to alleviate some of the symptoms and prevent the dog’s health from deteriorating further.

How to Take Care of a Dog with Special Needs

Even though dogs can’t have Down syndrome, they can still be affected by plenty of other conditions that are equally challenging.

Taking care of a dog with special needs is not all that different from living with a healthy pup – they may just need a lot more attention from a vet and additional support and patience from you.

Here are a few things you can do to make the experience easier on yourself and on your dog.

Find an experienced vet and follow their advice

Specialist care is absolutely essential when looking after a disabled dog, regardless of the specifics of the condition. Once your dog has been diagnosed and a treatment prescribed, make sure you follow the vet’s advice as closely as possible.

If there’s anything you’re not sure about, don’t be afraid to ask questions – vets will be more than happy to answer.

Try to minimise the dog’s anxiety over visits to the vet

Since special needs dogs typically require frequent visits to the vet, it’s worth getting them used to the experience to avoid unnecessary anxiety.

The best way to do this is through positive reinforcement. Reward good behaviour at the vet’s with plenty of treats and praise. You might even want to keep ‘special’ treats to give to your dog only during vet visits – this way, he’ll have something positive to look forward to.

It’s also a good idea to help the dog get used to car trips. If you only ever drive your dog to the vet, they will associate the car with anxiety and discomfort. Try to take them someplace fun from time to time, such as the park or the beach, to form a positive association.

Sick dog lying on table in vet clinic

Stick to a routine

Most dogs enjoy having a daily routine, and this is doubly important with special needs pups. By sticking to a fixed schedule every day, you can give your dog a much-needed feeling of security and safety.

If possible, avoid making sudden changes, such as moving their bowls, changing their food, or visiting a different vet.

Related: Is your dog struggling with allergies? Read here to find out if your dog can eat Piriton.

Adapt your home to suit your dog’s needs

If your dog’s condition causes them to have physical issues – such as blindness or poor coordination – it’s worth adapting their environment to make it safer and more comfortable.

For example, remove any decorations or furniture that the dog could knock over and place their bed close to their bowls if they experience a lot of fatigue.

Don’t give up

Finding out that your new puppy is growing into a special needs dog can be tough – but remember that it’s a fight worth fighting. With the right veterinary treatment and lots of love and support from you, your dog can still live a happy, fulfilling life by your side.

About the Author

Hi, I'm Jamie! I've always been around dogs and now writing about them is an absolute joy.
Read more about my story here.
Reach me at or connect with me on LinkedIn below.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}