Just like people, dogs can have genetic conditions like Down Syndrome. Here’s how to recognize the lifelong health problems of a down syndrome dog. And then what you can do to give him a healthier and happier life … naturally.
Let’s start by getting a better understanding of the cause and effects of Down Syndrome.
What is Down Syndrome?
People and dogs have different genetics. People have 23 sets of chromosomes while dogs have 39. Chromosomes are in the nucleus of animal and plant cells. They are proteins and DNA organized into genes. Genes pass to offspring.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder in people. It happens when cells don’t divide properly. This creates an extra set of chromosomes. People with Down Syndrome have 23 sets plus an extra copy of chromosome 21. Having the wrong number of chromosomes affects physical and physiological development.
This leads to developmental changes. It causes the face to flatten and eyes to slant. There may be mild to severe intellectual disabilities and delays in development and growth. People may have heart defects, impaired vision, hearing loss, gastrointestinal problems and infertility. They may have a life expectancy of only 50 to 60 years even with healthcare.
Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?
Down Syndrome, as it’s known in people, is not a recognized health condition in dogs. But dogs can experience similar genetic abnormalities. And this can be just as life-altering for dogs and their owners. The genetic flaw in dogs doesn’t have a name. But in this article, let’s continue to refer to the condition of these special needs dogs as Down Syndrome.
Why Down Syndrome Isn’t Recognized In Dogs
Dogs don’t have the same genetic flaw as people do, because they have a different number of chromosomes. There’s also limited testing for genetic variations in dogs. Veterinary testing isn’t as advanced as it is in people. Researchers have only discovered 300 genetic diseases in dogs. If a dog has a chromosomal abnormality, it’s congenital. And that means it’s present from birth and there’s no cure.
Congenital problems like Down Syndrome in dogs are rare, with few confirmed cases. This is because in the animal world, the weak don’t survive. A Down Syndrome puppy might die after a few days. A mother often neglects a weak puppy. Sometimes she might even kill an abnormal puppy or isolate him from the rest of the litter. A special needs puppy may not feed properly and can starve.
Limited development affects the puppy’s mobility. That stops him from interacting safely with his littermates.
Genetic conditions present health challenges to you and your dog. The best approach is to recognize the outward symptoms of a special needs dog … then care for him with extra understanding and patience.
When Do Down Syndrome Symptoms Appear?
Signs of a genetic disorder usually appear early in your puppy’s life. Visible symptoms are well established after 1 or 2 years when the puppy should be fully grown. The puppy begins to show physical abnormalities and mental slowness during this time. It might not affect his survival. But it can cause poor development of organs and body parts. His heart may be under-sized or his limbs and joints underdeveloped. His legs might not support his weight or he might have restricted or painful movements.
When these problems arise years later they’re unlikely to be genetic. So it won’t be Down Syndrome. It could be a result of other influences like trauma, environment, diet, vaccination or pharmaceutical use.
Down Syndrome Symptoms To Look For
These are some of the symptoms your dog might have if he has Down Syndrome. You may see one or all of these signs. Some will be readily apparent. Others require a veterinary exam and testing.
Dogs may have dwarf-like and deformed facial and head features. You may see a short neck, flat-like face, small head, upward slanting eyes and abnormal ear shape. They usually have warm and dry noses. Hair loss, shedding, and abnormal skin patches are possible. They can also have deformed or incomplete legs.
Dogs with Down Syndrome have overall poor development. That often leads to weak eyesight. They may develop cataracts. Cloudiness may mean cataracts in one or both eyes.
Down Syndrome dogs are often the slowest to follow or react to cues when they’re with other dogs. This can be cognitive or due to bad hearing.
Congenital Heart Disease
Down Syndrome dogs can be born with an abnormal circulatory system and heart problems.
Down Syndrome dogs can have random pain at times and in different parts of the body. It’s because of abnormal organ development as well as limited or irregular growth of bones.
Down Syndrome dogs may have other diseases caused by the disorder. Poor digestion and elimination can cause a bloody discharge from the rectum.
Skin problems are quite common with Down Syndrome dogs. This is due to poor liver function or a weakened immune system. They might shed heavily or have missing fur patches. And they might be sensitive to minor household irritants and scents. This leads to allergies and other health issues.
A malfunctioning thyroid can cause trouble with metabolism and temperature. Often dogs with thyroid problems have a lower temperature than healthy dogs.
Dogs with genetic disorders can have odd traits and behaviors. They may wail, howl or whine incessantly. Puppies will not develop normally. They can be difficult to feed and potty-train.
There are other health problems with Down Syndrome-like symptoms.
Other Conditions That Look Like Down Syndrome
If your dog has any of these problems, a veterinarian can do further testing to confirm the diagnosis. Then you can determine a plan of care.
This is an inherited condition. It’s caused by growth hormone deficiency. Dogs have a small body size. Delayed growth is usually the first sign. That’s followed by retaining the puppy coat, darkening of the skin, and delayed arrival of adult teeth. Your dog is proportionate but small … like a miniature version. Other pituitary hormones decrease and cause reduced function of the thyroid, adrenal glands and reproductive system. This condition may lead to a shorter lifespan due to problems like kidney failure.
Pituitary dwarfism most often occurs in German Shepherds and certain wolf hybrids. Your vet can do a growth hormone stimulation test to confirm this disorder.
Congestive Heart Disease
This heart condition develops over time. Environmental factors can lead to congestive heart issues. Symptoms vary depending on the seriousness of the defect. Your dog may experience coughing when fluid gathers in the lungs. Damaged heart valves can cause a murmur. If fluid gathers in the abdomen, your dog will have a pot belly. This makes it difficult to breathe and your dog will be less active.
A physical examination, electrocardiogram (recording electrical activity of the heart, known as ECG), x-rays, and echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) diagnose this condition. These tests also assess the severity of the defect.
A severe deficiency of thyroid hormone occurs from birth or in early life. Hypothyroidism is the most common endocrine disorder in dogs. It can affect organ development, organ function and metabolism. It happens when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough T3 and T4 hormones. That lowers your dog’s metabolic rate. This controls the regulation of energy, among other things. It causes some physical symptoms that you might think are from Down Syndrome. This is what you’ll see in congenital hypothyroidism:
- Abnormal facial features or broad head
- Slow growth eventually resulting in small stature
- Large tongue that protrudes
- Short limbs
- Irregular gait
- Poor muscle tone or muscle wasting
- Poor cognitive function and reactions
- Delayed opening of the eyes and ears
- Eye or hearing problems
- Delayed tooth eruption
Breeds prone to congenital hypothyroidism are: Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Irish Setter, Miniature Schnauzer, Dachshund, Cocker Spaniel and Airdale Terrier. So if you have one of these breeds who is smaller than normal, congenital hypothyroidism might be the cause.
You need to get a full thyroid panel to confirm this diagnosis. Most vets will only do a T4 test so you need to be very clear to ask for a full panel. If you suspect any kind of hypothyroidism, you need to ask for T3, T4, Free T3, Free T4 and TGAA (thyroglobulin autoantibody).
Some vets still won’t want to do the full panel. If that happens ask your vet to do the blood draw, then send it yourself to Hemopet.org. There’s an online test submission form.
This is an abnormal amount of fluid on the brain, starting at birth. Puppies are usually less than six months old when diagnosed. A domed or apple-shaped skull can have a large open fontanel at the top. They will have wide-set eyes, slow growth and may lack coordination. Difficulty with housetraining, drinking and eating is a possiblity; and they might have seizures or erratic behavior.
Smaller and snub-nosed breeds like the Boston Terrier, English Bulldog, Pekingese, Chihuahua, Toy Poodle and Yorkshire Terrier are predisposed to hydrocephalus. An ultrasound can confirm this condition.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Signs of cognitive dysfunction generally appear in older dogs. An older dog with signs of dementia isn’t likely to have Down Syndrome. Cognitive problems from a genetic condition would arise much earlier in your dog’s life.
Health Care For Down Syndrome Dogs
Let’s take a brief look at how traditional drugs can do more harm than good.
Drugs You Should Avoid
These are some of the drugs your conventional veterinarian may prescribe for problems in your Down Syndrome dog. But it’s best not to use them. Your dog’s health is already compromised. You want to boost his strength, mobility, immunity and organ function, not challenge it.
Controlling pain may be a big factor in the care of your special needs dog. Often you wish your dog could tell you where it hurts. You don’t want to see him in pain so you may seek relief in conventional medicine.
Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS)
NSAIDs get prescribed for acute pain as well as chronic pain and inflammation from arthritis. But long term use of NSAIDs can cause damage to cartilage … the opposite of what you want for joint problems! NSAIDs slow healing and speed up joint degeneration.
Common NSAIDs include aspirin, Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Metacam, Previcox or Galliprant. Drugs like these are not “safe.” NSAIDs cause hundreds of thousands of human deaths each year. They can irritate the stomach lining and lead to GI bleeding, liver and kidney failure. Imagine what can happen to a dog already suffering poor organ function.
You’ve heard about opioid over-use in humans! And it’s happening in dogs too. Opioids are prescribed more and more. Because of their sedative effects, opioids can cause severe side effects … including respiratory depression leading to death. Other dogs get several different drugs to suppress pain, causing inability to stand, eat or move because they’re so overdosed.
One opioid drug often prescribed for dogs is Tramadol. It may have its place to manage severe conditions like cancer pain. But try to avoid it for long term use.
Other Drugs Prescribed For Pain
Veterinarians often prescribe drugs “off-label” … meaning they use them for purposes not originally intended. Gabapentin is a drug widely prescribed for pain relief. But it’s not a true pain drug … it’s an anti-convulsant. There’s little or no research to show that it’s effective for pain … and it’s not FDA-approved for dogs. Dogs often still have pain when taking Gabapentin!
Antibiotics kill bacteria, eliminate infection and save lives. But they’ve become over-prescribed for all conditions …major and minor. Antibiotics kill all bacteria … including the friendly bacteria in your dog’s gut. About 90% of his immune system lives in his gut and depends on those good bacteria … so antibiotics can have long term effects on his ability to resist disease.
A broader problem is that bacteria are becoming antibiotic-resistant, so they don’t even work on some types of infections. Plus antibiotics suppress the true disease. Antibiotics might seem to resolve your dog’s problem but it’s only temporary. They can drive the disease deeper and create worse problems in the long run
Cytopoint and Apoquel get prescribed for many skin issues. But these drugs work by suppressing part of your dog’s immune response … which is dangerous in the long term. And sometimes they cause a side effect of itchy skin — the reason for prescribing them in the first place!
Vets prescribe steroids to manage many autoimmune conditions, allergies, and inflammatory conditions. These drugs work by suppressing the immune system as well as inflammation in your dog’s body. But you don’t want to weaken any dog’s immune system … and especially not a Down Syndrome dog with many health issues. You’ll recognize prednisone as a commonly prescribed steroid.
Natural Practices To Help Your Dog
If you’ve welcomed your special needs dog as a puppy, you’ve got a great opportunity to build and maintain his health. You can do that by limiting toxins and harmful treatments. Switch an older dog to better practices and you’ll strengthen his entire system.
Feed A Whole Food, Raw Diet
Your dog could have muscle weakness and muscle wasting from poor development. Feeding a raw diet with high quality protein is best. It will provide nutrients and adequate amino acids to strengthen and repair muscles.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics will help his digestive system absorb nutrients. Then he’ll get the most nutrition from his food.
If your dog lacks appetite, you can use appetite stimulants like fresh or dried herbs. Peppermint, dill, fennel, ginger and alfalfa can encourage special needs dogs to eat. You can also use garlic, green tripe and bone broth as tasty, nutritious additions.
Your dog’s physiology won’t be typical of other dogs, so you’ll need to be aware of possible allergic reactions or sensitivities. His immune system may be weak so he might be prone to environmental allergens. Eating an anti-inflammatory whole food diet, with minimal vaccines and medications, makes him less susceptible to issues like leaky gut. With his own weaknesses, leaky gut and digestive issues can be harder to control.
Avoid Or Minimize Vaccination
Vaccination is only for healthy dogs … so if your dog’s health is already compromised, vaccinating can make his existing condition even worse. And all vaccines have the potential to cause adverse reactions. They can range from mild reactions like lethargy or soreness to anaphylactic shock, autoimmune diseases and even death. Vaccines contain ingredients that are potentially harmful for your dog. They include multiple additives, heavy metals and toxins. They can create future health issues, inflame the body and cause further reactions. These effects are known as vaccinosis. Vaccinosis can appear as chronic health problems including skin issues, a change in behavior or habits … anything that changes after vaccination.
From puppyhood onward, you can avoid vaccinations and opt for natural immunity. If your special needs dog is older and is already vaccinated, he doesn’t need to be re-vaccinated. He’s already protected so vaccinating him again won’t make him “more immune.”
Detox Your Dog
If there are medications your dog must take or if he’s vaccinated, you should conduct regular detoxes. If you live where spraying of herbicides and pesticides takes place, they affect your dog. His food, his air, his home and his water all contain toxins. So a detox done several times a year would be beneficial for your dog. It cleanses his liver, gastrointestinal tract, skin and kidneys … the systems the body uses to clean itself every day. These are things that will help detox your dog:
- Milk thistle
- A high protein diet to keep up amino acid levels
- B-complex vitamins
- Bioflavonoids including green tea and quercetin
- Spring water
- Probiotics and prebiotics
Support Your Dog’s Gut Health
Good gut health is important so you need to support your dog’s microbiome. The gut produces enzymes and hormones for digestion and has other functions related to good health. It’s an important part of your dog’s ability to fight disease because it forms more than 90% of his immune system. This is where good bacteria keeps the bad bacteria under control. Your dog needs a healthy mix of probiotics and prebiotics to keep his gut working smoothly.
And instead of antibiotics that destroy the balance in your dog’s microbiome, choose natural remedies to fight infection.
Consider Homeopathy For Long-Term Health
Homeopathy is its own category of care because it addresses so many aspects of your dog. And it’s tailor-made for dogs with many conditions. Under the guidance of a skilled homeopath, it’s a non-invasive way of dealing with your dog’s ongoing health. That includes pain, orthopedic problems, organ and digestive issues, hormone deficiencies and more.
Consulting with your homeopath on a regular basis eliminates constant drug treatment. That would only suppress his symptoms. By addressing your dog’s total symptoms and not just his pain, you’ll be improving his overall picture of health.
Inflammation has become a fact of life for many dogs. The good news is that Instead of steroids, there are gentler methods to bring relief to your dog. Some are alternative therapies and some are in supplement form. A combination may be helpful in providing your dog with the ongoing relief he needs.
How To Address Specific Down Syndrome Problems
Your dog may have heart issues from birth because of his genetic issues. Or weakness in other organs can tax his heart. Depending on the severity of his condition, sometimes a conventional approach is needed. And that depends on your dog’s overall health. Diuretics get prescribed to clear fluids from the lungs or abdomen. But this puts more demand on the kidneys. And drugs can increase pumping of the heart but that just puts strain on the valves. Instead, try these alternatives:
- CBD oil
- Herbs including dandelion, hawthorn and motherwort
Kidneys are another of your dog’s filters. He might already have low kidney function from his condition. Or toxins, vaccines, infection or prescription meds can stress his system. Your conventional vet might recommend a prescription diet. But these diets are poor quality and won’t benefit his health. So you’ll want to work with a holistic vet or nutritionist who can help you with the best diet for your dog. Also, you may want to work with a veterinarian trained in homeopathy, western herbalism or Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) to choose remedies and herbs specific to your dog’s needs.
Skin issues can be an ongoing problem for your dog. Often skin issues can originate from a low functioning liver. The liver is your dog’s filter. It processes everything you put in or on your dog. And that includes antibiotics, medicines, vaccines, flea and tick treatments and the foods he eats. Besides to your dog’s regular issues, you might also see these symptoms:
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Skin issues
- Constipation, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues
You need to support his liver as much as possible to keep it strong and functioning. Start by lessening toxins as much as possible and including supportive supplements.
There are several things you can do on an ongoing basis for your dog if he has hypothyroidism. You should give him spring or filtered water and avoid chemicals from the water supply. A diet including glandulars and herbs can support thyroid health and immune function.
Caring For Your Down Syndrome Dog
There may be no cure for genetic conditions but there are ways to manage them. Here are things you’ll need to plan for when caring for your special dog.
Get Plenty of Exercise To Suit Your Dog
Your dog probably has delayed physical development. So it’s important to make sure he stays active and engaged. This will help strengthen his heart and bones. Plus, when a dog gets plenty of exercise, he’ll rest well. And both of you will need it.
Each dog will have his own limitations. For some a brisk walk will be plenty of activity. Others will need some running and games. But if your dog has congenital heart disease, you’ll want to limit his activity and watch the intensity. You’ll need to be aware of the amount of exercise he can tolerate before taxing his breathing. And how much rest he needs between activities. Your dog may get too winded from running and jumping. Instead, take him for frequent walks in areas with lots of visual and scent stimulation. This will give him the mental and physical exercise he needs.
Plan Health Care For Your Special Needs Dog
You may need to have more frequent visits or consultations with your holistic vet …. especially while he’s young and developing. Your holistic vet can address chronic issues your dog may have for life, including heart, organ and bone development issues. It will also help manage pain which could be ongoing. This may be a long-term commitment as you grow with your special needs dog and the changes in his body.
Understand The Damage Of Spaying And Neutering
Special needs dogs usually have fertility problems. And in any event you must not breed a dog with a genetic defect. But sterilizing is not the best solution. These dogs already have growth and development issues. So your dog could be further damaged by removing his reproductive organs and hormones. If you’re considering it, it’s best to wait several years until your dog reaches maturity. As with any intact dog, just take measures to prevent accidental breeding.
Arrange Your Home Environment
Here are some things you can do to “puppy-proof” your home for the safety and wellbeing of your special needs dog:
- Your dog may have poor vision. Designate some dog-friendly areas in your home. Then choose your furniture placement and don’t move things around. Your dog will learn the layout. Placing rugs in areas like the top of staircases will help him recognize the area and learn where he is.
- Install baby gates at staircases to prevent falls. This also limits access to other spaces that are off limits.
- When he’s still small, and if he has limited sight, he may need help finding his food and water. Keep them in the same place so he becomes familiar with them.
- Include soft dog-friendly furniture. These are pieces you won’t mind having damaged. It might be hard to potty train your dog, so soiling might happen.
- You might need to keep toys to a minimum. Work with your dog to find toys he responds to and stick with those. Try toys with different movements, size, sound, hardness and softness. Toys might not interest dogs with development disorders because of their sensory impairment.
- Clean often. But use non-toxic cleaning supplies. Special needs dogs can have a hard time with bladder control and need frequent cleanups. Dog diapers could help if your dog will be alone for a while. But leaving them on for long periods could lead to UTI issues so only use them if really needed. Crate-training might be a better option.
- Keep his living and sleeping area clean. And that includes blankets and padding. Your dog might have limited movements so you want his bed to be spacious and comfortable. And he should feel secure in his sleeping area. This is his den.
Meet Your Dog’s Mobility Needs
Your special needs dog may have weak legs and muscles. He might need help getting up and walking. Repetitive exercises can help him build muscle. He may also need adaptive devices, such as a harness, sling or leg braces for support.
Your dog might find it hard to balance or move around. Putting down cheap yoga mats can keep him from slipping and getting injured. Non-slip socks can help provide some traction.
Adaptive equipment like wheelchairs designed for dogs are available. These are useful for dogs missing a limb due to the disorder. Your holistic vet can direct you to an orthopedic specialist for further care.
Be Aware of Challenging Behavior
Special needs dogs can be fearful of everything around them. They can be prone to destructive behavior due to fear and anxiety. Or they can be strong-willed and difficult to train or control. Or they can have separation anxiety when left alone. You will need to use patience and understanding to help care for your special dog. You should reach out to others to support you with dogsitting so he won’t be alone too much. This sets your dog up for success.
How Do Special Needs Dogs Get Along With Others?
Special needs dogs don’t have a communicable disease. So they’re safe to have around other dogs. They can be especially loving. And they can be like perpetual puppies in spirit and behavior. It can be beneficial to your dog to mingle with other dogs. Dogs have unique ways of communicating with each other. And that includes how healthy dogs relate to a sick or impaired dog. Dogs need to socialize. If he has a friendly nature, let him meet other dogs.
When you are out with your dog it’s your decision to let him meet others. If he’s friendly with other dogs, let approaching dog owners know. If it’s not the right time, then you can cross the street or step out of the way. You can also tell the other dog owner that today is not a good day for them to meet. Then you won’t have any surprises. If your dog is easily startled, train him to wear a muzzle; that way if he becomes reactive in a situation, you won’t have negative results.
With play dates at home, you need to take steps to ensure shared areas are clean. His potty training might be weak or he might have discharges. Having your dog wear diapers around other dogs will help.
You also need to look within and take stock of your own limitations. You’ll want to think about having a special needs dog as a solo dog or with a second dog. It will depend on his needs and whether you already have a dog. Your existing dog can be supportive to you and your new dog. It’s a learning experience for all of you.
Preparing Yourself For Your Special Needs Dog
You and your special needs dog can enjoy a good life together. You’ll want to be ready for his health issues. And you’ll need to be aware that he might not live as long a life as a healthy dog … or do all the things a normal dog can do. He’s never going to be a watchdog. He just doesn’t have the mental or sensory abilities. But his triumphs will be worth celebrating.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you embark on this journey:
- Taking care of your special needs dog might not be easy. But all members of your family, 2-legged and 4-legged will share this adventure.
- You may want to build a support network to help you care for your new dog. Find someone who can step in and lend a hand or a supportive shoulder..
- Your level of attention, patience and understanding will be put to the test … and strengthened.
- You’ll want to look ahead at financial resources when you budget for quality food, supplements and veterinary support.
- You might want to limit interactions with other dogs or children — or encourage them. It will depend on each situation and each dog. And each day.
Your special needs dog will thrive with your understanding, love and support. And he may require a lifetime of health care as well. There’s one thing that’s certain. It can be a rewarding experience for both of you.