How To Adopt And Care For A Dog That Has Down Syndrome

by Sarah Landrum

Dogs hold a special place in many people’s hearts. They’re loyal, affectionate and make wonderful family members.

However, just like people, dogs can also suffer from disabilities.

My family and I have spent a long time working with dogs.

We have several of our own, and we foster Boston Terriers through Northeast Boston Terrier Rescue until they find their forever homes. Most of the dogs we take in are from puppy mills and other terrible situations.

It can be heartbreaking to see the effects of the abuse they have suffered.

These dogs are often terrified of people. Many don’t know how to play, or even know what toys are. Some don’t know how to eat real dog food or drink from a bowl, and most are not yet housebroken.

They’ve lived their whole lives in cages.

One of our fosters was in a cage so small, she didn’t even know she could stand up the whole way. As hard as it is to see that abuse, it’s also magical to watch them open up and learn what it’s like to have a real home.

It’s so rewarding to see them learn to play, love and to be a normal dog.

We recently got a call to get a young female and her two 5-week-old puppies. We rarely get puppies, so this was exciting.

Henry was fat, robust and playful. All he wanted to do was explore, play and love us.

The other, Toby, was much smaller. He seemed to be very much a cuddle bug, wanting nothing but to lay with us and sleep. For the first day, that was okay. It was a long trip, so we assumed he was tired.

However, after resting all day, he did the same thing the next day. When he did get up, he would stumble and sometimes run into things. Most puppies are clumsy, but not like this.

Toby needed a vet visit.

Since they needed a checkup anyway, both puppies made the trip to the vet the very next morning, along with their mama. While Henry was developing normally, Toby would forever be a special-needs dog.

He was blind. This was terribly sad news.

Toby was so sweet. He certainly didn’t need to have more obstacles in living a normal life or finding his forever home.

The vet also said his fontanel wasn’t closed. The puppy was five weeks old, so there was still time for it close on its own. But there was a chance it might not.

Most dogs’ fontanels are closed by then, but occasionally, it can take up to six months to close completely. Having never dealt with this particular issue before, I was surprised when she compared the neurological effects of an open fontanel to a person with Down syndrome.

I got to thinking, can dogs have Down syndrome?

How does one handle that? What kinds of precautions need to be taken to assure the dog still has a good life? How does the care differ?

A short bit of research turned up the information that yes, dogs certainly can have Down syndrome.

What is Down syndrome?

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder.

It’s been well-studied in humans, and usually results in intellectual impairment, physical impairment and a shorter life expectancy. It’s also called trisonmy-21 because it comes from having an extra 21st chromosome.

This is easily the most common form of Down syndrome.

There are several physical elements of Down syndrome, including wide-set eyes, a single crease across the palm, short stature, a round, flat face and low muscle tone.

Sometimes, people with less severe forms will not display many of these characteristics.

In fact, there was one girl I went to school with who only had one physical symptom: a single crease on her palm. You would never have known she had Down syndrome unless she told you.

So, can this occur in dogs? The short answer is yes.

Work with the Dog Genome Project has shown it is possible for dogs to have Down syndrome. However, coming to an agreement of what it looks like in dogs is a bit more difficult.

What does it look like in dogs?

We have an established set of criteria to help us determine if a person has Down syndrome. If necessary, genetic testing can be done to get a definitive yes or no.

Dogs, though, are a bit different.

First of all, this is considered a rare disorder for canines.

Most of the time, the dog will not survive gestation or birth, or will die shortly after birth. It is considered unusual for a dog with Down syndrome to live for more than a few days.

As sad as that may be, remember that dogs are animals, and they do not have the same kind of pre and postnatal care people do.

If you think your dog might be one of the rare ones with Down syndrome, there are some clues to look for. These dogs are more prone to problems such as congenital heart disease, poor eyesight, hearing impairments, thyroid problems and physical abnormalities.

Deformed or missing legs and misshapen facial features are two of the most common physical characteristics. They will also have a warm, dry nose at all times, and their face may appear flatter than normal, with eyes turned slightly upward.

They also tend to have skin problems, either with excessive shedding or missing patches of fur.

Obviously, these can be symptoms of many things other than Down syndrome. Don’t try to diagnose the dog yourself.

If you think your pet might have Down syndrome, talk to your vet. He or she may be able to tell you if it’s a possibility.

How can you care for a dog with Down syndrome?

Dogs with Down syndrome are few and far between. They are true special-needs animals, and they will require some devoted love and affection, along with additional medical care.

If they are placed in the right home, however, these animals can live a full, happy life. They still have all the same needs as regular dogs. They need exercise, training and love.

As Down syndrome in dogs is not well-studied, it’s important to keep their well-being in mind for all your decisions. If you don’t feel you’re able to care for the animal, look for either a breed-specific rescue or a rescue that specializes in special-needs animals.

There’s no shame in finding the animals a better home. Just make sure to give them their best chance at getting one.

Your vet may recommend extra vitamins and checkups for your dog, to make sure he or she stays on track and healthy. These vitamins may be more expensive, since they’re likely to be prescription.

If your dog is missing patches of fur, you’ll need to apply sunscreen. (Nobody wants sunburn, dogs included.)

These dogs can also be more prone to allergies, both in their food and their environment. Be careful what you feed your pet, and also keep an eye on what your dog is exposed to.

We always put containers of our dogs’ food in the freezer to kill common allergens.

Dog-safe cleaning products would also be very important, especially when used on bedding and floors.

Overall, you aren’t terribly likely to encounter a dog with Down syndrome in your life. However, if you do, and you’re able to provide him or her with the care and love he or she needs, that dog can become a family member.

A few special needs only translates to a bit of extra love, and extra love makes for a happier home.