Lately, several Internet content mills have been publishing listicles that claim facially deformed animals suffer from Down syndrome. These claims, unsurprisingly, are untrue.
Although inbreeding can create genetic mutations, few species can actually develop Down syndrome. "Websites that claim to depict cats and other animals with Down syndrome are not completely factual," explains PETA Foundation veterinarian Dr. Heather Rally. "Nonhuman primates have been known to develop hereditary Down syndrome–like conditions."
According to the listicle website Mundo, though, many animals are born with the disorder. (They did not return Broadly's request for comment.) In an article called "14 beautiful pictures of animals with Down syndrome," they discuss an "adorable monkey," "a lovely sheep," and "Otto the kitten." "Otto suffers from a common malformation in animals with Down syndrome," they write. "The eyes are largely separates [sic] in this beautiful kitten's face."
The cat has also been featured in a YourFeed post called "14 beautiful pictures of animals with Down syndrome," along with a horse named Diego. (YourFeed did not return Broadly's request for comment.) The YourFeed post alleges that Otto died from heart failure. "Because Down's Syndrome is so rare in cats, it is hard to know whether or not it is something that is deadly to all cats," they write.
Otto originally went viral in Turkey. The Turkish press covered his alleged Down syndrome like the New York Post chronicling an heiress on a meth bender. When Otto died in 2014, the Hurriyet Daily News, a tabloid that bills itself as the "Leading News Source for Turkey and the Region," published an article called "Turkey mourns for Otto, the kitten diagnosed with Down syndrome." Tarkan Özçetin, the vet who treated the cat, told the paper that the kitten's heart failure was "one of the effects of Down's syndrome." (Özçetin did not return Broadly's request for comment.) Leading American feline experts, though, say it's impossible for cats to develop Down syndrome.
"The chromosomal makeup of cats is too different for Down syndrome mutations to happen, although there are other naturally occurring genetic diseases that can present similarly," Dr. Rally says. "That being said, the primary causes for congenital disease in most animals are in-utero exposure to certain toxins or viruses and inbreeding-linked genetic abnormalities."
Bigger felines have also fallen prey to viral clickbait writers. A PPCorn article called "19 Pictures of Adorable Animals with Down Syndrome" discusses the tragic fate of a white Bengal tiger named Kenny. "He might look vicious, but his heart was as sweet as candy," the article says. "Unfortunately, Kenny passed away in 2008 when he was nine years old. Thanks for reading!"
PPCorn did not return Broadly's request for comment, but Kenny spent his final years at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, and the animal sanctuary responded to Broadly's email. In 2002, they rescued Kenny from his original owner. They discovered that Kenny suffered from facial deformities because of inbreeding. In an email, Patricia Quinn, the secretary at the refuge, says, "He has been mistakenly referred to in many articles across the internet as having Down syndrome but this is, in fact, not true." The same can be said for the other animals listed in listicles as having Down syndrome.