- It is not accurate to say that a dog has autism but they can exhibit a condition similar to autism called canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB).
- CDB is considered an idiopathic disorder, meaning that the causes of dog autism is unclear but some treatments and therapies can help manage symptoms and improve the dog’s quality of life.
- It’s important to consult with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist experienced in treating dogs with canine dysfunctional behavior if you think your dog have autism.
Can dogs have autism? Research indicates that dogs can exhibit a condition known as canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB), which shares some behavioral patterns with human autism. Canine cognitive dysfunction is considered an idiopathic disorder, meaning that its cause is still unknown.
While some symptoms associated with autism may seem to be exclusive to humans, recent studies suggest that dogs can also display such traits. As with autistic children, further research is necessary to better understand and treat canine dysfunctional behavior in dogs. While I have no personal experience with autism in dogs, I have talked with the owner of other dogs who had this problem. The good news is that there are some treatments and therapies that may help manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for affected dogs.
Causes of Canine Autism
Canine dysfunctional behavior lacks a single universal cause and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics, socialization, training, and environmental factors. A study conducted on mice showed that an illness in the mother during gestation raises the likelihood of pups born with behaviors that fit the autism spectrum disorders (1). This does not seem to carry over to larger species, although much more research must be done. The idea that it may be caused, or at least affected by, environmental factors is bolstered by the fact that the incidence of autism is on the rise in multiple species simultaneously.
In dogs, there is no solid evidence of what causes autism-like behaviors. What is known is that certain dog breeds, bull terriers for one, seem to be more prone to the idiosyncratic behaviors associated with the autism spectrum, also known as canine dysfunctional behavior in dogs.
Symptoms of Autism in Dogs
Is the dog autistic or just a high energy breed? In the 1960s, veterinarians begin to note autistic behavior in dogs. It was noted by a college of veterinary behaviorists that a particular set of unusual actions were present like excessive tail-chasing behavior in bull terriers. The presence of these repetitive and compulsive behaviors could predict the presence of others. This is when the term Canine Dysfunctional Behavior was first coined. It wouldn’t be until the 2000s that those compulsive behaviors were linked to autism spectrum disorder in human beings.
With more research and a greater understanding of dog autism itself, it has been noted by experts that a significant number of telltale signs of CDB in dogs are often similar to those shown in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In the animal world, the more appropriate term for this is Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD) which, studies show, are more often seen in male dogs. While not all of these autism-like symptoms will be present in every dog, the presence of some may signify that it is time to talk to a vet.
These are the most commonly seen symptoms for dogs with autism or CDB. Dogs tend to be pack animals and as such thrive on interactions with other dogs, animals, and people. Dogs with impaired social interaction or seem to get overly stressed in dog parks or with company, may be have CDB. Warning signs include lack of eye contact with its owner or other dogs, taking no interest in other animals or people, and ignoring the advances of other dogs in the dog park or other settings. I often find that first-time dog owners have a hard time identifying these symptoms or in adoption cases (especially when adopting a senior dog), the symptoms are attributed to trauma or canine anxiety. This is why I always advise pet owners to seek veterinary help in case they find their dog acting weird or doing actions contrary to normal behavior.
Lack of Communication
Typical dogs easily communicate if they’re happy, excited, sad, or scared but dogs suffering from autism rarely do this. Some of the autistic dogs I encountered do not show the usual dog body language like expressing excitement by wagging its tail upon arrival of their owner, perking up their ears when called, or crouching down when reprimanded.
Research has shown that individuals with autism may have an impaired mirror neurons system. Mirror neurons are believed to play a crucial role in empathy, as they allow individuals to understand and experience the emotions of others. Some experts believe canines also posses mirror neurons that allow them to connect to humans, and therefore it is also possible that dogs with CDB may have impaired mirror neurons.
Repetitive actions such as tail-chasing
Obsessive tail-chasing behavior in bull terriers was actually the first behavior that led to studying the possibility that dogs could be autistic. Many of the types of compulsive behaviors to look out for are a part of normal dog behavior. It is when they are done repetitively and chronically that they may be signs of canine autism spectrum disorder. I like to keep an eye out for repetitive tail chasing behavior, pacing, or the dog walking in circles, chewing, licking objects, trance-like behaviors, and digging. If dogs suffer from these, regular and consistent exercise for a high energy dog breed should tire them enough to minimize such medical conditions.
Inability to cope with change
Dogs with CDB show inordinate amounts of stress with the smallest changes to their routine or environment. New furniture, a new member of the household, or even dinner being served late may send them into a frenzy of the repetitive behaviors mentioned above. A usually calm and shy dog may also show aggressive behaviors if forced to accept a new situation.
Diagnosing Autism in Dogs
Since CDB is not well understood, having a dog diagnosed with it is not a simple process. It is my observation that when approaching an autism diagnosis, the vet first tries to rule out any other causes for the concerning dog behavior. If none of these can be found then the vet may order blood tests to look for heightened levels of certain hormones and proteins. While the presence of these higher levels is not definitive, it is another indicator that a dog may be suffering from autism or canine dysfunctional behavior.
The combination of the blood test results and behavioral tests can only lead to a presumptive diagnosis of CDB. Until more research is done on what causes autism and how to test it in dogs, a definitive diagnosis is not possible.
Living With Autistic Dogs
Whether or not a vet can tell with all certainty that a dog is autistic, owners will need to figure out how to deal with the symptoms. Some of the recommended courses of action are things that we already do as responsible owners to improve the health and welfare of any dog. These include making sure they get regular exercise, feeding a well-balanced diet comprised of the best dog food, and avoiding situations that cause them stress or trigger their repetitive behaviors.
In addition, providing them a stress-free space where they can feel comfortable is essential. For a friend’s dog, this safe space can be the dog bed, my friend’s bed, or just a quiet corner. As much as possible, I encourage letting the dog have free access to his safe space and try not to disturb them when they choose to be there. Also, it is best not to force them to go there if they do not want to. Their safe space should never be used as a punishment.
Positive reinforcement when they do interact is helpful. It will help raise the dogs’ comfort level and encourage them to do it more often. Note though that too much petting or even verbal praise may send them scuttling off to their safe place again. I suggest getting a dog trainer who has experience with developmental disability.
In some cases, especially if aggression or destructive behaviors are a problem, it is best to have the dog checked by veterinary medicine experts. Often, vets would prescribe anti-anxiety or mood-altering medications designed to keep the dog calm and stress-free.
All indications point to autism being an ailment that dogs are born with, not an illness they contract. The symptoms of CDB may also not show themselves right away or may be mild. As young dogs become older dogs, these behaviors will likely become more pronounced. For owners who believe that their dog may be suffering from autism, I suggest you talk to your vet as soon as possible. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it will be. While there is no cure at present, awareness, understanding, and management will help the dog and its owner lead a more normal life.
What are the symptoms of autism in dogs?
From my experience, autistic dogs show some of the same symptoms as autistic humans do. They tend to display antisocial behavior, avoiding interaction, eye contact, and physical contact with both humans and other dogs or animals. They sometimes exhibit repetitive behaviors like tail chasing or walking the perimeter of a room. They can become distressed or even aggressive at changes to their environment or routine.
Can you have an autistic dog?
The answer to the question, Can Dogs Be Autistic, is not as simple as yes or no. Yes, some dogs exhibit the symptoms similar to autism in humans, although it is not yet possible to definitively diagnose dogs with canine autism. There is, however, a condition known as canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB) which shares the symptoms of autism in humans as well as obsessive-compulsive behaviors in dogs. Unfortunately like in humans, there is no known cause. A presumptive diagnosis can be made by observing behaviors and testing for raised levels of certain proteins and hormones in the dog’s blood.
Can dogs have special needs?
Beyond being able to diagnose autism, dogs are prone to many of the problems and ailments that fall under the broad term “special needs”. These include emotional, developmental, and physical limitations that affect the dog’s ability to lead a full and normal life.
Can animals be autistic?
While there is not a lot of data yet confirming the presence of autism in all animals, behaviors related to autism have been seen in dogs, cats, and some rodents. Studies on these animals have confirmed higher levels of certain hormones and proteins in the blood, similar to those found in autistic people. Studies have not been done to determine if autistic behaviors or autism itself is present in most other species.