The incidence of autism in the human population has risen drastically over the past few decades. What was once rare enough to be the subject of a TV movie, the autism spectrum, is now familiar to every parent, teacher, and pediatrician.
Unfortunately, this trend has carried over to our furred companions, with the autism-like behaviors now recognized in both dogs and cats as well as other mammals. The actual rate of autism in dogs is unknown but the anecdotal evidence suggests it is on the rise.
Causes of Canine Autism
The causes of autism are still unclear, in any species. There is some evidence that in mice an illness in the mother during gestation raises the likelihood of pups born showing behaviors that fit on the autism spectrum (1). This does not seem to carry over into 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 breeds of dogs, 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
In the 1960s, veterinarians begin to note autistic-like behavior in dogs. It was noted by a college of veterinary behaviorists that a particular set of unusual actions were present in some dogs, like excessive tail-chasing behavior in bull terriers, and that the presence of these behaviors could predict the presence of others. They called it Canine Dysfunctional Behavior. It wouldn’t be until the 2000s that those behaviors were linked to the autism spectrum disorder in human beings.
With more research and a greater understanding of autism itself, a significant number of telltale signs of autism in dogs, often similar to those shown in obsessive-compulsive disorder, have been noted. While not all of these autism-like symptoms will be present in every dog, the presence of some in your dog may signify that it is time to talk to your vet.
These are the most commonly seen symptoms when dogs have autism. Dogs are pack animals and as such thrive on interactions with other dogs, animals, and people. Dogs that avoid these interactions or seem to get overly stressed in them, maybe autistic. Warning signs include lack of eye contact with you or other dogs, taking no interest in other animals or people, ignoring the advances of dogs or people to engage in playing.
Lack of Communication
While dogs cannot speak, anyone who has spent any time at all with them knows they communicate quite effectively through body language. Whether happy, excited, sad, or scared, dogs let their owners know through their ears, tails, eyes, and facial expressions. If your dog does not wag his tail when you come home, perk up his ears when called or crouch down when being reprimanded, he or she may be autistic.
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 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. Keep an eye out for extended periods of tail chasing, pacing or your dog walking in circles, chewing, licking objects, digging, and any other repetitive action.
Inability to cope with change
Dogs with canine autism show inordinate amounts of stress with the smallest changes to their routine or their 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. Your usually calm and shy dog may also become aggressive if forced to accept a new situation.
Diagnosing Autism in Dogs
Since canine autism is not well understood, having your dog diagnosed with autism is not a simple process. When you talk to your vet about your dog’s symptoms, the first thing they will try to do is rule out any other causes for the concerning behaviors. If none of these can be found then your 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 your dog may be suffering from autism or canine dysfunctional behavior.
The combination of the blood test results and the presence of certain behaviors can only lead to a presumptive diagnosis of canine autism. Until more research is done and a better understanding of what causes autism and how to test for it in dogs, a definitive diagnosis is not possible.
Living With Autistic Dogs
Whether or not your vet can tell you with all certainty that your dog is autistic, you will need to figure out how to deal with their symptoms. Some of the recommended courses of action are things that will improve the health and welfare of any dog. These include making sure they get plenty of exercise, feeding them a well-balanced and healthy 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 some, it is their dog bed, your bed, a quiet corner, or even their cage. As much as possible allow your dog free access to this 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 their comfort level and encourage them to do it more often. Don’t overdo it though. Too much petting or even verbal praise may send them scuttling off to their safe place again.
In some cases, especially if aggression or destructive behaviors are a problem, medication may be prescribed. These include may include anti-anxiety or mood-altering medications designed to keep your dog calm and stress-free.
All indications point to canine autism being an ailment that dogs are born with, not an illness they contract. The symptoms may not show themselves right away or maybe mild. As the puppy ages and reaches maturity these behaviors will likely become more pronounced. If you believe that your dog may be suffering from canine autism, talk to your vet as soon as possible. The earlier treatment begins the more effective it will be. While there is no cure, awareness, understanding, and treatment will help your dog, and you, lead a more normal life.
What are the symptoms of autism in dogs?
Autistic dogs show some of the same symptoms as autistic humans do. They tend to be antisocial, avoiding interaction and eye contact with both humans and other dogs. 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, dogs can show the symptoms of autism, although it is not yet possible to say definitively that canine autism exists. Unfortunately like in humans, there is no known cause. A presumptive diagnosis can be made by observed behaviors and testing for raised level of certain proteins and hormones in the dog’s blood.
Can dogs have special needs?
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.