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Can Dogs Be Autistic?

child and dog outside
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Autism spectrum disorder is no longer considered an uncommon condition. Reported cases of autism have risen during the past 20 years, and it’s now estimated that one in every 44 children are affected. 

As the public becomes more aware of autism, it’s only natural to ask: Can dogs be autistic, too? Given that we share other similarities with dogs, it’s not a stretch to wonder if that obsessive tail chasing and pacing might be signs of an autistic dog. 

With insights from veterinarians and behaviorists, we help answer this question. To make sure your dog receives a proper diagnosis and the best possible treatment, we recommend contacting your veterinarian if you notice any behaviors that seem unusual. 

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

The definition of autism has evolved considerably since it first came to light in the early 20th century. Scientists originally theorized that it was a form of childhood schizophrenia, or that affected children were products of detached parenting. Though scientists are still learning about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they believe that genes and environmental factors, like low birth weight and having older parents, play a big role. 

While autism spectrum disorder is different for every affected individual, some characteristics of autism may include difficulty with social interactions, an inclination to repeat behaviors, and a laser focus on specific interests. Other signs might include excessive anxiety, issues with impulse control, epilepsy, resistance to change, and sudden outbursts of aggression. 

Autism spectrum disorder is classified as both a neurological and developmental disorder that usually surfaces during a child’s first two years. About 75 percent of people with the disorder have a secondary diagnosis for conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, or Tourette syndrome.

Research on Autistic Animals

Though the study of autism in dogs and other animals is fairly new, there have been several notable studies. 

In a 2016 study, researchers identified monkeys who displayed behaviors (like poor communication ability and repetition) similar to those in humans with autism. They also found that the genetic patterns of the monkeys exhibiting autistic-like behaviors correlated with those of humans with autism. 

In another often-cited 2011 study of Bull Terriers, a portion of the dogs displayed behaviors (most notably tail chasing, trance-like behavior, and irregular incidents of aggression) consistent with autism in humans. 

Can Dogs Have Autism?

senior dog looking confused

Some dogs exhibit behaviors that follow a similar pattern to those in people with autism spectrum disorder. “Similar signs may include reluctance to make eye contact, repetitive behaviors, and lack of overall responsiveness to social interaction,” says Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon. Other behaviors can include poor impulse control, incessant staring, and outbursts of aggression.

The correlation isn’t just behavioral, though. “There are clearly many similarities between dog and human neurochemistry, and it is reasonable to consider that neurodivergent disorders can exist,” says Parthasarathy.

Dogs with autistic-like behaviors even share physical characteristics (like an arched palate and distinct ears) found in people with Fragile X Syndrome, a condition linked to autism.

Despite the behavioral, genetic, and physical similarities, veterinarians and behaviorists hesitate to apply the term autism to animals.

“In veterinary behavior, we try to avoid using human neuropsychological terms for disorders in non-human animals,” says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of behavior service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “For instance, we refer to cognitive changes in aging dogs and cats as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome and feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. These processes may or may not be similar to Alzheimer’s or dementia, but we avoid the human terms.” 

Making a definitive diagnosis of autism in dogs is complicated by several other factors, Dr. Stelow says. For one, “Autism spectrum disorder in people refers to an assortment of neuropsychologic symptoms or developmental tendencies that lead to a range of specific diagnoses, like Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder,” she explains. “A canine diagnosis would need to be similarly nuanced.”

Additionally, she says the ASD diagnosis is centered on behaviors recorded in humans. For example, absent non-verbal interactions with other people, repetitive body movements, a high level of sensitivity to environmental stimuli, and shortfalls in social interaction. “These criteria are challenging to identify in dogs.” 

Autism in humans is also subject to a wide range of predisposing factors, says Dr. Stelow. “This makes it difficult to track any possible relationship to socially awkward dogs that display repetitive behaviors.”

Another reason for the hesitancy is the lack of available research on dogs with autism. “Both researchers and dog behaviorists have reported cases where a dog may display behaviors that are sometimes associated with autism in humans,” says Dr. Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist and director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. “For example, some studies have focused on repetitive behaviors, however there is not enough research in this area yet to say for sure if the underlying causes for these behaviors are similar, or if the behaviors just look similar.”

For now, “We don’t have the means to accurately diagnose it separately from the anxiety-based disorders we currently diagnose,” says Dr. Parthasarathy.

Research About Autism in Dogs

Unlike autism research in humans, the question of whether autism in dogs even exists is relatively new. “As our fondness and curiosity about dogs grows, we have also seen increased interest in understanding if dogs and humans share commonalities including different ways of experiencing the world, due to their genetics, development or lifetime experiences, that may influence their behavior,” says Dr. Udell.

One widely referenced 2011 study evaluated 333 Bull Terrier dogs, 145 of whom exhibited tail-chasing behaviors.

The research team distributed surveys to pet parents of the tail-chasing dogs to understand more about the behavior. They asked about factors like age of onset, known triggers, frequency and duration of the behavior, and how severely the behavior impacted the dogs’ ability to function. They also examined the dogs of both groups to compare physical and behavioral differences.

What they discovered were close ties between tail-chasing behavior and sex (males were at an 8 percent greater risk), trance-like behavior, and spontaneous aggression. 

“There is also genetic research that has found that genetic regions relevant to autism diagnosis in humans also appear to influence aspects of dog social behavior,” says Udell.

In one study from 2014, Bull Terriers with autistic-like symptoms had elevated levels of neurotensin (an amino acid that acts like neurotransmitter) when compared with the non-impacted dogs. This correlation is similar in human children.

“But again, more research is critical to understanding what this tells us about dog cognition and behavior,” says Dr. Udell. “What we can say for sure, is that there is growing scientific interest in whether dogs may be a useful model for studying autism as well as other developmental and neurological conditions, which will likely lead to better answers to these questions in the future.”

Behaviors That May Look Like Autism in Dogs

dog chasing tail

Can dogs have autism symptoms even though veterinarians and behaviorists are hesitant to offer a definitive diagnosis? Yes, and in fact, they’ve recorded several behaviors consistent with autism in humans. These include:

  • Repetitive behaviors, like tail-chasing and pacing
  • Entering a trance-like state
  • Irregular incidents of aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Reluctance to make eye contact
  • Poor impulse control

Several conditions can cause these symptoms. For example, signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, a degenerative disease likened to human dementia and that affects older dogs, include anxiety, aimless pacing, and decreased interaction.  

Fear and anxiety can cause a range of symptoms like aggression, pacing, and compulsive behaviors. And dogs with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) engage in repetitive behaviors like excessive self-grooming and tail-chasing.

A medical condition may also be responsible. “These clinical signs can have very different causes, including medical,” says Dr. Parthasarathy. “For example, if a dog is spinning compulsively, this can be related to neurologic pain, orthopedic pain, seizure disorder, gastrointestinal disorder, or various behavioral disorders.”

This is why consulting with a veterinary professional when you notice anything off with your dog is so important.

Understanding Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD)

Canine compulsive disorder is comparable to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a chronic and potentially debilitating condition in humans marked by intrusive thoughts and a need to engage in repetitive behaviors.

Though nobody knows for sure whether dogs have intrusive, nonsensical thoughts that impact their ability to function, dogs with CCD do engage in repetitive behaviors like over-grooming, pacing, and frenetic tail chasing. 

These types of repetitive behaviors can also be present in humans with autism. Though more studies are needed, a gene (CDH2) that’s been linked to canine compulsive disorder, is also possibly linked to OCD and autism in humans.  

While any dog breed can develop CCD, some breeds, including Bull Terriers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers are at higher risk.

Symptoms of CCD in Dogs

Two Bull Terrier dogs

Some of the more common compulsive behaviors dogs with canine compulsive disorder exhibit include 

  • Continually circling a room
  • Obsessive chewing
  • Incessant tail chasing
  • Teeth grinding
  • Repetitively sucking or holding a piece of side skin (known as flanking)

There’s also a correlation between certain breeds and the types of compulsive behaviors each breed exhibits. For example, Bull Terriers tend to spin, chase their tails, and freeze. Border Collies stare at shadows. Dachshunds may self-mutilate. And Doberman Pinschers are known for flank sucking.

Managing CCD in Dogs

Treatment options for dogs with canine compulsive disorder exist, so no pup has to needlessly suffer. “Dogs who are showing unwanted behaviors can have behavioral training and management specific to those behaviors,” says Dr. Parthasarathy. “Medications may be indicated based on the extent and severity of clinical signs.” 

To treat CCD, veterinarians prescribe medications used to treat OCD in humans. These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine and tricyclic anti-depressants like clomipramine. Some veterinarians recommend products with pheromones as a complementary tool to help alleviate anxiety. 

We recommend speaking to your veterinarian about the best treatment option for your dog.

Autism in Dogs: The Bottom Line

There are definite behavioral, genetic, and physical similarities between humans with autism and dogs who display autistic-like behaviors. Given this evidence, can dogs be autistic? Because the research is still so new, veterinarians hesitate to assign this diagnosis to animals, including dogs. Autism is a human disorder and it remains difficult to compare and contrast between dog and human experiences. This status may change, of course, as scientists uncover new information. 

For now, treatments are available to help dogs suffering with compulsive behaviors, whether it’s a result of canine compulsive behavior, canine cognitive dysfunction, anxiety, or a medical condition.

“There are many similarities between dog and human brains and behavior, but there are differences as well. While I think that further research on conditions such as autism is a worthwhile thing, I also would encourage veterinarians and clients not to become too focused on that as the only reason for their dogs’ behavior,” says Dr. Parthasarathy.

Your veterinarian is in the best position to offer a proper diagnosis and prescribe treatment that will enhance your dog’s life. 

References

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