It’s no secret that dogs can have many of the same conditions that we do. So, if you live with a pup who is prone to distraction or excels at zoomies, it’s natural to wonder: Can dogs have ADHD? Recent studies indicate that there are indeed similarities between ADHD in humans and ADHD-like behavior in dogs. In fact, a rare disorder in dogs called hyperkinesis shares several noteworthy commonalities with ADHD in humans.
Unless you’re a trained professional, however, it’s not easy to distinguish between a dog with hyperkinesis and a naturally hyperactive dog or one with anxiety. We asked veterinarians and behaviorists to help unpack this topic, and to offer recommendations that can help you help your canine companion cope. If your dog is exhibiting behavioral issues, it’s always best to start with a call to your veterinarian.
Can Dogs Have ADHD? What the Experts Say
ADHD in humans is marked by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractedness; these symptoms can vary and range from mild to severe.  While many of us may exhibit these behaviors at times (who hasn’t zoned out during a long lecture?), the brains of people with ADHD are structurally different — which impacts how they process information. Heredity plays a major role in ADHD, though external factors like brain injuries, being born with a low birth weight, or exposure to certain toxins can factor in. 
ADHD begins in childhood — it’s classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder — although it can continue into adulthood. It’s considered a common mental condition, with about 6 million children aged 3 to 17 currently diagnosed each year. 
But let’s get down to it: can a dog have ADHD?
Some dogs exhibit behavior resembling that of ADHD in humans. “I see a lot of impulsivity and inability to focus in my patients that are generally anxious,” says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service at the University of California, Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “These dogs do not rest well and typically have too many fear (or sometimes aggression) triggers to count.”
Does this mean ADHD in dogs is a valid veterinary diagnosis? The veterinary community admits that while dog ADHD is possible, they hesitate to assign a diagnosis — at least for now.
For one, there’s not nearly enough research on this topic yet available. Plus, dogs are a distinct species with a different brain structure, as well as different social needs and ways of processing information. “It’s very important to remember that although there may be many similar behaviors, it’s unlikely that the presentation of ADHD in humans is exactly like the presentation of similar behaviors and symptoms in dogs,” says Dr. Kristina Spaulding, a certified applied animal behaviorist, educator, and owner of Science Matters Academy of Animal Behavior LLC. “Saying ‘ADHD-like’ reminds us of this.”
Hyperactivity in dogs may in fact, be symptomatic of other conditions. One of these, says Dr. Spaulding, is anxiety. Additionally, “It can also happen in normal adolescent dogs that aren’t getting their exercise, enrichment, and/or social needs met.”
Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), which affects older dogs and is linked to dementia, can appear anxious or more withdrawn; and those with canine compulsive disorder may start to excessively chase their tails. And don’t discount medical conditions, like pain or a seizure disorder, which can sometimes cause these symptoms.
Genetics play a role, too. Compare, for example, highly active dog breeds like the Australian Shepherd and Border Collie, with more docile dog breeds like the Bulldog or Greyhound. “Certain types or breeds of dogs have been selected for many generations for qualities that would make them excel in certain functions or capacities of work, be they guarding, herding, exterminating, hunting by scent or sight,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club.
However, as we mentioned before, there is a rare condition in dogs that comes closest to what we would call clinical ADHD. “We behaviorists speak of dogs that cannot settle and learn that respond well to stimulants like Ritalin. Is that ADHD? We call it hyperkinesis,” explains Dr. Stelow, who is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Research About ADHD in Dogs
Several studies have noted similarities between ADHD in humans and ADHD-like behavior in dogs.  “Both humans and dogs have a gene variant related to a dopamine gene (DRD4)  that is associated with increased activity and impulsivity,” says Dr. Spaulding, who also serves as vice president of the IAABC Foundation. In another study, “Dogs rated high for impulsivity  show deficits in their ability to inhibit behavioral responses as well as intolerance to delayed reward,” adds Dr. Spaulding, who has a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience.
Another study published in the Open Journal of Veterinary Medicine found that the degree of play time, socialization, and exercise a dog received were linked to ADHD-like behavior.  Understanding this connection can ultimately help us be more proactive in how we care for dogs predisposed to these behaviors.
A Groundbreaking Study
A widely-cited 2021 study from the University of Helsinki went even further in challenging the premise that only humans can have ADHD. Based on data from more than 11,000 Finnish dogs, the researchers found striking similarities between ADHD symptoms in both humans and dogs. 
Puppies and male dogs, for example, were found to be more prone to ADHD-like behavior than females and older dogs. This mirrors what scientists know about ADHD in humans — that it tends to occur mostly in young males.
Additionally, a genetic component in dog “ADHD” (which is also a key factor in human ADHD) was present in the University of Helsinki study. Breeds bred for work, like the German Shepherd and Jack Russell Terrier, most commonly exhibited hyperactivity and impulsivity; though they did have the ability to focus on the task at hand. Conversely, breeds like the Chihuahua and Miniature Poodle were generally calmer.
A dog’s environment was also found to be a risk factor. “Amazingly and not surprisingly, dogs that stay at home alone are often more at risk,” says Dr. Klein. Dogs who don’t get enough attention or enough exercise also show more behavioral changes, so pet parent habits can play a contributing role as well.
Dog ADHD Symptoms
There are nuances between hyperactivity and other conditions like CCD. “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction tends to be associated with aging in senior dogs. Whereas high-energy, impulsive behaviors are most common in adolescent dogs (about 6 months to about 18 months),” says Dr. Spaulding.
Additionally, Dr. Spaulding says, canine cognitive dysfunction tends to present differently. “However, sometimes anxiety can masquerade as hyperactive or impulsive behavior. Anxious dogs may jump up on their caregivers and mouth at them. This is a behavior that can also occur when dogs are playing, overly excited, or frustrated.”
Veterinarians have specific criteria when determining if a diagnosis of hyperkinesis (dog “ADHD”) is appropriate. “Patients that I have treated for this have clinical signs that have included high resting heart rate and respiratory rate, difficulty concentrating, or increased focus at [an] unexpected time,” says Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon.
Other signs Dr. Parthasarathy looks for in dogs before she makes a diagnosis include significant trouble relaxing (even in calm situations) and difficulty retaining previously learned skills. A dog’s age and behavioral history, and the ruling out of other medical conditions are also important criteria.
This is why seeking professional help if you suspect your dog has any behavioral issues is crucial. “In many cases, it takes a high level of experience and expertise to distinguish between the potential causes of these symptoms. A behavior professional can help sort out exactly what is driving the behavior and the best way to address it,” says Dr. Spaulding.
To recap, potential hyperkinesis or dog ADHD symptoms your veterinarian will look for include:
- High resting heart rate and respiratory rate
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased focus at an unexpected time
- Trouble relaxing, even in calm situations
- Difficulty retaining previously learned skills
Managing ADHD Symptoms in Dogs
If you suspect your dog has hyperkinesis, starting with your veterinarian is always a safe bet. “If you are concerned about your pet’s behavior, the first step is to have them checked by your veterinarian,” advises Dr. Parthasarathy.
Your veterinarian might point you in the direction of a specialist, like a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified dog behavior consultant, or certified applied animal behaviorist. “This is really important, especially because there are several potential causes of these behaviors, and if the wrong cause is targeted, it’s unlikely the dog will improve,” says Dr. Spaulding.
The following techniques are often recommended for dogs with ADHD-like behaviors. Keep in mind that what works for one pup may not work for another.
Provide Adequate Exercise
A primary goal is to make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and enrichment, says Dr. Spaulding. “The needs will vary widely from dog to dog, but if the dog is not getting at least 30 minutes of play and/or walks or some other kind of physical exercise, then that would be a good place to start.”
Dogs like to do a job, adds Dr. Klein. “Extremely energetic dogs can easily become bored dogs, and bored dogs easily can become disruptive and destructive dogs. Finding proper outlets for dogs, especially young dogs or puppies, can be [time-consuming] and challenging but extremely worthwhile in saving the relationship with you and your dog.”
Create a Behavioral Plan for Dog ADHD Symptoms
Physical exercise by itself isn’t enough, though, says Dr. Spaulding. You’ll need to create a behavior plan for your pup, which Dr. Spaulding says focuses on four main components:
- Ensuring the dog’s needs are being met
- Creating an environment that minimizes or avoids exposure to overwhelming situations
- Using force-free training techniques to improve the dog’s impulse control and frustration tolerance
- Using positive reinforcement to train behaviors that aid with control and relaxation, such as settling on a mat
Provide Appropriate Levels of Stimulation
Focus on activities that can reduce general emotional arousal, says Dr. Parthasarathy. “For example, playing chase [or] tug, or running may make some dogs highly emotionally aroused and increase impulsive behavior.”
Providing calm is also essential, Dr. Parthasarathy adds. “Allowing calm exploratory walks (aka ‘Sniffaris’), more relaxed mental activities (such as licking frozen dog food out of a rubber toy), and teaching relaxation are all activities that can help. Teaching de-escalation and self-calming can help dogs learn to regulate their responses to emotional arousal as well.”
Manage Your Dog’s Home Environment
You may need to make some changes within your home to prevent discomforting behaviors. “This may mean better puppy-proofing of the home, always keeping the dog leashed while outdoors, and [watching] for signs of frustration,” says Dr. Stelow.
Your Veterinarian May Recommend Medication
As nonsensical as it may seem, a dog with true canine hyperkinesis (which is rare in dogs) will usually respond to stimulants. Drugs like methylphenidate, or Ritalin for dogs, can be beneficial in hyperkinesis, says Dr. Parthasarathy. “Often there are other emotional conditions contributing to the overall behavior, so some patients may benefit from a combination of treatments.”
Before giving your pup supplements or OTC remedies, check with your veterinarian first. Although some veterinarians recommend products like valerian and chamomile to relieve anxiety in dogs, hyperkinesis is not the same thing as anxiety.
ADHD in Dogs: The Bottom Line
While recent studies demonstrate that there are behavioral — and even physiological — similarities in ADHD and ADHD-like behavior in dogs, the question remains: can dogs have ADHD?
For now, while hyperkinesis comes closest to what we’d call clinical dog “ADHD,” the veterinary community is not ready to claim ADHD in dogs as a valid diagnosis, at least until more research is available. Additionally, dogs have brains that are structurally and chemically different than ours, so assigning a human diagnosis to another species isn’t always clear cut.
If you suspect your dog has hyperkinesis, it’s best to initiate a conversation with your veterinarian.
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