Many dog owners who observe unusual behaviours in their four-legged friends wonder whether the dog might have autism. We associate the disorder with communication issues, and seeing such symptoms in a dog prompts the question: can dogs have autism?
In this article, we’ll explore the existing research and theories in order to find an answer. If you’re worried your dog might be autistic, we’ll also suggest some treatments and solutions for you to try.
Does canine autism exist?
What is autism?
In humans, autism spectrum disorder is usually diagnosed early, based on the history of a child’s behaviour. Key symptoms include impaired communication and social interaction, coupled with repetitive patterns of behaviour and increased sensitivity to external stimuli.
These symptoms occur on a spectrum – meaning that with some people they are more severe and with others quite mild. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
A canine equivalent
Can dogs be autistic in the same way that humans are? This is by no means a new question. Scientists have been researching the issue since the 1960s – and yet, we still don’t have a definitive answer.
While the existence of canine autism hasn’t been confirmed, it also hasn’t been ruled out. This means that for the time being, the best we can say is that dogs might have autism.
The main reason why classifying canine autism is such a challenge is that there is no simple test to reveal the presence of the condition. Autism is quite difficult to diagnose even in humans since medical professionals have to depend on behavioural cues and history to provide a diagnosis.
Vets and researchers have to rely on the same methods with dogs – only it’s even more challenging since we don’t know as much about typical dog behaviours as we do about human ones. With humans, we have a clear benchmark for comparison – we know what the typical behaviours are, so atypical behaviours are easier to spot. Meanwhile, we lack a complete understanding of what’s normal for dogs – so it’s more difficult to define abnormal behaviours.
Veterinarians are hesitant to diagnose dogs with autism at least partly because autism-like symptoms can have a simpler explanation, such as anxiety or underlying medical conditions. For this reason, most vets prefer to use the term canine dysfunctional behaviour rather than canine autism. This condition broadly refers to any behaviours in dogs that we believe is different from the norm.
Can dogs get autism?
While the jury’s still out as to whether dogs can be autistic, we can say for sure that they can’t get autism.
Autism is not an infectious disease or one that can be passed on from one being to another. If we accept that a dog can be autistic, we also have to assume that they were born this way – they can’t ‘become’ autistic at a later point in life.
Is my dog autistic?
We’ve determined that the answer to the question ‘can a dog be autistic?’ is a tentative ‘maybe’. But regardless of whether we label it as canine autism, dysfunctional behaviour, or something else altogether, dogs can definitely display behaviours similar to the symptoms of autism in humans. These behaviours usually appear when your dog is a puppy and remain unchanged as they get older.
Unusual reactions and sensory responses
One of the symptoms that dog owners find most distressing and worrying is a pattern of unusual reactions to stimuli. For example, the dog may react aggressively or negatively to being touched, as if they are in pain. Similarly, they might get anxious or aggressive at loud noises or sudden movements.
Keep in mind that for this to be a symptom of an underlying condition, the behaviour has to form a pattern over a period of time. If it’s just an isolated incident and no other symptoms are present, it’s likely nothing to worry about.
If your dog suddenly develops an aversion to being touched (for instance, yelping when you try to pet him), an immediate visit to the vet is necessary. He may be suffering from a physical condition, such as a skin problem or an injury, that causes him to be in pain and requires medical attention.
Related: Does your dog struggle with allergies? Find out if Piriton could be the answer in our guide.
Compulsive repetitive behaviours
A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association indicates there might be a link between compulsive tail-chasing and canine autism, particularly when accompanied by episodic aggression.
Similarly, other compulsive behaviours – such as walking in circles – can be considered possible dog autism symptoms. Dogs affected by the condition may also display more unusual compulsions, such as arranging their toys in a certain way or keeping the space around them incredibly tidy.
Again, as isolated incidents, these behaviours are usually harmless – most dogs occasionally chase their tails or generally do things that we find baffling from time to time. This should only be a cause for concern if it happens regularly, is accompanied by unprovoked aggression or anxiety, or coupled with other unusual symptoms.
Difficulties in communication and interaction
This symptom may be quite difficult to diagnose since every dog has a slightly different, individual way of communicating with their owner.
However, if you find your dog is generally lethargic, uninterested in playing or interacting with you and others, and incapable of making their emotions known to you, it may be an indication of an autism-like condition.
Examples of behaviours that indicate communication and interaction difficulties include:
- Lack of enthusiasm and interest – on the whole, we know dogs to be energetic, enthusiastic animals. They respond with clear anticipation and joy at things such as walks, playtime, or treats. If your dog shows no enthusiasm and appears uninterested in these things, this may be an indication of dog autism.
- Occasional or regular unresponsiveness – dogs with canine autism may ignore you more often than not. For instance, they won’t react when you call their name, even though you’re certain they know you’re talking to them. They may also avoid eye contact with you and generally show no interest in your attempts to engage with them.
- Spacing out – most dogs are curious, vigilant creatures that like to know what’s going on around them. If your dog regularly spends long periods of time aimlessly staring into space, there’s reason to believe they may have autism or another form of dysfunctional behaviour.
Again, for these to be symptoms of canine autism or a related condition, they must form a pattern and date back to the dog’s early age. If your dog suddenly becomes lethargic or unresponsive in a way that’s unusual for him, take him to the vet as soon as possible to check for infections, injuries, and other physical issues.
Recommended: Is it possible for dogs to have Down Syndrome?
Obsessive devotion to a routine and distress at new experiences
Most dogs develop a routine that’s based on your own typical day and learned through repetition. For instance, if you walk your dog first thing every morning, they’ll expect to go outside as soon as you get up. If for some reason this doesn’t happen one day, they might be confused or disappointed, but they’ll move on pretty quickly.
An autistic dog, meanwhile, may display anxious or aggressive behaviour at any deviation from its usual routine. Similarly, dogs with autism are likely to show distress during confrontations with new experiences, toys, treats, and people.
Social anxiety and socialisation issues
Just like humans, some dogs are sociable and exuberant, while others are more shy and withdrawn. If your dog regularly reacts with extreme anxiety to meeting people and other dogs, however, it may be a cause for concern.
Keep in mind that a lot depends on the training and socialisation practice your dog has experienced. The anxiety may just be down to a lack of exposure to other dogs, people, and environments – group classes at a dog training centre or sessions with a canine behaviourist could solve the problem.
Causes of autism in dogs
Although autism is not fully understood, research shows that there are underlying genetic causes for autism in humans. In other words, it’s a disorder a person is born with – you can’t ‘get’ autism later in life.
Similarly, for a dog to be considered autistic, they typically need to display symptoms from an early age. We don’t know exactly what causes autism in dogs, though one theory proposes that it could be an issue with mirror neurons – which the brain needs to learn social norms and typical behaviours through observation. Research into the existence and functioning of mirror neurons in dogs is still in its early stages, however, so there’s a long way to go before we know for sure.
For the time being canine autism is considered an idiopathic condition – one without a known cause.
Autistic-type behaviours caused by other conditions
Displaying one or more of the symptoms described above doesn’t necessarily mean your dog has autism. There are other conditions and health issues that could present themselves in the same way – which is one of the reasons why dog autism is so difficult to diagnose.
Anxiety, past trauma, and physical conditions can all cause atypical behaviours in dogs. It’s important to check for these before assuming that the dog is affected by autism. This is particularly true in the case of rescue dogs and those who enter your life as adults, since you may be unaware of their medical history and past experiences.
What to do if you think your dog has autism
As usual, the best thing to do if you’re concerned about your dog’s behaviour is to consult a veterinary professional. There’s no medical treatment for canine autism, but it’s important to ensure that there are no underlying medical issues before moving on to tackling behavioural problems.
If the dog is physically well, a consultation with a qualified canine behaviourist should be your next step. Many dog training centres have a behaviourist on the team and offer a home service, where the expert will visit you to observe and examine your dog in its familiar environment. Depending on what they find, they’ll be able to provide you with pointers on how to manage your dog’s behaviour.
In the meantime, there are several things you can do to minimize your dog’s anxiety and help them live a healthier life.
Observing for patterns and avoiding stressful situations
Start by taking a mental note of any patterns in your dog’s behaviour and stimuli that trigger negative responses. Once you’ve identified the problem areas, you’ll be able to adapt your actions and routine to better suit your dog’s needs.
For example, if taking a walk along a busy street turns out to be a stressor for your dog, start taking him somewhere quieter and more spacious. It’s important not to try to force him into situations that trigger his anxiety or aggression. Exposure therapy might be an option, but it should be done under the guidance of an experienced behaviourist.
Recommended: Click here to learn more about CBD oil for dogs and how it can calm anxious and suffering pooches.
Maintaining a routine
As we’ve already seen, having a solid routine is extremely important to many autistic dogs. Maintaining a regular schedule that suits your dog’s needs will make them feel safe and in control. When introducing new elements to the routine, try to do so gradually.
Offering a safe space
Having a safe space is important for every dog, but doubly so for those with autism. Make sure there is at least one spot in the house where the dog can hide away and spend some time undisturbed. Provide a dog bed or a comfortable, open crate in a quiet place and leave the dog alone in the space.
Enabling regular exercise
Exercise helps to relieve stress and anxiety for dogs just as much as humans. If your dog is comfortable with physical activity, include regular exercise in the dog’s daily routine.
Providing love and acceptance
Every dog is different. Each has its likes and dislikes, fears, and little quirks. It’s a big part of why we love them so much – they’re all individuals with a distinct set of traits that we get to know and appreciate over time.
If you rule out physical conditions and treatable behavioural issues, focus on learning to love and accept your dog just the way he is – canine autism notwithstanding. With the right routine, a safe environment, and a fair measure of patience, you and your four-legged friend can learn to live a happy, fulfilling life together.