Can Dogs Be Autistic?
Whether you notice impairments in your dog’s social interaction or you are simply curious if dogs can have autism, you must find an answer to your question, “Can Dogs Be Autistic?”
With the advances in autism research and education, people now have a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder in humans and how the condition affects the patients and the way they interact with the world daily.
And as we’re getting a clearer perspective about autism in humans, more researchers are exploring the possibilities of autism in animal species like dogs. As dog owners, it means a lot to finally find answers and explanations behind our canine’s unusual behaviors.
Together, let’s unpack what the world knows so far about human autism and autistic dogs (if there are).
What is Autism?
Before we can move forward and fully understand dog autism, let us first step back and define what autism is.
In humans, autism is a condition that affects the nervous system, and is categorized under two sets of symptoms – impairments in social interaction and communication, and restrictive, repetitive behaviors, activities, or interests.
Individuals diagnosed with autism can have a unique combination of symptoms and varying severity. To be diagnosed, one must have persistent symptoms under the categories that interfere with their everyday life.
A diagnosis can be made as early as 18 months or younger, and by the age of 2, the diagnosis of autism by an expert is considered reliable.
There are also cases when children are not diagnosed until they are older, and some even receive their final diagnosis when they are already adults.
According to the Center for Disease Control, autism is extremely common with an incidence of 1 every 54 children in the US.
Autism in Dogs?
As mentioned earlier, people diagnosed with autism exhibit some degree of impaired social interaction and repetitive behaviors like hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, and so on.
Dogs can also manifest autism-like symptoms, but in veterinary medicine, this condition is referred to as “canine dysfunctional behavior” rather than canine autism.
Has There Been a Diagnosis of Autism in Dogs?
Veterinarians have been talking about the occurrence of autism-like symptoms in dogs as early as 1966. And while there have been promising studies about dog autism, up until today there is still no conclusive evidence that could support the diagnosis of canine autism.
One significant study about the comparable behavior in dogs with humans diagnosed with autism was that of Nick Todman, a Veterinary Behaviorist at Tufts University. In this 2011 study, he presented a possible link of the tail-chasing behavior in Bull Terriers with autism.
The study observed specific traits of 132 Bull Terriers, 55 of which have tail-chasing behavior and 77 do not. The researchers found out that tail chasing was more common in males, and such canine behavior was also accompanied by occasional aggression and explosive behaviors, as well as trance-like behaviors.
While it was not definitive, the outcomes suggested that tail-chasing could indicate a form of canine autism.
What Causes Canine Dysfunctional Behavior?
In dogs, autism is referred to as canine dysfunctional behavior, and it’s an idiopathic condition. This means that it doesn’t have a known cause. However, what we know is that it is a congenital condition or dogs who exhibit autism-like symptoms are born with canine dysfunctional behavior.
Also, studies suggest that dogs with this condition lack mirror neurons in their brains, which are believed to help dogs on how to function in a social setting.
These neurons are called mirror neurons because they help pups to follow or “mirror” what the older dogs are doing, which then teach them social norms or guide them on how to behave in the presence of other dogs, animals, and humans.
Hence, without these neurons, just like in the case of dogs with this condition, they will not be able to develop the essential skills to learn and build social relationships.
And again, impairments in social communication and social interaction are parts of the first (out of two) key criteria of autism in humans. This is important to emphasize since these key behaviors also serve as indicators in diagnosing canine dysfunctional behavior.
What Are the Symptoms of Autism in Dogs?
While autism is still not an official diagnosis that a veterinarian can give to a dog, some attributes may point out to canine dysfunctional behavior, or autism-like condition in dogs.
Below are some of the signs of canine dysfunctional behavior that you should watch out for:
Dogs have their ways of communicating to other animals, and to us, humans primarily non-verbally, but also through vocalizations. Dogs obviously bark, but they also yawn, growl, howl, whine, scream, pant, sigh, and whimper.
They can wag their tails when they are happy or excited, or as a form of greeting when they see you open the door after a long day at work. When they are reprimanded, they may put their ears back, or roll on their backs exposing their bellies.
Of course, who could disregard the eye language of our canine companions? Dogs are known and adored for their sad puppy eyes when they want something from their humans or when they did something wrong. They may also close their eyes when receiving a pleasurable gesture such as belly rubs.
In dogs with autism or canine dysfunctional behavior, they may appear flat as a result of their inability to express their moods and feelings.
In some cases, an autistic dog may also appear in a trance-like state or an instance when they would just stare blankly in space for an extended time. And sometimes, they may also avoid eye contact with other dogs and humans.
Dogs are social animals by nature. They love to play with other dogs, as well as with other animals like horses, cats, and of course, with us, humans. Hence, it should be a red flag if you notice that your dog doesn’t show an interest to socialize with others.
You should also be concerned if your dog doesn’t pay attention to you during feeding time, playtime, or during your walks.
Obsessive-compulsive behaviors in dogs are characterized by repetitive behaviors, which are also the hallmark symptoms of autism in humans.
Some of the obsessive-compulsive behaviors that dogs may exhibit are circling a room over and over again, chronic tail-chasing, and teeth grinding.
Inappropriate Reactions to External Stimuli
Inappropriate reaction or to some extent overreaction to unfamiliar stimuli is another symptom of concern. For example, your dog may bark or yelp even at the slightest touch.
Dogs with autism are similar to kids with autism, in the sense that they may also feel things differently. And as such, they may show a reaction of pain, aggression, or fear to a slight tap or pat on the head from an unfamiliar person.
Most, if not all, of the symptoms mentioned above, could make dogs tired and lethargic. Dogs with this condition prefer to rest in a familiar and comfortable place, where they feel safe and secured.
They may also prefer to rest alone, rather than in the company of other dogs. If your dog is a high-energy breed, this symptom should be much of a concern.
Decreased Physical Activity
Reduced physical activity may be a symptom of other conditions. As such, it is best to seek advice from the vet to rule out other possible medical issues, before entertaining the possibility that your dog may have autism or canine dysfunctional behavior.
Diagnosing Autism in Dogs
Studies like that of Todman’s indicate the possibility of autism in dogs. However, until more research is done, any vet could not give a conclusive and final diagnosis of canine autism.
As of today, the available bits of information about the typical and atypical canine behaviors are just not enough. Also, there are current medical conditions that affect dogs that can be easily misconstrued as canine autism (e.g. anxiety disorders and pain).
With what we know so far from the available studies and resources, the best that experts and veterinarians can do is to say that a dog “may” have autism. And to do so, a veterinarian must first rule out other conditions that might be causing the symptoms.
For a vet to give a tentative diagnosis of canine autism, the dog must exhibit atypical repetitive behaviors and impairments in social interaction with other dogs and/or people.
Managing Autism-like Symptoms in Dogs
While there is currently no available diagnostic test for canine autism, your vet can still help you get a better idea of what is happening with your dog.
And more importantly, he can guide you in doing things that could help manage the symptoms experienced by your dog and give him the best quality of life.
To start, jot down your dog’s daily activities, and highlight the challenges that he experiences, as well as some unusual behaviors that you may have noticed. Consult with your vet regarding these symptoms so he may have a better perspective of what is happening with your pup.
Once your dog’s triggers have been identified, the vet can formulate an action plan to manage the symptoms to ensure that your canine buddy is stress-free, calm, and happy as much as possible.
For example, if your dog is anxious or fearful in the presence of other people and of other animals, you might have to skip walking in the park. Instead, take your dog to a more private outdoor setting where he can be more at ease while enjoying his physical activities.
Your vet may also advise you to try some techniques used with “special needs” dogs. For instance, you can make use of commercially available wraps that give your dog reassuring pressure. This is most helpful in situations when triggers can’t be avoided.
Some measures used to manage the symptoms of autism in humans can also be used in dogs. For example, you can train your dog to do some heavy works just like pulling a wagon with goodies or carrying a doggy backpack filled with soft weight.
How is Canine Dysfunctional Behavior Treated?
There’s no cure for canine dysfunctional behavior. However, vets can recommend an action plan that includes certain medications to help curb the symptoms, as well as measures that can be done to prevent potential triggers.
Below are some of the treatments that your vet may recommend:
Medications can make or break your dog. Hence, it’s important not to self-medicate your pets regardless of the condition, and especially if you are using drugs that are intended for humans.
There is no single drug of choice in treating symptoms of autism in dogs. However, your vet may prescribe Fluoxetine (Prozac), a type of antidepressant used in treating major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and autism in humans.
Provide a Safe, Secure, and Stress-free Environment
One of the key symptoms that are found in dogs with canine dysfunctional disorder is exhibiting inappropriate reactions to an unfamiliar stimulus or setting.
Suffice to say, dogs with autism-like symptoms tend to be anxious and afraid of almost everything, especially to those that are new to them.
Hence, providing them with a safe, secure, and stress-free environment would definitely help in preventing triggers and in minimizing the degree of their symptoms.
It is also important to be observant of your dog’s behavior and to adjust to his reactions in a particular situation.
For instance, if your dog doesn’t want to be petted, then, respect his desire to be left alone. If he doesn’t want to mingle with other dogs and humans, then, let him be.
By simply being there for him, you are already letting him feel loved and cared for no matter what.
Offer Regular Exercise
Providing your dog a regular form of exercise can also reduce anxiety and stress, as well as provide a distraction from his compulsive behaviors.
Provide Positive Reinforcements
Work with trainers or therapists who are experts in providing positive reinforcements to help you achieve the desired behavioral outcomes for your dog.
Find a trainer who has a proven track record in handling dogs with behavioral issues. This is important because a good trainer can help a lot in managing the autistic-like symptoms of your dog.
Autism is not yet an official diagnosis in dogs, but they do have a condition that is characterized by autism-like symptoms – and it’s called canine dysfunctional behavior.
This condition poses an extra challenge for dogs and dog owners, but with the right support, intervention, environmental manipulation, and training, it’s a challenge that you can rise above together.
Can a dog be diagnosed with autism?
While there's no official diagnosis for dog autism, there are certain behaviors that may point to an autism-like condition. Dog autism symptoms may include: Repetitive behaviors, like tail-chasing or walking in circles.
Can dogs have special needs?
Those with chronic medical conditions are often considered special needs as well, such as dogs and cats with diabetes, chronic allergies and cancer. Still others may have social or behavioral limitations, including severe separation anxiety or extreme situational fears.
Does my dog have a mental disorder?
It's also true that dogs develop mental illness. Dogs can acquire forms of anxiety (especially separation anxiety when left alone or apart from their owner), compulsive disorders, many fears and phobias and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Does my dog have sensory issues?
If your dog seems to be constantly alert or hyper vigilant, they bark at the slightest noise, are hyperactive, find it difficult to relax, or they have become ‘snappy' in certain situations, then you may need to consider sensory overload contributing to the problem.
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