Can Dogs Have Autism? how do you know?
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Autism is a human disorder that we've learned more about over the past few decades. The full scientific name is autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is classified as a developmental condition that includes social, communication, and behavioral problems.
However, because it is a spectrum, there is no single experience of autism, and each autistic person's experience is different.
Autism has been studied extensively in humans, and the question has also been raised whether other species may suffer from it as well. So, can dogs be autistic?
Current research suggests that dogs may suffer from a form of autism known as canine dysfunctional behavior. We don't know what causes it, but it's been present in pups from birth. It is a combination of social, communication and behavior problems that can be treated but not cured.
What is autism?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines autism spectrum disorder as "a developmental disorder that may cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges." Symptoms vary in character and severity—that's why it's called a spectrum.
Autism is common in humans. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 59 children in the United States has autism.
To receive an autism diagnosis, a child's symptoms must be persistent and interfere with their daily lives. These symptoms usually begin in early childhood, and some children are diagnosed before the age of two. Others, however, are not diagnosed until much later, and there are many adults who are diagnosed with autism when they are evaluated.
Autism is a clinical diagnosis made by specialists using information provided by the individual and/or their family members. There are no laboratory tests that can diagnose autism, but there are behavioral tests. Here are some behaviors that people with autism may exhibit:
- not making eye contact
- find it difficult to get along with others
- difficulty understanding other people's emotions
- Prefers to avoid physical contact, such as hugging
- repeat words and phrases
- Discomfort about changes in routine
- Find it difficult to cope with changes in the environment
- obsessive tendencies
- body swing
- delayed cognition and learning
- stress and anxiety
Can dogs be autistic?
Some of the behaviors associated with autism in humans can also be found in dogs. This begs the question – can dogs get autism?
Since the 1960s, research has attempted to answer this question.
A breakthrough came with a study reported in 2011 that found similarities between signs of autism spectrum disorder and the repetitive tail-chasing behavior of pit bulls. Dogs that tend to chase their own tails, more males than females, are also prone to trance behavior and phobias. However, the findings are still inconclusive.
In 2014, another study found that children with autism and pit bulls who exhibited tail-chasing behavior had higher levels of certain hormones.
Now, there is ample evidence that dogs can display behaviors similar to autistic behaviors in humans. Also, by classifying certain symptoms as indicative of autism, this may help us find ways to help the condition. In dogs, symptoms similar to autism in humans are known as "canine dysfunctional behaviour."
What Causes Autism in Dogs?
The cause of canine dysfunctional behavior is unknown, or idiopathic, meaning unknown. However, experts believe affected dogs are likely born with the condition.
Several recent studies have found that dogs exposed to harmful chemicals are more likely to give birth to puppies with canine dysfunctional behaviors. This will be a fruitful area of future research.
Some studies have shown that affected dogs do not have "mirror" neurons. These are special types of neurons that allow dogs to learn social skills. Without these neurons, dogs cannot develop social skills or form the relationships dogs need.
Signs Your Dog Has Autism
You should not try to diagnose your dog's canine dysfunctional behavior yourself. You'll want to consult a veterinarian experienced in diagnosing and treating behavioral and neurological disorders in dogs.
Canine dysfunctional behavior differs from human autism because it is not considered a spectrum disorder. The veterinarian will compare your dog's behavior to a dog's "normal" behavior.
Signs that your dog has autism include impaired social interactions with repetitive and compulsive behaviors. Pay close attention, watch out, be careful:
Dogs are pack animals, and social interaction should be important to them. A normal dog will naturally want to interact with other dogs, other animals, and humans on some level. If your dog doesn't pay attention to other animals and doesn't pay attention to you, even at mealtimes, this could indicate a problem.
Our dogs may not be able to talk, but they are very good at communicating with other dogs and us. They use body language signals such as wagging their tails, licking, pinning their ears back and rolling over. As owners, we quickly learn to decipher what our dogs are saying to us.
Have you noticed that your dog communicates differently than other dogs? Do they look flat or neutral, never seeming happy or excited? This could be a sign of autism. Other signs include appearing in a trance, staring into space, and avoiding eye contact.
how they respond to stimuli
Autistic dogs respond differently to various stimuli, such as being touched. While most dogs enjoy scratching under the chin, autistic dogs can be allergic and may react like you've hurt them. They may even become aggressive.
The same thing happens with voices, as they don't cope well with overstimulation. You may notice them hiding in places they feel safe, such as under your bed. Many dogs are afraid of fireworks and thunder, but the reactions in autistic dogs can be more extreme and occur across a wider range of experiences.
Research in this area has mostly focused on compulsions to tail chase, but dogs with autism can become compulsive about other things as well. They may circle the room repeatedly or grind their teeth endlessly.
Other dogs with repetitive canine dysfunctional behaviors constantly line up their toys and some are compulsive chewers.
Strong reactions to new situations, difficulty communicating, and OCD can tire a dog!
Also, they prefer to be alone in places that they feel familiar and comfortable with.
They won't be very keen to go out for walks or interact with other dogs.
All of these make them seem lazy. If they are a high energy dog breed, such as a border collie, the differences between them and other breeds can be quite striking. Lethargy in dogs, especially high energy breeds, should always be checked by your veterinarian.
Diagnosing Autism in Dogs
Your veterinarian will be able to determine if your dog has autism. This can be complicated because there are several other canine diseases with similar symptoms. There are:
- Brain tumors or encephalitis : Dogs with these intracranial neurological disorders often run compulsively in circles and may also chew compulsively.
- Anxiety: Dogs show anxiety in a variety of ways. Many dogs suffer from mild anxiety, and often there is an obvious reason such as a new pet, a change of environment or a move, or they are rescuers who have had some troublesome or traumatic experience. However, in more severe anxiety situations, dogs may be hypersensitive to sound and touch. They may also avoid eye contact and chew and twirl obsessively.
- Hypothyroidism : This occurs when a dog's thyroid gland is underactive. It's actually quite common in dogs and slows down the body's metabolism. Dogs with hypothyroidism gain weight and become lethargic. However, they are less likely to have compulsive behaviors.
Because there is no definitive "autism test," your veterinarian will go through a process of exclusion to rule out other potential causes first. This may include blood tests and brain scans. You will also be asked to provide detailed information about your dog's lifestyle and behaviour.
Helping Dogs with Autism
Your veterinarian cannot cure your dog for autism, but they can advise you on how to manage their symptoms, and there may be a medication that will help. The goal is to make your dog's life as happy as possible. Here are some potential treatments:
Your veterinarian may want to try medications that target specific behaviors associated with autism in dogs. The goal is to eliminate or at least reduce some of the more problematic issues. Fluoxetine (Prozac) is effective for many dogs, as are some other sedative drugs for aggressive behavior.
safe space in the home
It is important that your dog has a safe space in the home where they feel safe and comfortable. A dog bed in a quiet corner may be enough. Other dogs like crates with covers, so it feels a bit like a den.
You may have to learn to avoid situations that stress your dog. If they don't like being petted or played with, don't do it. Also, please others not to do this.
Don't take your dog where they will have to meet a lot of other dogs and people. Take a walk in a quiet place. Don't force your dog to do things that obviously make them uncomfortable.
For some dogs, pressure wraps prove to be very helpful. These are dog vests that provide soothing pressure to their body, kind of like a tight hug. Calming treats and packs work well for other dogs too.
diet and exercise
As with all dogs, your furry friend needs plenty of exercise and a healthy diet. By making sure your dog gets fresh air and gets exercise, you can help them manage their anxiety. It also distracts them from compulsive behaviors, and exercise (such as walking and playing games) has been shown to be very helpful in controlling repetitive behaviors.
A balanced diet will ensure that nutritional issues do not add to your dog's problems and will maintain their overall health.
proper training techniques
If possible, consult with a dog trainer who has experience working with autistic dogs to discover the best way to train and interact with your dog.
To sum it up…can dogs get autism?
Yes, experts currently believe dogs may suffer from a disorder very similar to autism in humans. In dogs, it's called canine dysfunctional behavior. It causes a combination of social, communication, and behavioral problems and is present from birth. You need a veterinarian to diagnose this condition as it can be confused with other conditions including anxiety disorders. There is no cure, but it can be managed with medication, lifestyle adjustments, and training.
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about the author
Sharon holds a Ph.D. in public health but have spent the past decade researching and writing about all things animal health and wellbeing. A lifelong animal lover, she now lives with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a feisty cocker spaniel, but has also been a mom to several guinea pigs and cats in the past! She is passionate about researching accurate and reliable information about pets and reviewing products that make life easier for pet owners. When she's not checking out new pet products, she's hiking the mountains and beaches of Wales with her dog – though if she's lucky, she sometimes takes her husband and three grown daughters along !
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
What should I do if I think my dog has autism?
Contact your veterinarian and make an appointment. They will be able to rule out other potential causes. They will also be able to prescribe the appropriate medication and help you find the right dog behaviorist who can help.
How can I protect my autistic dog from stress?
Don't take your dog to busy places. Ask people not to pet your dog. Provide them with a quiet place in your house to hide away. You could even put a note on your door asking people to knock gently. Make your home a low sensory impact zone with low lighting.
Is there a cure for autism in dogs?
There is no cure for autism in dogs, but it can be treated. The purpose is to ensure your dog lives a happy life.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, available here: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association / Alice A Moon-Fanelli, Nicholas Dodman, Thomas R Famula, Nicole Cottam, Available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/50938423_Characteristics_of_compulsive_tail_chasing_and_associated_risk_factors_in_Bull_Terriers
- Translational Psychiatry/Tsilioni et al. al, available here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5190146/