Can Dogs Have Autism?

dog sitting in lavender field
Adorable Golden Retriever dog in the lavender field

While only a few studies confirm that autism exists in all animals, behaviors related to autism have been seen in dogs, cats, and rodents. Studies on these animals have demonstrated higher levels of certain proteins and hormones in the blood, which is similar to people with autism. Studies have not been done to determine if autism or autistic behaviors is present in other species.

It has been found that dogs exhibit similar autistic behaviors as humans. However, in veterinary medicine, autism in dogs is referred to as “canine dysfunctional behavior” rather than autism. If you notice your dog exhibiting any autistic behaviors, it’s worth exploring ways to manage your dog’s condition.

Autism in Dogs Explained

Researchers have been exploring the possibility of dogs having autism since the 1960s. In a 2011 study, 333 bull terriers were studied for their compulsive tail-chasing behavior, which found significant similarities to autistic behaviors in humans. The study observed specific traits of bull terriers; 145 dogs had tail-chasing behaviors while 188 did not. This study found that males were more prevalent in tail-chasing behaviors and was associated with explosive behaviors, occasional aggression, and trance like-behaviors.

happy dog with its tongue out

Causes of Autism in Dogs

The cause of autism, or canine dysfunctional behavior, in dogs is an unknown condition. However, the condition is congenital, and dogs exhibiting dysfunctional behaviors are born with the condition. Studies have shown that dogs with canine dysfunctional behavior lack certain neurons in their brain, which are believed to help dogs learn social norms. These neurons are called mirror neurons because they help puppies “mirror” older dogs and other canines so that they can learn how to function in social settings. Without these skills, a dog will be unable to develop socially. Dogs that demonstrate compulsive or repetitive behaviors and impaired social interaction can lead veterinarians to suspect a dog has autism. However, they will first rule out other behavioral and medical conditions before making a final diagnosis.

Recent studies concluded that puppies have a higher chance of having canine dysfunctional behavior or canine autism if their parents had been exposed to harmful chemicals.

How Autism Can Affect Your Dog

Canine autism is still not well understood and requires further research. Furthermore, having your dog diagnosed with canine autism isn’t a simple process. Your vet will rule out any other causes of your dog’s unusual behaviors. Your vet will then run a blood test to look for heightened levels of proteins and hormones. These higher levels are not definitive, but it is an indicator that your dog may be suffering from canine dysfunctional disorder or autism. The presence of certain behaviors and the combination of the blood test can only lead to a presumptive diagnosis of canine autism.

If you think that your dog has autism, you should take immediate action because your dog may be in distress. Your dog’s anxiety can only worsen, leading to other behavioral issues and loss of appetite. Working with your dog to provide a safe and comfortable environment will help your autistic dog be more comfortable and live a happy, stress-free life. A dog with autism or canine dysfunctional behavior reacts to stimuli differently than other dogs, but this does not mean that dogs with autism cannot be pets. Dog and puppies with autism tend to be aloof and may recoil from your touch, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Your dog is simply content with the environment you are giving them. A dog with autism cannot control their odd behaviors, so accept your dog’s eccentricities, and love them in whatever way works for you and your autistic pet.

Life Expectancy of a Dog With Autism

There isn’t that much research done on autistic dogs’ life expectancy. Fear is a huge part of survival, and for dogs suffering from autism, survival is paramount. Dogs have learned to survive through association. Dogs store audio, visual, and scent associations in memory and learn to respond accordingly. When working with dogs with autism, you will need to be patient and take the time to train your autistic dog. With an early diagnosis and changes, you, as a pet owner, can do to lower your dog’s stress levels will greatly improve your dog’s life. Changes to your dog’s environment and a consistent routine can help your autistic dog live a fulfilling life.

dog sitting in grassy field

Conditions in Dogs That Look Similar to Autism

Aside from autism or canine dysfunctional behavior, other disorders in dogs produce similar clinical signs to autism. The following include canine hypothyroidism, intracranial neurological diseases such as encephalitis or brain tumors, dementia, canine anxiety, and canine compulsive disorder.

Canine Hypothyroidism

Dogs with hypothyroidism may appear aloof or lazy and can have severe lethargy. This behavior is not linked with compulsive activities.

Intracranial Neurological Disease

Dogs with intracranial neurological disease, such as encephalitis or brain tumors, can have abnormal episodes, circling behaviors, or stare off in one direction. Dogs with these conditions have also been reported to have obsessive-compulsive chewing behaviors.

Dementia in Dogs

One primary difference between dementia and autism is that dementia occurs with senior dogs while autism is present from birth. Dementia is related to cognitive decline afflicting old dogs, and some of the signs of dementia may mirror autism. These symptoms include confusion, disorientation, changes in interactions with other pets and humans in the household, repetitive movements, indoor accidents, and changes in activity levels and sleep. If your dog has suddenly begun to develop these symptoms and is 11 years or older, your dog may have dementia, and you should see your vet right away.

Canine Anxiety

Dogs with anxiety can exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as spinning, compulsive chewing, searching for familiar environments, avoiding eye contact or play, and hypersensitivity to touch or sound.

If you suspect that your dog has autism, canine dysfunctional behavior, or any of the above disorders, you should discuss your dog’s behavior with your vet. Your veterinarian may recommend an MRI or CT scan, bloodwork, and behavioral testing.

dog running through the grass

Canine Compulsive Disorder

Canine compulsive disorder may also have similar behaviors to autism, as they both feature repetitive, obsessive behaviors. Autism, however, has an element of social dysfunction, while CCD does not. Compulsive activities may include sucking on their toys, obsessive licking, excessively drinking water, chasing their tail, being frozen in place and staring at something, and compulsive barking.

Signs That Your Dog Might Have Autism

It can be challenging to diagnose a dog with autism because of the lack of evidence. However, clinical signs can lead veterinarians to suspect autism or canine dysfunctional behavior. Canine dysfunctional behavior does not have an autism spectrum like an autism spectrum disorder in humans, so veterinarians rely on behavioral cues to determine what is expected and abnormal.

Clinical signs that your dog might have autism include antisocial behaviors, lethargy/ decreased physical activity, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, avoidance of new situations and environments, communication issues, and inappropriate reaction to stimuli.

Antisocial Behaviors

Dogs are social animals that love to interact with other dogs, people, and animals. If your dog does not pay attention to you during feeding time, on walks, during playtime, or if he does not want to interact with other dogs, your dog might have autism.

Avoids High Energy Activities

Autistic dogs prefer to avoid high-energy activities and tend to be relatively passive. If your dog lacks interest and is primarily sedentary, contact your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues.

Inappropriate Reactions to Stimuli

Another autistic symptom is inappropriate reactions to stimuli or sensitivity to stimuli. An autistic dog will also have difficulty adapting to new situations and will be distressed when regular routines are broken. A dog with autism or canine dysfunctional behavior will be hypersensitive to sudden sounds since it cannot cope with new things and experiences. An autistic dog will yelp when gently touched, leading to aggression, fear, or pain. They will also be hypersensitive to noise or stimuli. If your dog avoids new triggers and likes to hide or retreat to a familiar, safe place such as a closet or under the bed, your dog might be autistic.

dog laying on a mattress

Communication Issues

Dogs communicate their feelings and moods by wagging their tails when they’re happy or greeting you as you come through the door. Also, when dogs are reprimanded, they may wag their tails and roll on their back, exposing their bellies, or they may put their ears back. However, dogs suspected of CDB or autism may not be able to express their moods as quickly as other dogs. A dog with canine dysfunctional behavior may not respond to being reprimanded. They may have a “flat” expression and stare in one direction for long periods. Dogs with autism may be quieter than other dogs, avoid eye contact with other dogs and humans, and lack personality.

Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors

A dog with autism displays repetitive motions such as tail-chasing, circling a room, obsessive teeth grinding, or compulsive chewing. They may also line up objects or toys.

How To Care for and Treat Your Autistic Dog

If your dog has been diagnosed with autism, you should work with your veterinarian to determine your dog’s triggers that may cause behavioral flare-ups. If your dog is afraid or fearful of walking on a leash in crowds, try to avoid crowds. If your dog is scared of dog parks, avoid going to crowded dog parks.

A better option for your autistic dog may be taking your dog to a quiet hiking trail. You could also try putting a doggy backpack on your dog filled with some weight or pressure wraps that provide reassuring pressure to your dog’s body.

Medication

Your veterinarian may prescribe certain medications to help your autistic dog’s symptoms and provide relief for compulsive and aggressive behaviors.

happy dog smiling at camera

Create a Safe, Secure Place

It is crucial to create a safe, secure place for your dog because dogs with autism appear to be afraid of almost everything. If your dog is worried, nervous, or anxious about new, unfamiliar places, around other animals or dogs, or in crowds, make sure to create a safe and secure place your autistic dog can go to, such as a kennel or dog bed.

Offer a Stress-Free Space

It is essential to avoid stressful situations that could cause anxiety to your autistic dog. If your dog doesn’t like to be pet, respect their wishes and don’t pet them. Likewise, if your dog doesn’t want to meet other dogs or people, let them be, and don’t force your dog to do anything that could cause stress.

Offer Regular Exercise

Consistent and regular exercise for your autistic dog can help reduce their stress and anxiety. It can also keep their mind busy and distract them from acting on their compulsive behaviors.

Feed Your Autistic Dog a Well Balanced Diet

High quality and a well-balanced diet can help your autistic dog. Your veterinarian can work with you on feeding regimes and recommended prescription diets.

Positive Reinforcement

You can work with therapists or trainers that specialize in positive reinforcement. Find a trainer specialized in working with dogs with behavioral issues because a great trainer can be an essential step to managing your dog’s autistic behaviors.

golden retriever running through the grass

Activities for Dogs With Autism

Physical activities and exercise are significant for dogs with autism because they can help to improve social functioning, reduce anxiety, and improve motor skills. Daily walking with your autistic dog may enhance their physical health and positively influence their emotional and mental health.

Control and Comfort

Autistic dogs are sensitive to touch and may recoil from the people they know. To make your dog’s walk a more comfortable experience, you should test out several collars or harnesses. Some dogs with autism may be more comfortable wearing booties or sunglasses, while others may not like the idea. Find out what your dog is comfortable with and implement it with their daily routine.

The Importance of Routine

Most dogs who display canine dysfunctional behavior or autism thrive better with a routine that your dog can expect at specific times every day.

Emotional Cues

Dogs with autism don’t express typical emotional cues, so you must pay attention to your dogs’ physical signals to ensure that your dog is not uncomfortable or not having any difficulties. Physical cues to watch out for are limping, dry gums and nose, red or sunken eyes, and excessive or sticky saliva.

Obedience Class

Social interaction may be difficult among autistic dogs. However, they are often good at picking up new tricks and remembering them. A small obedience class group may be able to provide your autistic dog with exposure to other dogs and encourage bonding between you and your dog. Some autistic dogs may not be able to handle the interaction with other dogs. Still, many autistic dogs will benefit from an obedience class mentally, physically, and emotionally. Contacting your trainer and discussing your dog’s specific behavioral cues can help to ensure if an obedience class is the right fit. Many trainers will likely allow you to tour the facility with your dog when it is quiet and may even meet your dog before the class begins. After an obedience class, your dog may be exhausted and may not want to interact with you. Allow them to retreat to their quiet, safe place for a while to help them recover.

dog looking out a window

How To Help Your Dog Live a Fulfilling Life With Autism

If you think your dog is experiencing autistic-like behaviors, take notes about your dog’s behavior and consult with your vet. Your vet will be able to determine what condition your dog may be experiencing and advise you on what you can do to make your dog feel comfortable. Your veterinarian will work with you to determine your dog’s triggers that can cause adverse behavioral reactions or compulsive behaviors. They will also refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist that will help you manage and create an appropriate treatment plan to help you and your dog deal with autism. Many veterinary behaviorists will go to your home and perform in-home assessments, and some may do long-distance consultations. They may also recommend getting pressure wraps for your autistic dog that provides reassuring pressure to your dog’s body. You can also use carriers or backpacks to carry your dog in to avoid outside stimuli during walks. Your vet might also recommend pheromones and calming treats. You should also put notes around the front door to prevent guests or people from ringing the doorbell. Creating a low-stress area around your home, like low lighting and a quiet place, will also help your dog.

Dogs that may be diagnosed with canine dysfunctional behavior or autism may get overstimulated and cannot express themselves easily. However, this does not mean they lack the exact basic needs of other dogs. Ensuring that your autistic dog gets enough physical activity and mental stimulation will go a long way towards improving your dog’s life. Your dog is part of your family, and looking out for their health and doing everything you can do to make them feel comfortable, will significantly improve their quality of life and strengthen the bond you share with your dog.

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