Most of us associate autism with humans and many scientists believe that this condition does not affect dogs. However, when you use the same autism spectrum typically applied to human behavior, it becomes apparent that dogs can, in fact, be diagnosed with autism.
In humans, the term autism is used to describe several conditions manifest as issues with social interaction, speech, communication, repetitive behaviors, and a variety of individual strengths. There are many different forms of autism in humans that are the result of multiple combinations of genes and other environmental influences.
Can Dogs Get Autism?
In some dogs who are suffering from autism, repetitive behavior such as incessant tail chasing may be one of the more predominant symptoms. It is possible for the dog to become aggressive during an episode and care should be taken when approaching. In others, the condition may result in withdrawn behavior and a lack of activity. In some dogs, the symptoms may be so mild you don't notice them, but if you suspect your dog may have autism, you take him or her to your veterinarian for diagnosis.
So, while some scientists continue to assert that dogs cannot have autism, current research shows that there are dogs who exhibit similar behaviors to humans who are known to be living with autism. The most obvious of these signs, repetitive behavior, is a good indication that your dog may have this condition.
Does My Dog Have Autism?
For you to determine whether your dog has autism or another condition, your best option is to visit your vet and have him examine your dog and run a number of tests. However, there are some symptoms that can help lead to a diagnosis of autism. For more information on idiopathic conditions, please refer to our Condition Guides.
Limited behavior, such as being willing to perform a limited number of moves, or avoiding new ones or playing games.
Dysfunctional behavior when it comes to interacting with you or other dogs
Performing repetitive actions, such as tail chasing
Being apathetic, unable or unwilling to communicate feelings such as happiness and fear
Being lethargic, even for those breeds that are typically considered high-energy
Autism in dogs is considered to be idiopathic, but it may also be a genetic condition inherited from one of the dog's parents.
It is thought by some researchers that autism in dogs may be caused by a lack or mirror neurons in the brain.
Some recent studies indicate that puppies may be born with autism if their parents have been exposed to a variety of chemicals or have been given unnecessary vaccinations.
Since this condition is congenital, it is one that a dog is born with. Dogs cannot suddenly "come down" with autism, it is present from birth.
One of the most important things to understand is that only a limited amount of research has been done regarding autism in dogs. Until more research is completed, being able to diagnose this condition in individual dogs is not an easy process. The reason for this is that as humans, our understanding of what should be considered typical and atypical behavior is very limited.
At the same time, many of the symptoms of autism bear a close resemblance to those associated with other conditions, such as pain and anxiety disorders. Most vets can only say that a dog might have autism. For your dog to be tentatively diagnosed as having autism, he or she must display at least some of the symptoms of this condition including repetitive behavior and problems with social interaction with other dogs and/or people.
How Do I Treat My Dog's Autism?
Currently, there is no known cure for autism in dogs. However, if you suspect your dog might have autism, the first thing you should do is schedule an appointment with his or her vet. The best thing you can do is attempt to determine what seems to trigger atypical behavior and then do your best to avoid these triggers. For example, if meeting strange dogs in the dog park causes the behavior to flare up, stop taking your dog to the park when it is busy.
Be sure to show your dog plenty of love and affection. Even though he or she may not be able to return your love in the way most dogs do, the comfort they receive from this attention will help them to feel safer and more secure. You may also want to avoid making any major changes in their lives such as rearranging the furniture, moving to a new house, or simply making changes in their daily routines.
Since there are no known medical treatments for canine autism, you must face the fact your dog will have this condition for his or her entire life. Your vet may know of a therapist who may be able to work with your dog to help reduce the severity of his or her symptoms. But, by far the best thing you can do is work with your pet to make them feel as loved and wanted as possible.
If you would like to read more about how other dog owners have worked with their dog suffering from canine autism or have your questions answered by our in-house veterinarian, please check out our Condition Guides.
How Is Autism in Dogs Similar to Autism in Humans?
There are several ways in which autism in dogs is like that found in humans, including:
Repetitive behavior: i.e. tail chasing in dogs and OCD behavior in people
Antisocial behavior: both dogs and humans display significant problems with social interaction
Unwillingness to adapt to any type of change
Inability to show emotions
How Is Autism in Dogs Different from Autism in Humans?
From a behavioral point, there seems to be very little in the way of differences between canine and human autism. However, the main differences seem to lie in how the medical, scientific, and veterinary world treats it.
In humans, we have a set list of symptoms called the autism spectrum that allows a doctor to make a verifiable diagnosis.
No such spectrum exists to help your vet diagnose canine autism
We readily accept the reality of autism in humans
Scientists are still debating the possibility of autism in dogs
Should your dog exhibit any unusual behaviors, you should always take him or her to the vet for a full checkup and diagnosis to ensure there is not an underlying medical condition.
In 2011, researchers at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University were studying bull terriers in an attempt to find the specific genes responsible for debilitating behaviors in the breed. The problem noted was that up to 85 percent of all puppies born seem to compulsively chase their tails to the point at which they chew their tails destructively.
The study found that most puppies who displayed this behavior were males who exhibited many of the same symptoms of autism as humans. The study allowed researchers to begin tracking certain neurological markers in the dogs that were consistent with autism in humans.
The study also led to the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to help reduce compulsive behaviors in both pets and people. It has also led to the development of a new OCD drug that can be used in both humans and pets.