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Autism In Dogs

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Autism in dogs is a topic that is not yet fully understood, as there is little research to back it up.
  • Dogs can exhibit autistic-like behaviors, which can result from poor socialization, traumatic experiences, and lack of training.
  • There is no definitive test to diagnose dogs with autism. However, dogs can be diagnosed with hyperkinesis, a condition that may mirror ADHD in humans.
  • Owners can help manage their dog's symptoms by following a set routine, obedience training, and regular exercise.
  • Behavioral disorders or breed-specific behaviors can mimic autistic-like symptoms in dogs.
Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Wednesday 6 April 2022
Last updated on
Tuesday 20 June 2023
autism in dogs - diagnosis and signs
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If your dog exhibits “unusual” behavior, you might ask on more than one occasion if they are autistic. It’s no secret that dogs experience neurodiversity. Dogs, like people, can struggle with trauma, anxiety, and depression in ways that mirror our own. However, no two dogs are the same, and not all dogs process things in the same way. So what’s the deal with autism in dogs? Does it exist? And how can we help dogs with autistic-like behaviors?

When it comes to dog autism, the expert opinion on it is a resounding “maybe.” To date, little research into the topic exists. Not only this, but many autistic-like behaviors in dogs can be put down to other causes, such as poor socialization in puppyhood, traumatic early life experiences, and a lack of training. As well as this, certain dog breeds come with innate behaviors and needs that some people may not be aware of at first. Ready to learn more about autism in dogs? Read on with us to find out more.

What Is Autism

Autism is a condition that affects approximately 1% of the world’s population. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Autism can present itself in different ways for different people, and while some may be able to mask their symptoms, others may not.

It was once common to categorize individuals with autism as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” but these labels are now considered to be inaccurate and hurtful to many autistic people. The severity of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and it’s important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to autism.

In summary, autism is a complex condition that affects people in different ways, and it’s crucial to avoid using harmful labels that fail to capture the unique experiences of those with autism.

The symptoms of autism include:

  • Echolalia
  • Executive dysfunction
  • Self-stimulating, also called “stimming”
  • Auditory processing disorder
  • Selective mutism/nonverbal episodes
  • Special interests and hyperfixations
  • Social issues (e.g. accidentally “rude”, lack of eye contact, etc)
  • Sensory issues (e.g. overstimulation, avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder)
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Routines and careful planning
  • Gastrointestinal issues (e.g. constipation)
  • Meltdowns, shutdowns, autistic burnouts
  • Monotone speech or lack of inflection

Diagnosing autism can be challenging in some cases, as clinicians must make sure that the person’s symptoms are not the result of ADHD, anxiety, psychosis, or specific language disorders. Some children may be diagnosed with ADHD or anxiety at first but may receive an autism diagnosis later as more is learned about their behavior.

In adults, misdiagnoses of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are possible – many people do not get the correct diagnosis of autism until later in life. As well as this, autism can occur alongside several other disorders.

The most common medical condition to affect people with autism is epilepsy, which affects as many as 11-39% of people. Approximately 25 to 75% of people with autism also have some degree of learning disability. Various anxiety disorders are also common with autism, with comorbidity rates as variable as 7 to 84%.

autism in dogs
Autism is characterized by impairments in social interaction and repetitive behavior

Autism in Dogs

In his 2008 book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Marc Bekoff proposes an intriguing question – can animals be autistic, too? In his book, he describes observing a young coyote named Harry. Harry did not respond to play signals by playing, unlike his littermates. He did not use play bows often and seemed unaware of how to initiate play, or even how to do it if he got to do it at all. Bekoff suggested that “Harry suffered from coyote autism.” However, this is just a suggestion. So far, spotting and observing wild animals with mental disorders has proven very tricky. This problem extends to our furry friends, too.

Canine Autism

Studies on canine autism are currently lacking. Very few studies exist, and some are no longer accessible.

As far back as 1966, vets were talking about autism-like behavior in dogs. Unfortunately, the 1966 study is no longer available to read online, making it lost to time. Several sources state that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists presented a study in 2015 that looked into tail-chasing behavior in Bull Terriers. The study states that the behavior was more common in males, came with trance-like behavior, and episodic aggression. These findings, alongside the repetitive behavior of tail chasing, led them to suggest that tail-chasing could represent some kind of canine autism. While not definitive, though, the study also suggested that this syndrome could have links to fragile X syndrome in dogs. For humans with fragile X syndrome, the prevalence of autism is as high as 15 to 60%. Unfortunately, apart from these two studies, there is little research about autism in dogs.

Autism Similarities

It’s important to not diagnose your dog as being autistic without speaking to a vet. More than likely, a dog with poor social skills, specific phobias, and troublesome behavior simply lacks socialization or has not been trained. As well as this, behavioral problems like tail-chasing or fly snapping often indicate an underlying issue that a vet will need to look at. Lastly, some people also mistake their breed’s normal behaviors for autistic-like symptoms. Some breeds are simply more aloof with strangers than others, which one may mistake as social inhibition!

Not only this, but people with little understanding of autism may wrongfully apply their misunderstandings to their dogs. Some people assume that people with autism are not capable of forming meaningful friendships. So, when they notice their dog not bounding over to meet other dogs at the park, they may assume that their dog is autistic – when in fact, their dog might be struggling with anxiety, or their breed may be aloof around other dogs. Another person might assume that their dog is autistic for being a picky eater. Frequently, “picky eating” in dogs comes down to feeding them too many treats and table scraps.

Diagnosing your Dog with Autism

It’s important to note that there is no definitive way for a vet to diagnose autism in pets, nor is there a “dog autism test” available that can provide any useful information. However, vets can provide insights into your pet’s behavior and assist in finding ways to manage their behavior or support them.

Hyperkinesis / ADHD

A vet can, however, diagnose a dog with hyperkinesis – a condition that may mirror ADHD in people. Hyperkinesis is a rare behavioral condition that you might confuse for hyperactivity or poor training. This condition can actually be diagnosed using an indirect dopamine agonist called Dextro(d)-amphetamine, as shown in a 1993 study. To start, your dog is taken to a small examination room, as hyperkinesis is made worse by confinement. Their vet monitors their activity levels, pulse, and salivation. Your dog then receives a small dose of the drug. A reduction in measurements indicates that your dog is hyperkinetic. Unfortunately, hyperkinesis cannot be reliably diagnosed using their clinical signs alone. However, tachycardia, excessive salivation, and increased energy metabolism are just some of the symptoms in dogs.

Dogs with hyperkinesis might be very distractible, unable to stay still, find it difficult to pay attention, and behave impulsively. They might become defensive when stressed out, socialize poorly with other dogs, and be overly attention-seeking. When considering autism in dogs, some of these symptoms might sound similar. Certainly, finding it difficult to pay attention and difficulty socializing may ring true to some people with autism. Do not rush to diagnose your pup with hyperkinesis, though – the disorder is rare, and issues with training and socialization are common causes for these issues in dogs.

diagnosis of dog autism
When considering autism in dogs, some of these symptoms might sound similar

Caring for a Dog with Autism

In a 1993 study, some ways to manage hyperactivity in dogs were recommended, which can also be helpful in controlling autism-like behaviors. These methods involve not giving attention to your dog when they are overexcited, regularly training them, avoiding punishments, and ensuring that they get enough exercise with the help of a head halter for better control.

Moreover, following a routine can also be beneficial in reducing anxiety in dogs. You should try to feed and walk your dog at the same time every day. If you notice any behavioral issues in your dog, it’s always best to consult with a vet. Many behavioral problems are often caused by underlying health conditions or disorders, which can be treated with the help of a professional trainer.

Autism In Dogs: FAQ

Have any more questions or concerns about autism in dogs? Feel free to check out our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt about your dog’s behavior, always ask your vet for advice.

How do you know if your dog is mentally ill?

If you suspect that your dog has a mental illness, the first thing to do is always to go to your vet. Your dog’s symptoms may be the result of a serious physical illness. For example, depression-like symptoms may arise from painful conditions like osteoarthritis, as your dog will be unwilling to play or move like they used to. Problems with aggression might come from specific phobias or even things like skin sensitivities, making your dog defensive when touched.

This does not mean that dogs cannot suffer from mental illness. Indeed, dogs can suffer from anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. Dogs can also suffer from compulsive behavior disorders that appear to mirror OCD in people. Interestingly, certain dog breeds may be more predisposed to these disorders than others. For example, German Shepherds commonly present with compulsive tail-chasing behaviors. Labrador Retrievers commonly exhibit oral compulsions like pica, and Doberman Pinschers are known for flank sucking. Similarly, Spanish Water Dogs and Shetland Sheepdogs commonly suffer from anxiety, according to one study.

Can dogs have autism or ADHD?

While dogs cannot currently be diagnosed with autism by a vet, hyperkinesis is a diagnosis that can be given that may mirror ADHD in humans. Dogs with hyperkinesis may initially present as poorly-trained or aggressive. They might appear easily distracted, impulsive, and seem unable to socialize like other dogs. According to a 1993 study on hyperkinesis in dogs, the disorder might be caused by a dysfunction of the dopaminergic system. Although hyperkinesis appears similar to ADHD in people, we do not know definitively if its mechanism is exactly the same or not. We cannot ask our dogs what they are thinking, so diagnosing mental conditions can be extremely challenging.

How can I help my dog with autism?

Although autism cannot be diagnosed in dogs, your vet might suggest some things to help manage your dog’s symptoms. These include obedience training, not using any form of punishment, and regular exercise. You might benefit from using a head halter or double-ended leash to have more control when walking. It could also help to set a strict routine for your dog, feeding and walking them at set times every day. As always, it’s best to talk to your vet if your dog is showing autism-like behaviors.

What problems can look like autism in dogs?

There are many behavioral disorders or breed-specific behaviors that may lead one to misdiagnose their dog as being autistic. More than likely, a dog with poor social skills simply lacked socialization as a puppy. Without intensive socialization in puppyhood, many dogs grow up to be unsure of themselves when interacting with other dogs. They might misread play cues or be defensive around certain breeds, sizes, or one sex. This can also happen if your dog had a traumatic experience as a puppy with a specific dog.

As well as this, some breeds are simply more aloof than others or may display breed-specific drives that you might be unaware of. For example, Ibizan Hounds can be quite aloof and also have an instinctive drive to chase anything that moves – for someone who is not well-clued up on the breed, this might come off as unusual, or perhaps even autistic or ADHD-like.

Why can’t dogs be diagnosed with autism yet?

In short, there is not enough evidence to show that dogs can be autistic in the same way that people can. There are very few studies on the matter and the few studies that exist also point to other conditions being responsible for autistic-like behaviors in dogs. The other problem is that we cannot ask dogs about their symptoms. If a dog experiences echolalia or autistic burnouts, it will not be apparent to us from an outside perspective. Autism can be difficult to diagnose in people as it is, so distinguishing between autism and several other disorders in dogs is far more difficult. Until more research comes to light, it will be impossible to definitively say if your dog has autism or not.

Until more evidence comes to light to show that dogs can be autistic, it is difficult to say whether dogs can be autistic or not. It is most likely that a dog with autistic traits lacks training, lacks socialization, lacks mental stimulation, or is showing breed-specific behavior that the owner is not aware of. These facts certainly do not discredit anyone whose dog does exhibit symptoms that we might interpret as signs of autism, though. Animal behavior and animal psychology are incredibly complex and nuanced, and there is much left to learn.

One comment on “Autism In Dogs”

  1. Shearon c Smith

    Excellent topic

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