Autism is a commonly diagnosed human condition that causes difficulties with socializing and communicating. The understanding we have of autism today has only come about in recent years. This improved understanding means that more children are being diagnosed with autism than ever before and gaining access to the support they need. This has left many people wondering whether similar conditions are present in animals. Can dogs have autism? Or is this an intrinsically human condition? In this article, we look at dog autism in more detail and teach you how to tell if your dog is special needs.
What is Autism?Before we get into dogs with autism, we need to properly define the human condition. According to the Autism Society, autism is a developmental disability that usually appears during childhood. It is characterized by issues with social skills, communication, and relationships. The true word for autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as there are varying degrees of severity for the condition. Some autistic people have minor symptoms and need little or no support when dealing with their condition. On the other hand, some autistic people struggle to live a normal life without help. They can find situations overwhelming, suffer from severe social phobia, and unable to cope with even the tiniest changes to their routine.
Can Dogs Have Autism?
Humans can have autism, but can dogs be autistic? This is a question many researchers have been trying to answer since the 1960s. The challenge with answering this question is that human autism is defined as social and communication issues, and it is usually diagnosed by looking at autism symptoms. This includes failure to keep eye contact, fear of social situations, body rocking or circling, and being unable to cope with change. Drawing comparisons between human and canine social standards and communication is very difficult. We are a different species with very different social habits – two people meeting might shake hands, but two dogs meet by sniffing each other’s butts! Although we know dogs can indeed struggle socially with other dogs, whether or not this is autism is a different story. However, more and more research indicates that dogs with autism do exist. One great example is a study from 2011 that found similarities between tail-chasing behaviors in Bull Terriers and human ASD. Therefore, it is possible that dogs can have autism. But more research is needed to be sure. With that said, it has been proven that dogs can inherit a condition that causes social issues known as canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB). The cause of this condition is unknown, but it is believed to be congenital just like autism in people. Dogs with this condition lack certain neurons in their brains that they need to “mirror” behaviors from other dogs. Without these neurons, dogs struggle to learn social cues and struggle to communicate.
Dog Autism Diagnosis
There is no “autism test” and no clear biological markers that can be used to identify autism in people. Human autism is instead diagnosed by assessing symptoms and behaviors. Yet as there is a lack of evidence on autism in dogs, it is even harder to diagnose. Dog autism symptoms are not well-documented or properly understood at this stage. With that said, some dogs do show symptoms of social and communication issues which are considered autistic traits. If you want to know how to tell if your dog is special needs, these traits are the secret! Rather than receiving an autism diagnosis, your vet will usually diagnose your dog with cognitive dysfunctional behavior. Below are the signs to look out for:
- Failure to pay attention on walks, at playtime, or when feeding
- A lack of interest in interacting with other dogs and people
- Obsessive and repetitive movements such as tail-chasing or circling
- Failure to express emotion as usual, such as not wagging the tail when happy
- Staring off into space and a general lack of eye contact
- Hypersensitivity to stimuli such as being touched or hearing certain sounds
- Avoiding unfamiliar environments or acting excessively fearful of new situations
- Disinterest in playing or other high-energy activities
Autistic Dog Care & TreatmentKnowing you have a dog with autism or CDB can be worrying. However, your vet will discuss a range of different treatment options, behavioral methods, and environmental changes. Combined, these three core methods make symptoms manageable and ensure your dog lives a happy and fulfilling life. Below are some treatment options your vet may recommend:
- Medication: There is no medicated cure for autism in dogs, but vets might prescribe calming medications to help remove obsessive behaviors and/or aggression. Fluoxetine (Prozac) is a common example that is also prescribed to autistic people.
- Safe Space: Autistic dogs or dogs with other special needs often feel overwhelmed by their environment and are easily scared. As such, you must create a safe space for your dog to retreat to whenever they need time out from an unfamiliar situation. This can be a dog bed, a kennel, a small crate, or an entire room.
- Proper Socialization: Social skills are learned behaviors that most dogs learn in puppyhood. Autistic dogs are frequently reluctant to socialize, but encouraging socialization can help teach or improve these behaviors later on in life.
- Positive Reinforcement Training: This is a training technique used by behavioral therapists that helps dogs form positive associations with negative stimuli. Turning triggers into positive things can correct unwanted behaviors. Only attempt positive reinforcement training with the help of a qualified behavioral specialist.
- Physical & Mental Stimulation: Regular exercise and mental stimulation have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety in dogs. This can also act as a distraction for obsessive tail-chasing, circling, and other compulsive behaviors. Teach your autistic dog plenty of commands, play together each day, and go on plenty of walks.
- Healthy Diet: Eating a healthy diet contributes to having a healthy mind and body. Therefore, feeding your dog well-balanced and nutritious food can help to improve symptoms of autism or canine dysfunctional behavior in dogs.
- Avoid Stressful Triggers: Your vet can help you identify your dog’s triggers, and you can then adjust your home environment to eliminate or reduce these. Don’t pet your dog if this overwhelms them, for instance. Another great example is putting a sign on the front door asking visitors not to ring the doorbell.