Perhaps you have wondered if your dog is autistic. Maybe they do not socialize with you, your family, or other pets in the same manner as other dogs do, or they struggle to communicate their needs appropriately (or respond inappropriately to different things), or they obsessively repeat certain behaviors.
Although dogs may exhibit behaviors that mimic the presentation of autism in humans, “canine autism” is not formally recognized by veterinarians. That being said, if your dog presents autism-like characteristics, changes to their lifestyle or intervention by a vet or trainer may be beneficial.
Having a dog that exhibits obsessive, incorrect, anxious, or asocial behaviors can be frustrating. Although there may not be a definitive answer to the question “Is my dog autistic?”, by learning more about their condition and possible management options, you may feel more able to cope with your dog’s issues.
Current Research Status of Canine Autism
Although it is possible for dogs to exhibit comparable behaviors to those exhibited by autistic humans, autism is not a diagnosis a veterinarian would give a dog. This is because there has not been enough peer-reviewed research at this point in time to prove that autism is a condition dogs can have.
There has been some research done, including one study showing biological similarities—in particular, increased levels of certain hormones—between autistic children and English Bull Terriers exhibiting repetitive behavior (source). However, this correlation does not prove that those Bull Terriers (or that dogs in general) could be autistic.
While dogs can suffer from many of the same diseases and disorders as humans, sometimes a communication or thought-based component of a condition may mean that it is given a different name when present in dogs.
For instance, both humans and dogs can suffer from compulsion disorders. The main difference between the human and dog diagnoses, though, is that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) cannot be diagnosed in dogs because dogs cannot communicate in detail what they are thinking. Dogs are instead diagnosed with Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD), though their behaviors may mirror those found in humans with OCD.
More research would need to be done before vets could conclusively diagnose a dog with autism. It is possible that a yet-unnamed condition similar to autism may eventually be the diagnosis for dogs exhibiting autism-like behaviors. For now, vets are able to help the concerned owners of these dogs check for other possible causes of the behaviors, such as anxiety or compulsive disorders.
Causes of Autism in Dogs
Although canine autism has not yet been recognized as a formal diagnosis, it is known that, just as in humans, vaccines do not cause autism or autism-like symptoms in dogs. Instead, these symptoms may originate from other conditions caused by the dog’s genetics or environmental factors. It is also possible for some conditions to be idiopathic, meaning that scientists are not sure what caused the condition.
For instance, anxiety in a dog is usually caused by environmental factors, such as a negative experience with something or someone (a fight with another dog, a loud storm), whereas canine compulsive disorder has a larger genetic component that can be exacerbated by anxiety.
Thus, it is important to think critically about your dog’s undesired behaviors in order to try to determine whether they appear to be innate or linked to a specific trigger. This knowledge can help a vet correctly diagnose and treat your dog’s condition.
Symptoms and Behaviors
In humans, some signs of autism include:
- Difficulty with social interactions
- Poor communication skills
- Asocial behavior (avoiding others)
- “Flat” affect, or limited facial expressions
- Inappropriate reactions to stimuli
- Difficulty recognizing others’ expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication
- Repetitive behaviors
- Need for routines and order, and becoming upset when that order or routine is changes
- A lack of coordination
- Sensitivity to sounds and lights
- Picky eating habits
Dogs can also exhibit these behaviors, although determining whether your dog has “poor communication skills” can be trickier than determining whether a person does. Certainly, if your dog does not communicate with you at all through their body language or through voice – via barks, growls, and other vocalizations – that would be concerning.
If your dog has had a change in behavior, that is worth noting. If the dog used to be social but has begun to avoid socializing with people or other pets, it is less likely that the avoidance is just a behavioral quirk, so make sure to inform your vet of these behavioral changes.
It is also important to know your dog’s history, if possible. For instance, if you rescued a dog used for breeding in a puppy mill, your dog may have anxieties and a fear of humans that are abnormal for most dogs.
If you rescued a dog from a special circumstance like that, it is important to understand the challenges and fears your pup might be facing. For your dog, this is normal – but given time and ample love and patience, they may be able to adjust their behaviors and responses.
If you don’t know your rescue dog’s history, addressing specific issues can be more challenging as their root cause is unknown. But it’s still possible to make progress with these behaviors.
Treatment and Management
The appropriate treatment of autism-like symptoms depends on the root cause determined by the veterinarian. For instance, if your dog is suffering from anxiety, the vet might suggest preventative strategies, training, or, in some cases, medication.
Although the exact treatment your vet prescribes will depend on what is actually causing the behavior, there are still steps you can take to try to lessen the undesired behaviors or make your dog feel more comfortable.
For example, if a dog is engaging in compulsive behaviors like excessive licking, they might benefit from increased “distractions,” such as more walks or playtime outside, or additional enrichment opportunities indoors.
Some dogs may also cope with drastic changes by engaging in compulsive behaviors. By providing them a routine, you can give them a sense of security, which may reduce the anxiety fueling their behaviors.
If your dog is anxious in certain settings, such as at a dog park around a lot of other dogs, you might consider taking them to a less social outdoor setting to see if they appear to be less anxious. If they respond well, you could try to re-introduce them to the dog park over time, but be careful not to rush the process.
Although it may not be specifically useful for treating a particular disorder, dogs that are fed healthy diets and provided with numerous exercise and enrichment opportunities are likely to enjoy better health than those with poor diets and limited exercise. Just like humans, dogs with poor diets and inactive lifestyles can be negatively affected both physically and mentally.
If It Isn’t Autism, What Might It Be?
Although autism-like behaviors in dogs may be caused by a variety of conditions, three in particular stand out as possible culprits: dog dementia, canine compulsive disorder, and anxiety.
One primary difference between autism (as it presents in humans) and dementia in dogs is that autism is present from birth, while dementia is related to cognitive decline, appearing and worsening over time and usually afflicting older dogs. That being said, some of the signs of canine dementia may parallel those of autism in humans.
Canine cognitive dysfunction – colloquially called “dementia” – includes symptoms such as disorientation or confusion, changes in interactions with humans or other pets in the household, changes in sleep and activity levels, indoor “accidents,” and repetitive movements.
Unless you have adopted a senior dog whose history you are unfamiliar with, it is unlikely that your dog will have always exhibited these behaviors. If your dog has suddenly begun to have any of these symptoms and is 11 years old or older, it is possible that they have dementia and should see a vet for care and management options.
To learn more about canine cognitive disfunction, see our in-depth look at Dog Dementia: Symptoms, Treatment, and Management.
Canine Compulsive Disorder
Canine Compulsive Disorder, a counterpart to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in humans, may also seem reminiscent of autism in that both can feature repetitive, obsessive behaviors. However, autism typically also has an element of social dysfunction, while CCD does not.
Compulsive activities may include obsessive licking (especially of the paws), sucking on their flanks or on toys, pacing, chasing their tail, excessive water drinking, staring while frozen in place, and continuous or patterned barking.
If you think your dog might be acting obsessively, consider whether or not the activity can be stopped. If they are consistently unable or unwilling to stop, it might be due to CCD, but you will want to check with your vet to verify that.
If your vet finds that your dog is suffering from CCD, they may prescribe medications. Additionally, it is a good idea to help your dog by giving them ample opportunities for activity – which may work as a distraction from the obsessive activity – as well as a regular routine, which will prevent them from becoming anxious because of uncertainty. They may also need to have additional training, but your vet will be able to guide you if that is the case.
Dogs with anxiety may express a number of autism-like behaviors, including asocial behaviors, repetitive behaviors, and inappropriate or unusual behaviors. Additionally, depending on the severity of the anxiety and the cause, anxious or fearful dogs may also be aggressive.
Causes of anxiety are myriad, but some include traumatic experiences, limited socialization at a young age, and separation anxiety from abandonment, frequent rehoming, or neglect. Additionally, poor physical health or pain can also cause anxiety.
If you suspect your dog has anxiety, it is important to see a vet. The vet will be able to find out whether the behavior is actually being caused by anxiety or by another health problem and will then be able to advise you on the best way to treat your dog.
Anxiety in dogs may be managed by anti-anxiety medications, but often other changes will also need to be made. Establishing a routine, a healthy diet, and regular exercise may all help address the cause of your dog’s anxiety, but training or behavioral help may also be needed. Your vet will be able to assess your dog’s particular needs and provide solutions.
Prognosis for Dogs with Autism-like Symptoms
Because the causes for autism-like symptoms can vary, it is difficult to say with certainty whether a dog with a behavioral disorder can improve. Your vet will be able to determine whether a medication would be useful for your pet, and may also indicate what types of training would be useful. In some instances, training may be able to help your dog cope or adjust.
Although dogs can suffer from autism-like conditions, canine autism is not currently a formal diagnosis. If you think your dog is expressing autism-like behaviors, take copious notes about those behaviors (including when they started and if they have been continual), and consult your vet.
Your vet will be able to help determine whether these behaviors are part of another condition, and even if the condition is idiopathic, the vet will still be able to help you determine the best steps to protect your dog’s health.
Always remember that your dog is a part of your family, and by looking out for their health and doing what you can to make them comfortable, you will improve their quality of life and strengthen the bond they share with you.