by Jennifer Coates, DVM
As autism research and education advances, communities are becoming more familiar with how the condition affects people and their relationships with others. We are also discovering that dogs can experience a similar way of seeing and reacting to the world. It’s not surprising then that the question of whether or not dogs can truly have autism is being raised with increasing frequency.
What is Autism?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in people is based on two key criteria:
1. Impairments in social communication and social interaction. For example:
- Fails to respond to his or her name or appears not to hear you at times
- Resists cuddling and holding and seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her own world
- Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression
- Doesn't speak or has delayed speech, or may lose previous ability to say words or sentences
- Can't start a conversation or keep one going, or may only start a conversation to make requests or label items
- Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
- May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them
- Doesn't appear to understand simple questions or directions
- Doesn't express emotions or feelings and appears unaware of others' feelings
- Doesn't point at or bring objects to share interest
- Inappropriately approaches a social interaction by being passive, aggressive, or disruptive
2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, such as:
- Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning, or hand-flapping, or may perform activities that could cause harm, such as head-banging
- Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change
- Moves constantly
- May be uncooperative or resistant to change
- Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
- May be fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn't understand the "big picture" of the subject
- May be unusually sensitive to light, sound, and touch, and yet oblivious to pain
- Does not engage in imitative or make-believe play
- May become fixated on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
- May have odd food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or eating only foods with a certain texture
Each person with autism can have a unique combination of symptoms of varying degrees of severity.
Has Autism been Diagnosed in Dogs?
As early as 1966, veterinarians were talking about the occurrence of autism-like symptoms in dogs. More recently, a presentation at the 2015 American College of Veterinary Behaviorists reported on investigations into tail chasing behavior in Bull Terriers and a possible link to autism. The study included observations of specific traits and DNA analysis of 132 Bull Terriers; 55 tail chasing and 77 control (non tail-chasing). The researchers found that tail chasing is:
a) more prevalent in males, b) associated with trancelike behavior, and c) episodic aggression (which was violent and explosive) (Moon-Fanelli et al. 2011). These findings, coupled with the repetitive motor behavior of the tail-chasing behavior and a tendency for phobias, led us to conclude that tail chasing could represent a canine form of autism.
While not definitive, the study also indicated that this syndrome in dogs could be linked to a genetic condition called fragile X syndrome.
For people with fragile X syndrome, prevalence of concurrent autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been estimated to be between 15 and 60 percent (Budimirovic, Kaufmann 2011). People with fragile X syndrome have a prominent forehead, long face, high-arched palate, and large ears (Garber et al. 2008). The characteristic long, bowed "downface" of bull terriers (often with high-arched hard palate) and their protruding ears mean that they have [facial feature] similarities to people with fragile X syndrome.
Diagnosing Autism in Dogs
Studies like this one indicate that autism could very well occur in dogs. But, it’s important to acknowledge that until more research is done, reaching a definitive diagnosis in an individual dog is anything but straightforward. Our understanding of typical and atypical canine behavior is simply too limited. Also, a number of other difficult-to-diagnose canine conditions (e.g., anxiety disorders and pain) can cause clinical signs similar to those associated with autism. Therefore, in all but a few exceptional cases, like the Bull Terriers mentioned above, the best veterinarians and owners can do for now is to say a dog might have autism.
For a dog to be tentatively diagnosed with autism, he or she should exhibit atypical repetitive behaviors and some degree of impaired social interaction with dogs and/or people. Also, a veterinarian must first rule out other conditions that might be responsible for the observed clinical signs.
Managing Autism in Dogs
If you think your dog might have autism, one of the most important things you can do is determine what his or her triggers are (what causes atypical behavior to flare up) and avoid those things. For instance, if your dog becomes fearful and aggressive when approached by strangers at the dog park, don’t go to the dog park. A walk down a quiet trail is a better option. Also, try some of the techniques that people with “special needs” dogs have found useful. Commercially available wraps that provide reassuring pressure to the body can be used when triggers can’t be avoided. Dogs can also be trained to do “heavy work” such as pulling a loaded wagon or carrying a doggy backpack filled with soft weight. These sorts of activities are known to help many people with autism.
The Future of Canine Autism Research
The most interesting aspect to the question “Can dogs have autism?” may be where it leads in the future. The American Humane Association, Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School are collaborating on a study called Canines, Kids and Autism: Decoding Obsessive Behaviors in Canines and Autism in Children. The study “will look first at the causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder commonly found in three types of purebred dogs: Bull Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, and Jack Russell Terriers. Using state-of-the-art technology, TGen scientists will conduct whole genome sequencing to analyze the genomes of these dogs in hopes of pinpointing those genes that might be responsible for atypical behaviors.”
Success could mean improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of autism in both people and dogs.