Understanding Human Autism Through Dog Behavior

Jessica Vogelsang
Jul 23, 2015
2 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

“Will this vaccine give my dog autism?”

I met the question, posed to me in 2004 at the height of the vaccine-children-autism controversy, with reassurance that although any vaccine has the potential for side effects, autism was not one of them. The pet received her boosters and did just great.

“Dogs don’t get autism at all, do they?” asked my technician.

“Not that I’ve ever heard of,” I said, and this was true until just this year.

The idea of using canine studies to model and better understand human disease is nothing new, but determining whether or not a pet has autism is a difficult thing to determine because, unlike something like diabetes, there is not a straightforward way to diagnose it.

Nonetheless, behaviorists have long observed obsessive-compulsive behaviors in specific breeds and noted the correlation with children with autism.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a renowned expert in animal behavior at Tufts, has been studying bull terriers, Doberman pinschers, and Jack Russell terriers for years and recently stated at the 2015 Veterinary Behavior Symposium that the genetic biomarkers for this behavior may be related to those found in people. In short, maybe dogs really can have autism.

All of these theories are well and good, but as we all know, veterinarians are sticklers for proof and until a little more research is done, this theory may be a tough sell.

Research dollars are scarce these days, and looking into the genetics of OCD behavior in Dobermans has been pretty low on the priority list, but that may be about to change.

The American Humane Association (AHA) recently teamed up with the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to develop a study: Canines, Kids and Autism: Decoding Obsessive Behaviors in Canines and Autism in Children. The idea is that if we can identify a genetic basis for these behaviors in canines, we may unlock some clues to the mysteries surrounding autism in people.

Joining AHA and TGen are the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Pretty lofty credentials for one tail-chasing bull terrier, wouldn’t you say?

I love seeing the way veterinary medicine and human medicine blur the line between species to better understand both. This is “One Health” at its finest.

Perhaps one day, “unlocking the key to autism” will be one more way dogs prove that they truly are man’s best friend.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

Image: Muh / Shutterstock

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