As research and knowledge about autism advances, society becomes more familiar with how autism affects people and their relationships with others. In addition, over the years, we have discovered that dogs can also experience a similar way of seeing and reacting to the world. It’s no wonder, then, that the question of whether dogs really can have autism is being raised with increasing frequency in veterinary centers. What is known about this topic? In this article we will try to summarize the most relevant information and studies that exist on autism in dogs.
Can autism be diagnosed in dogs?
As early as 1966, veterinarians and researchers were talking about the appearance of autism-like symptoms in dogs. More recently, research presented in the 2015 American College of Veterinary Behaviorists reported on tail-chasing behavior in Bull Terriers and its possible link to autism. The study included observations of specific traits and DNA analysis of 132 Bull Terriers; 55 with tail chase and 77 only in control, no tail chase. The researchers found that chasing the tail is:
a) more prevalent in males, b) associated with trance-like behavior, and c) aggressive episodes (in a violent and explosive manner) (Moon-Fanelli et al. 2011). These findings, coupled with repetitive tail-chasing motor behavior and a tendency towards phobias, has led to the conclusion that tail chasing could represent a canine form of autism.
While not definitive, the study also indicated that this syndrome in dogs could be related to a genetic condition that also occurs in humans, called fragile X syndrome.
Diagnosis of autism in dogs
Studies like these indicate that autism could indeed occur in dogs. But, it is important to recognize that until more research is done, reaching a definitive diagnosis in a dog is not easy. Our understanding of typical and atypical canine behavior is too limited. Additionally, a number of other difficult-to-diagnose canine conditions (for example, anxiety and pain disorders) can cause clinical signs similar to those associated with autism.
Therefore, in all cases, like the Bull Terriers mentioned above, the best thing veterinarians and owners can do for now is to say that a dog could have autism, or as some professionals prefer: “dysfunctional canine behavior.”
For a dog to be tentatively diagnosed with autism, it must exhibit atypical repetitive behaviors and some degree of impaired social interaction with dogs and / or people. Additionally, a veterinarian must first rule out other conditions that could be responsible for the observed clinical signs.
Managing autism in dogs
If you think your dog could have autism, the first thing you should do is go to your vet, he can help you better manage the condition. One of the most important things you can do is figure out what your triggers are (what causes unusual behavior to occur) and avoid those things.
For example, if your dog becomes fearful and aggressive when strangers approach him at the dog park, swap this activity for one that is more beneficial to him. A long walk on a quiet trail might be a better option.
Also, you can try some known techniques to improve certain negative reactions in dogs. For example, body wraps that are marketed to provide calming pressure to the animal’s body can be used in cases where the triggers for fear or the behavior in question cannot be avoided. Dogs can also be trained to do “jobs,” like pulling a loaded cart or carrying a doggy backpack filled with a soft weight. These types of activities are known to help, in the case of people, with the symptoms of autism.
Just as society advances to integrate and understand the diversity of people, it is also necessary to do so to understand that not all dogs are the same or react to the world in the same way.