Web Only Article March 12, 2019

Autistic Dogs: Can Dogs Have Autism?

Some people claim dogs can be autistic in the same way people are. Whole Dog Journal investigates the question.

On more than one occasion, people have asked me if my dog is autistic. Charlotte, a former street dog, has behavioral special needs, and I’ve lost track of how many people have asked upon meeting her, “Is she ever going to be normal?”

crazy dog with zoomies

Getty Images / George Peters

I like to use these moments as chances to open up conversation about neurodiversity in dogs: some experience trauma and anxiety and need behavioral management, and not all dogs process trauma the same way. My dog Charlotte has come a long way. She has psychiatric medications that help her with some of her largest triggers, daily training, and behavioral management that all work to give her an enriching, high-quality life.

Though Charlotte’s behavioral challenges are probably due to her growing up on the streets, these conversations always get me thinking, “can dogs be autistic?” The expert opinion is…maybe.

Does Autism Exist in Dogs?

Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM, ACVB Resident and co-founder of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon,†explains that at this time autism is not a behavioral condition recognized in dogs. This is in part because there has not yet been enough research into the typical and atypical behavior in dogs for that kind of diagnosis to be given.

Dr. Parthasarathy went on to explain that in the future this may change, and there is a possibility we could see diagnoses of autism in dogs. “As we are learning more about the complexities of canine neurology, behavior and neurodiversity, the more information there is to help dogs. As we learn more, we may be able to start more finely characterizing different behavioral disorders. We may find that autism is a condition in dogs as it is in people.”

Research on Autism in Dogs

Although autism is not at this time something dogs can receive a diagnosis for, there is research being done into autism-like behaviors in dogs.

Dr. Parthasarathy explains, “According to the Mayo Clinic website, children with autism have two key characteristics: difficulty with social interactions and communication, and repetitive behaviors.”

Studies have observed comparable behavior in dogs. “For example, recently Tufts Veterinary Behaviorist Nick Dodman presented a study in which he assessed the behavior of 132 English Bull Terriers and found patterns of repetitive behavior (tail chasing), trancelike behavior, and episodic aggression similar to what can be seen in autistic children,” continues Dr. Parthasarathy.

dog chewing tail

Getty IMages / Alona Rjabceva

Tail chewing is considered a repetitive, obsessive behavior in some cases.

Is Your Dog Autistic?

If you have wondered if your dog might be autistic, you aren’t alone. A variety of behavioral challenges exhibited by dogs may be interpreted by their guardians as a form of autism. Dr. Parthasarathy explains, “When my clients ask me about whether their dogs are autistic, they are often referring to dogs that are not responsive to doing what they ask, and dogs that appear to become overstimulated in new environments, are performing repetitive behaviors or may be aggressive.”

A medical condition is always a possible underlier when dogs experience severe behavioral issues like aggression or obsessive licking. Canine compulsive disorder is another possible explanation for your dog’s challenges. At one time, dogs who exhibited repetitive, compulsive habits were thought to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but experts in the animal behavior community have since identified the condition in dogs to be distinctly separate from that found in people.

Again, autism is not yet a diagnosis that can be given to dogs. Autism-like symptoms such as repetitive behavior or episodic aggression can be very challenging for dog guardians to understand and safely manage in the home, and it may be tempting to put the autism label on a dog if it fits. But Dr. Parthasarathy explains that a detailed history of the dog is essential for professionals to come up with a diagnosis. “Many of my patients who present to me with these signs have underlying generalized anxiety that needs to be addressed,” she says.

Dogs who have anxiety disorders may exhibit symptoms that their owners interpret as autism and diagnose themselves. But in reality, “anxiety in general can affect a dog's ability to learn, problem-solve, retain and recall information,” describes Dr. Parthasarathy.

What to Do if Your Dog Shows Signs of Autism

If you think that your dog might be autistic, or if your dog is displaying behaviors that seem to be the result of an autism-like condition, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your primary care veterinarian. Dr. Parthasarathy explains that many conditions related to orthopedic, neurologic, gastrointestinal and dermatological issues can result in dogs being unresponsive to cues, or exhibiting trance-like, excessive sensitivity or repetitive behaviors.

If your veterinarian rules out any physical conditions, they may refer you to a veterinary behavior diplomate or resident for diagnosis and treatment. “Treatment for these behavioral conditions can be complex and may involve the use of behavioral medications as well as a comprehensive management and behavior modification plan,” explains Dr. Parthasarathy.

dog snapping at air

Getty Images / Hartmut Kosig

A dog who compulsively snaps at the air may be considered to be displaying signs of autism.

There are fewer than 100 behavioral diplomats or residents in the United States, so this isn’t an option available to all dog owners depending on where you live. Many canine behavior experts are able and willing to consult with primary proactive veterinarians to support individual patients, however.

Dr. Parthasarathy also advised it’s a good idea to begin working with a positive reinforcement, reward-based trainer. Find a trainer who has experience working with dogs who have behavioral concerns; a good trainer should be part of the treatment team for any dog who may be exhibiting autism-like behaviors. Correcting or punishing unwanted behaviors in dogs with severe behavioral problems can actually make the problem worse or cause other new problem behaviors to arise.

There aren’t any fast answers for working with dogs who have what might be considered autism-like behaviors. Dr. Parthasarathy cautions that, “dogs with behavioral disorders are not trying to be ‘stubborn’, ‘dominant’, or trying to ‘get away’ with things. People who live with these dogs are generally doing the best that they can. Having compassion for dogs with problem behavior, as well as their people, is an important step towards helping them.”

If you think your dog might be autistic, the most important thing is to love your dog, and commit to finding professional support to meet your dog where they are at this stage in their development. Be gentle with your dog and yourself. Just like we are getting better at accepting neurodiversity in people, I hope that as a society we will grow to understand that not all dogs experience and react to the world in the same ways.

Sassafras Lowreyis an award-winning author and Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras’ forthcoming books include: Tricks IN THE CITY: For Daring Dogs and the Humans That Love Them, Healing/Heeling, and Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs: William To The Rescue. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.

Comments (9)

What diet change did you do to make the dog better?

Posted by: Joy Rothe | March 25, 2019 3:52 PM    Report this comment

Do dogs that have experienced physical abuse develop anything similar to traumatic encephalopathy, the brain damage that develops in some football players who have a history of repeated concussions during games? Maybe behaviors that are similar to autistic behaviors have a basis in brain injury.

Posted by: Carolm7 | March 25, 2019 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Over the last 40 years my husband and I have had 5 goldens. The two we have now, Joey and Zoey, were litter mates. They are the only ones who have been anxious since we first got them as pups. We did 12 weeks of puppy classes and neither one of them enjoyed socializing. Over the years we had to work with Zoey, teaching her to look and us but she usually preferred to be alone outside. She would like some attention but then would need to move away. She could only handle a little closeness. Joey on the other hand is obsessive about ball. He has to chew it usually 9 times before dropping it. He likes to be close and cuddle but is not friendly with other dogs. At 10 1/2 they still get anxious over new sounds, places, etc. Totally different from the other three goldens we had. And they've had less toxic exposure and been more carefully fed than the others.

Posted by: CaDreamer | March 24, 2019 8:54 PM    Report this comment

I often thought that my male Whippet was autistic because his anxiety was always over the top, he was uncomfortable with affection, and was socially awkward with people and other dogs. We loved him for him, without expectation. By the end of his 17 years he was calm, cuddly, and just a cool dude. Age may have been part of it, but it has left me wondering if he was ever autistic as I had thought. Iíll be curious what research shows in the future.

Posted by: kathy p | March 24, 2019 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I adopted twin Maltese-ShihTzu pups 15 years ago, Sunshine and Snow. In the litter, Sunshine was an obvious standout and I knew immediately that she would be a winner. She was protecting her little sister, who was shivering in the corner and didn't want to be touched. Snow appeared to be the "runt," as she was smaller than the others. She also happened to be very pretty. Believing that love conquers all, I adopted them both. Long story short, 15 years later, Snow still doesn't want to be touched. I can't get close to her. When I take her out, she just stands and stares. She won't move: won't go forward and won't go back. I have to pick her up to get her started on a walk. When she was a puppy, she had a repetitive behavior of constantly "digging" in the water bowl and splashing the contents all day long. If she wanted food (or maybe just my attention) she would "throw a fit" and claw at my arms. With positive reinforcement, I was able to stop these behaviors, but, along with the "refusing to budge," they have seemed autistic to me. Since Snow also refused to be potty trained (her sister learned on day 1), I saw a veterinary behavior specialist for about a year. He gave her paroxetine, which helps somewhat with the house soiling and she continues to take it, but she still has mishaps, especially if I don't take her out 6 times a day. As karma would have it, Sunshine died 3 years ago and I continue to struggle with this challenging, unresponsive dog -- with mixed feelings.

Posted by: muriel33 | March 23, 2019 6:07 PM    Report this comment

I think some dogs may have ADD (attention deficet disorder) and thus are difficult to train as they are easily distracted by whatever is going on near them, especially in multi-dog training classes, or needs to check out whatever it sees or hears during a walk.

Posted by: Cyl | March 23, 2019 5:55 PM    Report this comment

I do rescue with Golden Retrievers and have placed more than 850 dogs. I also work with many people on the autism spectrum. There is no question in my mind that dogs can be autistic. And the interesting thing is that diet seems to have a HUGE impact. In one instance, I saw a 180 degree change in a dog in less than a week.

Posted by: radiantkd | March 23, 2019 11:33 AM    Report this comment

I do rescue with Golden Retrievers and have placed more than 850 dogs. I also work with many people on the autism spectrum. There is no question in my mind that dogs can be autistic. And the interesting thing is that diet seems to have a HUGE impact. In one instance, I saw a 180 degree change in a dog in less than a week.

Posted by: radiantkd | March 23, 2019 11:33 AM    Report this comment

I have owned Shelties for 30 years. They are highly intelligent and sensitive dogs, and I firmly believe dogs can be autistic as I have one. I think the reason why you don't see the behavior very often is that dogs are raised in a litter, so social interaction is a major part of their life from day one. One of my Shelties that I have was rejected by his mother. The breeder hand reared him, but only interacted with him during feeding times, so he was alone a lot. When I picked him up, I expected a puppy that adored people (being hand raised), instead, I had a Sheltie puppy who would not make eye contact, tightened every muscle in his body when you touched him and would not bond with us. Our vet went over him thoroughly and could find nothing wrong with him. I spent weeks working slowly with him, even developing techniques and cue words to offer comfort to him when he is stressed that allowed him to seek comfort and reassurance (and level of contact) that he was comfortable with. While many Shelties can be shy, his avoidance of contact is beyond any I had seen before. He will not allow strangers to approach him, but if they stay still, he sometimes will approach them. A few friends who are extremely dog savvy can even pet him briefly. When stressed, his repetitive behavior is circling things (objects, people, other dogs). He is 10 now and is part of my pack of eight. He interacts less with his pack and with my husband and I than the other dogs do, but is a happy. Patience with them, taking the time to find a way to train them that works for them and understanding their issues are all vital to making life with an autistic dog a positive and rewarding experience.

Posted by: AJ's Shelties | March 23, 2019 11:25 AM    Report this comment

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