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Can dogs be autistic or have special needs? A vet answers...

Merle Dachshund
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can dogs be autistic is a much more common question amongst pet parents these days given the increasing focus on autism in humans in recent years. For dogs with persisting behavioural problems, it is understandable that owners might consider that their pup has special needs. Let’s dive deeper to examine whether dogs can have autism or other developmental disorders.

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability in which individuals interact with the world differently than what is considered “typical”. Since 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has preferred the term “autism spectrum disorder (opens in new tab)”, or ASD, to cover autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger syndrome. People with ASD are usually diagnosed as young children, and the exact cause is unknown.

As the name implies, the severity of ASD can vary from person to person. Some affected people can function with little support, while others may require a permanent carer. Signs of ASD include difficulty understanding or communicating with others, repetitive or obsessive behaviours, sensory processing issues, anxiety, and meltdowns or shutdowns.

Can dogs have autism spectrum disorder or other special needs?

Autism spectrum disorder is only a recognized condition in humans—there has not been enough research on typical vs atypical dog behaviors to make the same diagnosis in dogs. However, dogs can present with many of the same symptoms as people with ASD, so the term “canine dysfunctional behavior” (CDB) has been adopted in veterinary medicine.

In addition to CDB, some dogs exhibit similar behaviours to those seen in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety disorders in humans. These conditions may have overlapping features with CDB, which we will discuss later.

What is canine dysfunctional behavior?

Since ASD is a condition recognised in human medicine, dogs with similar symptoms may be diagnosed with CDB. It is believed that dogs with CDB are deficient in mirror neurons, which are thought to help dogs and puppies “mirror” other dogs’ behaviors when socializing. Interestingly, the mirror neuron system is theorised to be involved in human ASD (opens in new tab) as well.

A scientific study was conducted in tail-chasing Bull Terriers (opens in new tab) to investigate the underlying cause. It found that tail chasing, a repetitive action, was associated with trance-like behaviour and episodic aggression—behaviours also observed in ASD. It also showed that tail chasing was more common among male dogs, not unlike the higher rate of ASD diagnosis in boys and men (opens in new tab).

Additionally, a follow-up study (opens in new tab) identified that both tail-chasing Bull Terriers and autistic children had elevated levels of neurotensin and corticotropin-releasing hormone, further emphasising the similarity between ASD and CDB.

Symptoms of canine dysfunctional behavior

Symptoms of CDB include:

  • Antisocial behaviour, such as ignoring their owner and avoiding interactions with other dogs
  • Difficulty communicating, including avoiding eye contact and expressing themselves differently than other dogs
  • Repetitive/compulsive behaviours, like circling, tail chasing, or obsessive chewing
  • Hypersensitivity to stimuli, like petting or sudden noises
  • Anxiety or aggression, often associated with specific triggers

Conditions that look similar to canine dysfunctional behavior

Dog outside

(Image credit: @Mia Anderson on Unsplash)

There are several conditions that can appear quite similar to canine dysfunctional behavior and it's worth being aware of them so that you can spot the differences. Let's take a look: 

1. Hyperkinesis or canine hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention

This condition is similar to ADHD in humans, with symptoms like hyperactivity, training aversion, and distress when overstimulated. A study in more than 11,000 dogs (opens in new tab) found that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention were most common in young male dogs, like the young male predisposition for ADHD.

2. Canine compulsive disorder

Canine compulsive disorder (opens in new tab) is similar to OCD in humans, but it has a different name since dogs cannot articulate their thoughts to allow us to determine whether they are obsessive. This condition is characterised by repetitive activities that serve no purpose such as tail chasing and flank sucking.

3. Canine anxiety disorders

Like humans, dogs can also experience anxiety. Anxiety is considered disordered when it persists over time, past the removal of the initial trigger. Dogs with anxiety disorders may tremble, vocalise, hide, pant when it isn’t hot, eliminate inappropriately, or display body language with their ears back, tail tucked, and teeth showing.

4. Intracranial neurological disorders

Diseases affecting the brain like tumors and encephalitis (inflammation/infection of the brain) can cause similar symptoms to CDB, including repetitive movements, hypersensitivity to stimuli, anxiety, and aggression.

How is canine dysfunctional behavior diagnosed?

Because of the lack of research on the subject, it is difficult to diagnose CDB in dogs. Unlike ASD, CDB does not have a spectrum, so vets rely on comparing abnormal behaviours with those considered normal.

If you suspect that your dog has CDB, your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and relevant diagnostic tests to rule out any underlying causes of your dog’s symptoms. If these tests come back normal, your vet may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist specialising in canine behavioural disorders, which may or may not be covered by pet insurance.

How to manage canine dysfunctional behavior

Since it is primarily a behavioral disorder, CDB does not have a simple treatment or cure. However, identifying triggers can be helpful so that you can avoid situations that set off your dog. It is important to recognise that some aspects of CDB may not improve, such as social interaction skills, and these dogs’ wishes should be acknowledged to avoid causing distress.

Dogs with CDB benefit from a consistent routine with regular exercise to minimise stress and anxiety. They may require behaviour modification training to cope with triggering stimuli, and in some cases, they may benefit from medications to address anxiety and compulsive behaviours.

When to visit your vet

If your canine companion has shown signs such as poor social skills, compulsive actions, oversensitivity to touch or sound, anxiety, or aggression, you should consult your veterinarian to investigate the possibility of CDB. Like many people with ASD, dogs with CDB can go on to live long, happy lives—they may just need more support along the way.

Dr. Diana Hasler graduated with distinction from the University of Edinburgh Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in 2018. She has experience working as a small animal veterinarian in general practice, where she has treated many dogs, cats, rabbits, and rodents. She has also recently branched out into the field of medical communications, doing freelance work as a medical editor and writer. Dr. Hasler currently lives in Edinburgh where she enjoys spending time with her husband Gavin and playing with their feisty tabby cat Poppy.