As autism has become more widely diagnosed, there have been more resources dedicated to research and education—and, as a result, we’re getting a better understanding about this common condition and learning how to better support people on the spectrum.
But is it just humans on the autistic spectrum? Or can dogs have autism, too? As we’re getting a better understanding of autism, researchers are starting to explore whether autism is a strictly human diagnosis—or if the diagnosis is just as relevant to dogs.
Before we jump into whether dogs can have autism, let’s take a moment to define what autism is.
According to WebMD, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is categorized by two main criteria—social communication challenges and restricted, repetitive behaviors. Many people with autism also have sensory issues that make them sensitive to different sensory stimuli like lights, sounds, or touch. In order to be diagnosed, a child must have persistent symptoms within these categories that interfere with their daily life.
As the name suggests, autism exists on a spectrum; people with the disorder can have varying symptoms at varying degrees of severity. But autism is extremely common; according to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children in the US are on the autism spectrum.
Because autism spectrum disorders are so common in humans, it only makes sense to wonder whether dogs can have autism, too.
Researchers have been exploring the possibility of autism in dogs since the mid 1960s—and while there have been promising studies in dog autism symptoms (like this 2011 study, which found significant similarities between repetitive tail-chasing behavior in Bull Terriers and autism spectrum disorders in humans), there hasn’t been any conclusive or definitive evidence that autism exists in dogs.
However, there is substantial evidence that dogs can exhibit behaviors and have chronic conditions similar to autism in humans—so if you notice behaviors that make you think “is my dog autistic?” it’s worth exploring ways to manage their condition.
While there’s no “official” diagnosis for dog autism, there are certain behaviors that may point to an autism-like condition. Dog autism symptoms may include:
- Repetitive behaviors, like tail-chasing or walking in circles
- Distress at breaking normal routines
- Challenges adapting to new situations
- Unusual sensory responses (like extreme sensitivity to light or petting)
- Social anxiety and/or fear or aggression when interacting with other dogs or humans
If you notice your pet exhibiting symptoms, it’s important to schedule a visit with your veterinarian. While there is currently no “dog autism test” or definitive way to diagnose autism in dogs, your vet can give you insights into what may be going on with your pet—and, more importantly, help you find ways to manage their symptoms and keep them happy and healthy.
Give your vet a rundown of your dog’s daily routine, challenges, and any symptoms or worrisome behaviors you may have noticed. Once your vet has a clear picture of the different symptoms your dog is struggling with, they can help you come up with an action plan to better manage their symptoms and make sure your dog is as calm, happy, and stress-free as possible.
So, for example, if your dog has issues with repetitive behaviors, your vet can help you come up with strategies to redirect their behavior (like engaging in a game or taking them for a walk). If your dog struggles with fear of people or other dogs, you might want to avoid the dog park or take them on walks in less populated areas. While there’s no “cure” for dog autism symptoms, you can set up their environment in a way that minimizes any potential triggers—which will not only help your dog manage the way they interact with the world but will also keep your dog’s stress levels as low as possible.
There’s still research being done to determine how, exactly, autism in dogs can be diagnosed. The research landscape, however, looks promising; one upcoming study, Canines, Kids and Autism: Decoding Obsessive Behaviors in Canines and Autism in Children, is being pegged as a potential game-changer in the diagnosis of dog autism.
Until we have more information about dog autism, dealing with the symptoms can be a challenge for both you and your pet—but with the right support, training, and behavior intervention, it’s a challenge you can overcome together.