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Can Dogs Really Be Autistic? A Comprehensive Guide

Like humans, dogs can have difficulties socializing, obsessive behaviors, hyperreactivity, and many other traits commonly associated with autism. This has led many to wonder — can dogs be autistic? The answer to this question has been at the center of much online debate. Let's discover what autism is, the autism-like traits dogs might have, and dispel some myths about whether dogs can have autism.

Can dogs have autism?

The short answer is no, dogs cannot have autism because autism is a human diagnosis. However, dogs can suffer from many disorders that have similar symptoms to autism in humans. First, let's define what autism is and why the term has become associated with dogs recently.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect socialization, communication, learning, and behavior. Autism can manifest in a variety of ways and have a broad range of symptoms, which is why it’s referred to as a spectrum. Some common characteristics of autism include difficulties with communication and socialization, sensory aversions, repetitive behaviors, and hyperactivity. Many of these signs have also been observed in dogs with certain cognitive or behavioral disorders, leading to the comparison with human autism.

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While dogs might display behaviors similar to the ones humans with autism might exhibit, autism is not a recognized canine condition. Currently, autism is only recognized as a human condition. While some people may use the term autism broadly or describe a dog’s behavior as being autistic, there is no such thing as 'dog autism' or an 'autistic dog.' Perceived signs of autism in dogs are usually related to one of several canine cognitive or behavioral disorders.

What conditions can dogs have that are similar to autism?

There are several canine cognitive and behavioral conditions that have similar symptoms to autism in humans.

Canine-compulsive disorder

Canine-compulsive disorder, which is often compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in humans, refers to a set of compulsory behaviors dogs might display. Unlike in humans, it’s not clear whether dogs experience obsessive thoughts that drive them to these behaviors. They may do them out of comfort and familiarity, as a response to boredom or stress, or due to a genetic predisposition.

Signs of canine-compulsive disorder can include:

  • Tail chasing
  • Pacing
  • Excessive licking or chewing on themselves, often leading to acral lick dermatitis or other forms of self-mutilation
  • Flank sucking
  • Licking of other objects, people, or the air
  • Spinning
  • Excessive or rhythmic barking
  • 'Fly snapping' or biting or snapping at the air or imaginary objects

Anxieties, fears, and phobias

Just like humans, dogs can experience a wide range of anxieties, fears, and phobias that can affect their behavior or how they respond to their environment or certain stimuli. Each dog and each case of fear, anxiety, or phobia can present differently.

A dog that is scared by the sounds of thunderstorms or fireworks may tremble in the corner or run around the house in a state of panic, looking to escape. A dog that is afraid of strangers may hide or present as 'antisocial' when confronted by unfamiliar people, or they may go into a reactive state of barking and lunging. Every dog may respond differently to their triggers. Many owners compare their dog's behavior during these episodes as being similar to a human panic attack.

Signs of anxieties, fears, and phobias in dogs include:

  • Displaying stressed behavior or body language, such as whining, pacing, trembling, cowering, tail-tucking, yawning, lip-licking, pinned ears, dilated pupils, or whale-eyes (showing whites of eyes). Dogs under duress may also display raised hackles (the line of hair down a dog’s back) or loss of bladder or bowel control. These might be in response to a stimuli or stressful event, a change in environment, or when left alone (separation anxiety). Anxiety can be generalized or situational.
  • Aversions to certain noises. Sounds induce extreme reactions like trembling, pacing, whining, panting, trying to escape, or staying in a prolonged state of agitation. Most commonly, this is a result of thunderstorms or fireworks.
  • Reactivity. Extreme responses like barking and lunging at certain stimuli like strangers, other dogs, motorcycles, inanimate objects, and others. Sometimes, these might manifest only under certain conditions like being on a leash (leash reactivity) or being kenneled (kennel reactivity).
  • Destructive behaviors, such as digging, chewing, and scratching on furniture, walls, and carpets, just to name a few. This can also include self-destructive or self-mutilating behaviors like excessive licking or chewing, sometimes to the point of creating wounds.
  • Environmental mood changes. Some dogs may only display certain behaviors in certain environments. Such as a dog that is social and outgoing at home but avoidant or displays aggressive behavior in public. This is sometimes known as Jekyll and Hyde syndrome.

Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome

Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCD or CDS) is a deteriorative brain condition that can cause mental and behavioral changes in aging dogs. It is sometimes referred to as 'doggy dementia,' as it can cause dogs to become forgetful, frightened, and confused.

Signs of canine cognitive dysfunction commonly include:

  • Confusion or disorientation. Seeming confused or lost in familiar places, not recognizing family members, or not responding to previously learned commands.
  • Disrupted sleep patterns. Wandering the house aimlessly or pacing around at night and sleeping more during the day.
  • New or sudden increases in certain behaviors. Such as anxieties, phobias, sensory aversions, irritability, or aggression.
  • Decreased activity or interests. No longer having the desire to play or go for walks.
  • House-soiling. Suddenly soiling in the house when the pet was previously potty trained.

What to do if a dog is showing signs of a cognitive or behavioral disorder?

If your dog is showing signs of a cognitive or behavioral disorder or just isn’t acting like their normal self, it’s imperative to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. They will assess your dog's symptoms, perform a physical exam, and recommend some diagnostics like blood work or x-rays to rule out any underlying medical causes for your dog’s behavior.

In some cases, behavioral changes can be due to medical causes but have similar symptoms to cognitive or behavioral disorders. Such as a dog that suddenly becomes avoidant or aggressive when you try to touch them might actually be experiencing pain from an injury or arthritis. Or, a dog that’s constantly licking its paws might just have allergies, not a compulsive disorder. Certain neurological issues can also present as abnormal behaviors so it’s important to rule out any medical issues first.

If your veterinarian does not find any medical reasons for your dog’s behavior, they may refer you to a behavior specialist. Veterinary behaviorists specialize in diagnosing and treating behavioral and cognitive disorders and can help you get to the bottom of and manage your dog’s condition. The term behaviorist is sometimes used loosely, with some trainers (certified or not) using the term to describe themselves and offering dog behavioral therapy services. So, it’s important to follow your vet’s referral or find a veterinary behaviorist through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

How are cognitive or behavioral disorders in dogs treated?

While every case is different, treatments for cognitive or behavioral disorders in dogs might include a behavior modification plan with techniques for desensitization, counter-conditioning, and positive reinforcement training. They may also include medications to help manage stress and anxiety or help a dog remain under threshold while exposed to a trigger. Other treatments can also include diet, exercise, lifestyle changes, enrichment toys, or calming aids like pheromones or anxiety jackets.

Oftentimes, several of these items will be used in conjunction with one another to support your dog in different ways. There are many 'tools' in the behavior 'toolbox,' and your veterinarian or behaviorist will recommend the best ones for your dog’s unique needs.

Does pet insurance cover treatment for cognitive or behavioral conditions?

Pet insurance coverage for cognitive or behavioral conditions can vary among providers. Some offer cognitive and behavioral coverage in a standard plan, some only offer it as an add-on or in premium plans, and others don’t offer it all. What items are covered can also vary. Some plans may only cover anxiety medications, while others might cover consultation and treatment with a veterinary behaviorist. It’s important to check your individual policy for full details on what may be covered.

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Autism in dogs: dispelling myths

Autism is a complex condition, and like many complex conditions, you may find conflicting information online. A quick internet search may bring up all sorts of claims about dogs with autism and even accusations of potential causes and touted cures. But, it’s important to note that at this time, autism is not a recognized condition in dogs by any major veterinary or animal health organization.

There’s no telling what the future may hold and what researchers might find down the road, but for now — autism in dogs is just a myth. Nevertheless, your dog’s mental health is just as important as their physical health, so if they are showing any signs of anxiety or cognitive changes, it’s important to have them checked out by your vet.

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