Autism is now a well-recognized developmental disability in humans. It affects how an individual communicates with and relates to others. It also influences how they perceive and experience the world.
Autism in dogs, on the other hand, is a more controversial subject and scientists are only just beginning to understand this complex behavioral issue. There has even been some debate about whether autism in dogs actually exists and vets have been discussing the issue since the 1960s. Some convincing research carried out in the last few years has studied the link between certain behaviors (such as obsessive tail chasing) and gene types. The analysis has established that autistic traits in dogs, such as obsessive behaviors, may have a link to gene mutations.
The condition is often referred to as “canine dysfunctional behavior” rather than dog autism but problems remain with trying to accurately diagnose the condition and then to manage or treat it. The dog’s owner will have an important role to play in watching and responding to their pet’s behavior. If you suspect that your dog has autism, here’s what you need to know.
Causes of Autism In Dogs
The underlying cause of autism symptoms in dogs is not well understood. The current popular theory is that it is linked to some missing neurons (nerve cells). There are special nerve cells in the brain of mammals called mirror neurons. They are activated when an animal carries out a certain function and when it sees an action performed by another animal. The neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other animal. It is as if it is doing the action itself. It is not surprising that mirror neurons are thought to govern how we relate to others and the world around us.
If these neurons are missing, it would make sense that the dog would show autistic behavior. This theory has yet to be proved conclusively. However, if it is correct, it would make autism a congenital condition of dogs which means that they are born with it and that it is not triggered by anything that you, the owner, has done. It would also mean that dog autism can be passed from parents to pups. There is another theory that a pup is more likely to be autistic if one of the parents received unnecessary vaccinations or were exposed to toxins but there is insufficient evidence to support this at present.
A recent study of tail-chasing behavior, trance-like episodes and aggression in dogs has found a link with a particular genetic profile. There is further evidence that there could be a link with a condition called fragile X syndrome which is a genetic condition.
The bottom line is that all of the current evidence points to a genetic origin for the disease which is outside of your control so you do not have to worry that it is something that you have done or failed to do.
Symptoms of Autism In Dogs
If you have concerns about your dog’s behavior, the best advice is to always get it checked out by your vet. There are many other conditions that have the same symptoms as autism in dogs so it needs to be diagnosed by a professional.
However, even when you consult a vet, things may not be straightforward. The identification of atypical behavior in dogs is not easy because there is no clear definition of what is normal! A dog that has one of the anxiety disorders or that is in pain, may have symptoms similar to those of dog autism.
Here are some of the symptoms that are thought to be most indicative of autism:
- Social symptoms
Your pooch may have difficulties interacting socially with both humans and other dogs. They may not interact with you in the way that you would expect. Perhaps they don’t come to you when you call and don’t appear eager to play with you. When they meet other dogs, they can become uneasy and withdraw from interaction rather than joining in games as most dogs would do.
The process of getting to know a new pup and understanding their character and personality is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a dog owner. With an autistic dog, this is almost impossible. They appear to be devoid of character and have no personality.
- Behavioral symptoms
Repetitive behavior is a classically autistic trait. A dog with autism may carry out the same action over and over again. It could be anything from walking around in a circle to putting toys in a particular place.
Because they need order and repetition, they are likely to stick to a very fixed routine. This is labelled as ‘limiting behavior’. New activities and new things (new toys, new people or unfamiliar dogs) can cause them considerable distress and they may show this by avoiding them or running away from them. They may also simply ignore them. Most dogs are naturally inquisitive and enthusiastic about new games so if your pooch does not react like this, it could be a sign of autism.
They can also stare for long periods of time at people or objects and can be irrationally afraid of some objects.
- Mental symptoms
Obviously, your dog will not be able to tell you how they are feeling. However, dog Moms and Dads are usually great at interpreting their dog’s emotions. They work out how their pooch is feeling based on appearance and behavior.
Dogs with autism give none of these clues. It is as if they have no ability to express emotion. You will have no idea whether your pet is happy or sad.
However, there are some behaviors that do give a clue about the underlying negative emotions. Your dog may avoid places and people for no reason or retreat and hide. This can indicate fear and anxiety.
Their repetitive behavior can indicate an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The fact that they crave routine means that they need order in their lives to combat anxiety. There are typical examples of OCD in dogs. Some get very unhappy about the fact that their food bowl is not in the usual place. Others will only eat if their bowls are on a certain food mat or insist on putting their toys away in a particular spot. These are all signs of OCD and could be related to an underlying autism.
- Physical symptoms
Due to their lack of interest in interacting with others, dogs with autism can appear languid. This can be wrongly interpreted as fatigue or illness. Dogs with autism can be labelled as lazy because they don’t want to run about and play.
This doesn’t mean that every dog that lacks energy has autism! They all get tired from time to time and they can all get sick. However, if the malaise lasts for many weeks it could be an indication.
- Sensorial symptoms
Dogs with autism can link physical and sensorial stimuli to the wrong emotion. So, for example, they can act as if you have hurt them even though you have only touched them gently. This can be very upsetting for dog owners but is important to remember that you are not doing anything wrong. To your dog, this is the correct response!
- Getting a diagnosis of autism
The overall message is that autistic symptoms in dogs are very similar to those in humans. You cannot make a diagnosis just from one symptom. A pattern of behavior is needed. It is important that you keep an eye out for all of these potential symptoms so that you can discuss them with your vet.
Dogs do not ‘catch’ autism. An autistic dog will have symptoms from birth. However, the symptoms that they exhibit may change as they get older. Often, they become more pronounced. Keep a close eye on your pup so that you will notice if any initial repetitive symptoms get worse. If they do, go and seek a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.
Treating Autism In Dogs
Autism is not a condition that can be cured. It will be necessary to put measures in place and adjust your lifestyle to accommodate your dog’s disability. The treatment regime could include any of the following:
Some medicines will decrease the severity of autistic symptoms but they will not get rid of them altogether. Fluoxetine is a popular choice for the management of both OCD and autism in humans and in dogs. There are also medications which can calm down a dog and make them less aggressive.
Read here our guide on the Best Calming Aid for Dogs.
Appropriate Lifestyle and Home Environment
You can do a great deal to help with the management of your pet’s autism. The most important thing you can do is provide a safe and secure home. Dogs with autism are usually very anxious and can react in very strange ways to anything remotely alarming. Therefore, you have to control their lifestyle and their environment to make it as stress-free as possible.
Visits to the veterinary clinic can be very upsetting for them because the surroundings, people and other animals will all be unfamiliar. Therefore, it may be best to ask for a home-visit when they are sick or need vaccinations.
Prepare a quiet, safe place in your home that they can escape to when it all gets a bit too much for them. If they don’t have somewhere that they can hide, their anxiety will get even worse. A pet with OCD may need to choose their own place however and you will have to respect that. Set up a crate or kennel in the area that they have chosen.
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Cut Down on Stress
Try to make your doggy’s life as stress-free as you can. Learn which situations cause them stress and try to avoid them. Many dogs with autism do not like to be petted and you have to respect that even though it may make you feel sad. Make sure that others who come into contact with your dog know that too. If they don’t like you touching them, they certainly won’t like a stranger doing it!
Find other ways in which you can show affection such as with your voice or body language. Don’t be put off by the fact that your dog does not reciprocate the affection. That is very common for autistic dogs. Remember that just because they don’t show affection, they will still like to receive it and it will make them feel safe and secure.
Identify Their ‘Triggers’
Every dog with autism will have specific things that trigger their anxiety and their autistic symptoms. As their human friend, it is your job to identify what these are. And put measures in place to control them.
If they dislike strangers petting them, choose a quiet area in the country for your walks where you will be alone. If they don’t like their toys being spread around, keep them neatly in one place. With a bit of thought and consideration, you can make their lives much easier.
Set Up a Routine
Try to establish a routine and limit disruption. Frequent house moves will be very stressful for a dog with autism. They will be happiest with a family with a very stable and secure lifestyle, who do the same thing every week and who do not go away on holiday very often!
Try to Set Up a Stable Routine:
- Wake them up at the same time every day
- Go for a walk at the same time every day
- Use the same walking route every day
- Play with the same toys every day
- If you leave them alone, do so at the same time and for the same length of time every day
- Stick to one brand of food
- Stick to the same feeding dishes
- When you have to change feeding dishes, replace the old ones with new ones that are the same color and material
- Always feed them on the same mat
- Always feed them in the same place
- Don’t move their dog bed or crate
- Try to limit moving furniture around
- Try to limit how many times you change carpets, curtains etc.
Obviously, some of these things will be unavoidable! But when you do have to redecorate, be prepared for your dog’s autistic symptoms to get worse for a while as they deal with their anxiety about the changes.
Give Them Plenty of Exercise
Exercise is a wonderful remedy for all sorts of ailments in animals as well as humans. It is recognized as a useful part of the treatment of anxiety in humans and it can be very useful for controlling autism-related anxiety in dogs.
Just make sure that you exercise your pooch at the same time and in the same place every day!
Be Careful With Their Diet
Although the links between diet and autistic symptoms are not proved, you may have spotted a link between foods and a deterioration in your dog’s symptoms. Have a chat with your vet about this. It may be worth eliminating certain foods from their diet to try to alleviate some of the symptoms.
Try to find a vet with experience of managing autism in dogs. They will be a useful source of information and support for you in the future.
Check out suppliers of products for ‘special needs’ dogs. It is possible to get wraps that you put around your pooch when it is likely that strangers will touch them. It will provide constant pressure around their body which they find very reassuring. Other dogs find it soothing to pull loaded trailers or have a backpack filled with soft weights.
They may even be able to recommend some local therapies or treatments that will help. Some owners have found that pet counselling can make their dog more receptive so it may be worth a try. However, beware of anyone who claims that they can ‘cure’ your pup of autism because that is simply not possible.
A diagnosis of autism may be challenging but it is not the end of the world. You still have a lovely healthy dog, you just need to learn how to get to know them better. The sooner you identify the condition the better. You can get to work on putting measures in place that will make their life easier.
Finally, autism is not a deadly disease and it will not kill your dog. They can still lead a very full and happy life and you have an important role to play in helping them do so.
- Dr. Jennifer Coates, Can Dogs Have Autism?, PetMD