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AUTISTIC SPECTRUM DISORDER IN DOGS: DOES IT EXIST?



This is a fascinating topic which is seldom discussed and written about, so I decided to do some research and attempt to present in one document what is currently known. I’d like to stress here that I do not have any new evidence, I’m simply collating my findings.


I acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject, and have done my utmost to present what I have found in a factual way. I am also very aware that research and current beliefs regarding ASD in humans are also severely lacking. The aim of this piece is to raise awareness that our dogs also face such struggles, and that any unusual behaviours, or simply ones we do not understand, need to be investigated, and should never be dismissed out of hand. These dogs deserve empathy, patience and understanding, as do we all.






Researchers have been exploring the possibility that Autism exists in dogs since the 1960’s, yet we still know relatively little, and there is no concrete evidence that ASD exists as a canine “disorder”. The most notable source I could find was a study that was released in 2011, where similarities were found between repetitive tail-chasing behaviours in bull terriers and ASD in humans, but they were unable to draw any definitive conclusions from the results.


You can read about the study here:


A parallel drawn from the study:


“Although tail chasing in dogs is commonly de-scribed as a compulsive disorder or partial seizure disorder, findings of the present study lead to another possibility. Males had a slight (8%) but significantly greater risk for developing tail chasing than females. Furthermore, tail chasing in Bull Terriers is closely associated with episodic aggression and trance-like behavior. In terms of the cluster of clinical signs and manifestations of tail chasing, it is speculated that this syndrome in Bull Terriers may have features in common with autism in humans. Autism is also more common in males, is associated with explosive aggression, trance-like staring, and involves repetitive movements and self-injurious behavior. In addition, autism is characterized by autonomy, impaired social interactions, and obsession with objects. Many owners of Bull Terriers with tail-chasing behavior describe their dogs as asocial, somewhat withdrawn, and abnormally preoccupied with objects, such as balls or sticks.”


Despite a lack of definitive evidence from the research carried out over the years, it is now widely acknowledged that Autism may be present in dogs, although it is noted that canines do not share all of the symptoms which occur in humans. The canine condition which presents with similar clinical signs as ASD is known as Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour, and differs to ASD in that there is no spectrum. It is difficult to diagnose, so vets must rely on observation and analysis of behaviour, noting compulsive tendencies, repetitive behaviours, and impairments in social skills, as well as comparing what is considered normal and abnormal behaviours. In order to diagnose, other medical and behavioural conditions need to be ruled out first, as there are many which present with similar symptoms, such as anxiety, neurological disease, and hypothyroidism. There is no test specifically for CDB, although a diagnosis is often based on behavioural characteristics.


Some behaviours which might manifest in Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour include:


*Repetitive behaviours, such as tail-chasing, or circling

*Distress from having their routine interrupted

*Difficulty in adapting to new situations or environments

*Hypersensitivity to sensations such as light and touch

*Anxious, fearful or aggressive behaviours when interacting

* Difficulties in social settings

* Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

* May appear in a trance-like state

* Hiding in their safe space


Once Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour is diagnosed, there are a number of ways to treat it; for example, prescribing medications like Prozac, behavioural therapy, as well as putting management in place to minimise stress, environmental enrichment, and tailoring exercise to provide support.


CDB is thought to be idiopathic, meaning that the cause of it is unknown, although it seems that dogs are born with the condition, rather than develop it later. Studies have suggested that dogs with CDB lack particular neurons, called “mirror” neurons, which are linked with social learning.


The research available on Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour is far from comprehensive, but in raising awareness that brain chemistry in dogs is highly complex and that differences in the way the brain processes information do occur, we can foster greater empathy, understanding, and patience for our dogs who struggle, and do our utmost to meet their needs. Pet guardians should be encouraged to learn how to recognise and understand canine body language, which will provide insight into how their dog might be feeling. Pain or discomfort is often the root cause of behavioural challenges, therefore the more attuned we are to our dogs and their communications, the better. It is also important to emphasise the need to seek veterinary advice if a dog exhibits any unusual behaviours, or there is a sudden change in behaviour. Please do not be tempted to try to diagnose your dog yourself, or assume that any unusual behaviour is just that; pain is most often at the root of changes in behaviour and needs to be fully investigated by your veterinarian. Do not under-estimate the impact of pain, discomfort, gastrointestinal issues, allergies, fear, anxiety, and many other conditions which impact behaviour!



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