Most veterinarians choose not to diagnose dogs with canine autism, even though dogs exhibit the same signs and symptoms as humans on the autism spectrum.
Instead, veterinarians prefer to refer to the condition as dysfunctional canine behavior.
This behavior is rare in puppies and dogs. It is believed to be idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown.
Some vets theorize the condition is congenital and inherited from a parent or relative.
Veterinarians believe a lack of mirroring neurons in the dog’s brain causes dog autism. Mirroring neurons mirror the behavior of others, thereby teaching an animal how to behave and relate to other dogs.
A dog that lacks properly working neurons rarely interacts with other people or dogs, which causes a lack of empathy.
Poor socialization skills a trait of dogs with canine autism
The most common traits of dogs with autism include anxiety and poor socialization skills.
Most dogs diagnosed with canine autism are reactive and often lack socialization skills. Reactive animals often inherit an anxiety disorder.
Puppies lacking socialization skills generally were removed from their mother and siblings during a vital developmental period.
They become reactive because they don’t know how to cope.
For example, reactive puppies or dogs who experience sensory avoidance find it emotionally painful to have their owners touch them.
Dog autism symptoms
Puppies with canine autism show little interest in interacting with their mother or siblings. They also show little interest in playing or eating.
Other canine dysfunctional behaviors to watch for include:
- Avoidance/Withdrawal: Avoiding any new experience or situation, retreating to a distance where they feel safe.
- Dysfunctional Interactions: Minimal interaction with other dogs and people, including their owner. That means the dog has little or no interest in daily activities such as feeding, playing, walking, or socializing.
- Trance State: Appear to be in a daze, blankly staring at floor, wall, or an object. While dogs with canine autism tend to be still, dogs with canine ADHD tend to be hyper. ADHD in dogs causes dogs to be fearful, clingy, and needy.
- Restrictive Behavior: Avoiding anything new, including people, places, and things.
- Unable to Communicate: Flat personality. Cannot communicate normal feelings such as happiness, curiosity, silliness, fear, playfulness, or anger.
More canine autism traits
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Dog Compulsive Disorder: Compulsive, repetitive actions. For example, walks around the borders of a room.
- Lethargic: Appears sluggish but lacks interest in participating in any activities, even in high-energy breeds.
- Compulsive Organization: The dog organizes toys or treats by size, color, or shape.
- Lack of Eye Contact: The dog does not make eye contact with people, including the owner or other dogs. Lack of eye contact can keep the dog from bonding with its owners because dogs tend to bond with their owners through eye contact.
- Inability to Cope with Unexpected Stimuli: Over-reaction to loud or unexpected noises.
Help your autistic dog
While there’s no treatment for dogs with autism, there are things owners can do to help their dogs.
Fear is a huge part of survival. For dogs suffering from canine autism, survival is paramount.
Dogs have learned to survive by association, both good and bad. The dog stores visual, audio, and scent associations in memory and learns to respond accordingly.
When working with dogs with autism, just like children with autism, you will need to be patient and take time to train your dog to help him be successful. Autism Parenting Magazine has supplementary articles that support the positive benefits of children with autism working alongside dogs.
To help relieve your dog’s anxieties, you can:
- Help them adapt to new situations slowly, gently, and with as few demands as possible. Do not baby them! That only reinforces their primary sense that there is something to fear.
- Be consistent.
- Establish and stick to routines and schedules. Typically puppies and dogs feel secure and thrive in established routines and schedules. Puppies and dogs with dysfunctional behaviors especially need that security.
- Keep things as simple and familiar as much as possible. Reactive dogs struggle with sudden changes of residences, owners, food, furniture, or playmates. With food choice, it may not be quite as simple as for those with other types of diseases, like how switching between recommended food for dogs with anal gland problems may go smoothly. It may be harder to introduce a new or different type or brand of food to reactive dogs.
- Keep communication simple. Use one word whenever possible. Don’t overwhelm the dog. Dogs with canine autism don’t care what you think.
- Consider dog boarding as a safe place for dogs to stay when owners need to be away or need an occasional break.
Can dogs have autism? The simple answer is yes; dogs can exhibit canine autism symptoms.
But that doesn’t mean those dogs can’t become pets. Puppies and dogs that exhibit signs and symptoms of canine autism tend to be aloof. So don’t expect licking, serious tail wags, or cuddles. Your dog won’t gaze into your eyes or try to catch your attention.
They may recoil from your touch, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t important to them. The dog most likely is content and appreciates the home you provide.
It is also good to note that autism might not be the only dysfunctional condition that dogs can have. Some symptoms could be a sign of Down syndrome. But don’t worry, as this does not mean that your dog is any lesser than other dogs. You can learn more about dogs with Down syndrome here, and you’ll be able to understand and diagnose their behaviors better.
A dog with canine autism cannot control this odd behavior.
Accept the dog’s quirks. Enjoy and love them in whatever way works for you and your pet.
Karen A. Soukiasian is the owner of Good Dog! — Dog Training in St. Augustine, Florida. You can follow Karen on Facebook.