Can My Dog Be Autistic and What It Means for You

Jan 8, 2024 | Dog Behaviour

socially awkward dog in an outdoor setting

If you’re wondering, ‘can my dog be autistic?’, you’re not alone. Dogs can exhibit unusual behaviours that seem similar to autism, such as difficulties in social interaction and repetitive routines. This article will examine these patterns, often referred to as ‘canine dysfunctional behaviour’ (CDB), and provide guidance on supporting a dog displaying such signs.


Key Takeaways

  • The question of whether dogs can be autistic is a complex one, with ongoing research in the field. Currently, there isn’t a definitive answer, but there are studies and observations that suggest dogs may exhibit behaviours that are similar to autism in humans.
  • Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour (CDB) resembles autism and is characterised by impaired socialisation and repetitive actions due to a deficiency of mirror neurons, affecting dogs’ ability to mimic and learn social cues.
  • Identifying CDB requires a comprehensive evaluation, including a thorough veterinary assessment to rule out other health issues and a behavioural analysis by a certified behaviourist to understand the motives and patterns behind a dog’s actions.
  • Supporting a dog with CDB involves creating a calming environment, offering regular exercise and mental stimulation tailored to their needs, and employing positive reinforcement training methods to encourage desirable behaviours.
  • The debate over whether dogs can exhibit autism-like behaviours parallels discussions about the existence of rage syndrome in dogs. Both topics revolve around understanding and accurately labelling complex canine behaviours that are not yet fully understood in terms of their origin and function.

Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour: A Close Look

Illustration of a dog exhibiting repetitive behaviors

Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour (CDB) is marked by compromised social interactions and repetitive behaviours in dogs, attributed to a deficiency of mirror neurons. Similar to human autism, dogs with CDB may have difficulties with social interactions and display repetitive behaviours due to canine dysfunctional behaviour lack. This presents a distinct challenge for dog owners who may not recognise these behaviours.

Some breeds may be more prone to exhibit these behaviours and it has left owners asking the questions, can my dog be autistic. However, any dog, regardless of breed or size, can potentially exhibit signs of CDB. For dog owners, being aware of these symptoms and learning how to effectively support their dogs is pivotal.

Most Up to Date Research

Research has explored behaviours in dogs that resemble those associated with autism in humans, such as repetitive behaviours (like tail-chasing), difficulties in social interactions, and trance-like states. A study on Bull Terriers, for example, found links between tail-chasing behaviour and elevated levels of neurotensin, a neurotransmitter, which is also observed in autistic children​​​​.

However, it’s important to note that while these behaviours may appear similar to autism in humans, the underlying causes in dogs are not fully understood. Current theories suggest that these behaviours could be due to a variety of factors, including genetics, environmental influences, or a combination of both.

For instance, the concept of mirror neurons (cells that are important for understanding feelings and copying actions) and their potential deficiency in dogs is one area of study​​.

Further research is needed to fully understand the parallels between human autism and behaviours observed in dogs. It’s also crucial to differentiate these behaviours from other conditions that may exhibit similar symptoms.

The Role of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are responsible for enabling individuals to mimic or ‘mirror’ the behaviour of others, playing a crucial role in social learning. Dogs, like humans, rely on these neurons for successful social behaviours. They help dogs understand and reciprocate emotions, leading to better social interactions.

However, dogs with CDB may not possess these mirror neurons. This absence could potentially result in socialization difficulties, akin to the challenges experienced by autistic children. It’s this lack of mirror neurons that sets dogs with CDB apart from their counterparts and is at the crux of understanding their unique behavioural challenges.

Common Symptoms and Traits

Dogs with CDB exhibit a range of behavioural symptoms. One of the main indications is antisocial behaviour, such as showing a lack of interest in interacting with other dogs and animals, and minimal interaction with other dogs and people, even at a dog park.

This goes beyond the usual shyness some dogs may exhibit, extending into an overarching communication difficulty that pervades their interaction with the world.

Along with these social difficulties, dogs with CDB might also show obsessive-compulsive behaviours. These may manifest as persistent tail-chasing, excessive licking, and repetitive pacing, which appear to be repetitive and lack a clear purpose. Recognising these behaviours can be the first step towards understanding and supporting a dog with CDB.

Recognising Autism-like Behaviours in Your Dog

Photo of a dog avoiding eye contact with other dogs

Identifying autism-like behaviours in autistic dogs, which might be related to canine autism or autism spectrum disorder, requires careful observation and comprehension of their actions. Dogs with CDB may exhibit social interaction difficulties such as disregarding owners or hesitance to engage with other dogs. This condition has been observed in various breeds, including bull terriers, and could be linked to autistic spectrum disorders.

Alongside social difficulties, dogs with CDB might also showcase compulsive behaviours. These actions may seem puzzling and even concerning for dog owners. However, understanding these as potential signs of CDB can facilitate better care and support for your furry friend.

Social Interaction Challenges

One of the primary challenges faced by dogs with CDB is navigating social interactions. This can involve avoiding eye contact and displaying a lack of interest in other animals and humans. They may also exhibit avoidance behaviours, such as panting, salivation, a tucked tail, lowered ears, gazing away, low body posture, and displacement activities.

The absence of eye contact is particularly noteworthy. In dogs, eye contact is a significant part of communication. When dogs with CDB avoid direct eye contact, it indicates discomfort or a desire to avoid interaction. Understanding these signs can help owners adapt their approach to better engage their dogs.

Obsessive-Compulsive Actions

Obsessive-compulsive behaviours in dogs with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may include actions such as:

  • tail-chasing
  • excessive licking
  • repetitive pacing
  • spinning
  • circling

These behaviours can interfere with the dog’s normal day-to-day functioning.

While these behaviours may seem puzzling, they are a part of the CDB symptom profile. Understanding this can help dog owners better respond to their dogs’ needs and seek help when needed. The development of these behaviours can be attributed to both genetic and environmental factors.

Diagnosing Autism or Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour

Illustration of a veterinarian examining a dog

If you suspect your dog might have CDB, securing a professional diagnosis is of paramount importance. This involves:

  • A comprehensive history
  • Physical examination
  • Neurological examination
  • Biochemical evaluation
  • Cognitive assessment

To precisely diagnose CDB, ruling out other health issues, such as liver malfunctions and sensory dysfunctions is a prerequisite.

Beyond a veterinary assessment, a behaviour analysis is also an integral component of the diagnosis. This involves identifying primary behaviour problems and conducting an in-depth analysis of the dog’s medical and behavioural history.

Veterinary Assessment

The first step towards a CDB diagnosis is a thorough veterinary assessment. This includes examining the dog for any underlying health issues that may be causing their symptoms. Diagnostic tests such as the Canine Dementia Scale (CADES) and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating are commonly employed.

It’s important to note that some specific health issues should be investigated in dogs displaying dog’s symptoms of CDB. These include potential liver malfunctioning and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. Indications of CDB that could be observed during a veterinary assessment include behaviours such as disorientation and a lowered response to things, people, and sounds.

Behavioural Analysis

A certified behaviourist can provide valuable insights into your dog’s behaviour. They examine the motivations, emotions, and triggers behind their behaviour, as well as identifying factors that maintain the behaviour. This analysis can help determine the presence of CDB and recommend suitable treatment options.

The behaviours indicative of CDB during the behavioural analysis encompass avoiding eye contact, an inability to follow pointing cues, and repetitive and compulsive behaviours. It’s essential to seek help from a certified behaviourist who has the necessary qualifications, including relevant academic qualifications and certification from recognised bodies.

In the authors opinion of the questions “can my dog be autistic”, it is likely a form of cognitive dysfunction rather than actual autism

Supporting Your Autistic Dog: Strategies and Tips

Photo of a dog in a calm environment

If your dog has been diagnosed with CDB, knowing how to optimally support them becomes critical. This involves creating a calming environment, providing regular physical exercise and mental stimulation, and utilizing positive reinforcement training methods.

Establishing a safe and serene environment forms the initial step in supporting your dog. This can be achieved by minimizing loud noises and maintaining a consistent routine. Providing regular exercise and mental stimulation is also crucial. This can be achieved through activities such as puzzle toys, snuffle mats, and decompression walks that are tailored to their individual interests and capabilities.

Creating a Calm Environment

Creating a calming environment for an autistic dog involves careful consideration of their space. A designated quiet zone in your home where they can retreat and feel secure can be a great asset.

Keeping a consistent routine also offers a sense of security for dogs with CDB. Avoid pushing them into situations that may induce stress. If your dog exhibits signs of discomfort when being petted or engaging with people and other dogs, it’s crucial to respect their boundaries.

Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Physical exercise and mental stimulation are key to supporting dogs with CDB. Engage your dog in regular activities such as puzzle toys, snuffle mats, and decompression walks. Puzzle toys, for instance, can provide sensory input and engage their problem-solving skills, helping to alleviate boredom and prevent anxiety.

Snuffle mats provide mental stimulation and can help to calm dogs down. Decompression walks, on the other hand, allow dogs to investigate their environment, which can decrease stress and anxiety, providing cognitive stimulation and enrichment.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement training proves to be a useful tactic for managing CDB. It involves rewarding your dog immediately after a good behaviour, using short direct commands, and keeping the training fun and rewarding. This method focuses on rewarding desirable behaviour rather than punishing undesirable behaviour, making it particularly effective for dogs exhibiting autism-like symptoms.

Remember, the most effective rewards encompass:

  • treats
  • praise
  • petting
  • favourite toys or games

This approach can contribute to the enhancement of a dog’s social skills by reinforcing positive behaviour and encouraging positive interactions with other dogs or people.

Debunking Myths: Vaccines and Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour

Contrary to common misconceptions, no scientific evidence exists that links vaccines to CDB in dogs. Scientific research has not found a causal link between vaccines and canine dysfunctional behaviour. It’s crucial to understand that while dogs with pre-existing immune dysfunction may have adverse reactions to vaccines, this is not indicative of a causal relationship between vaccines and CDB.

It’s worth noting that CDB is congenital and related to a lack of mirror neurons in the brain, rather than being caused by vaccines. Understanding the true causes of CDB can help dispel harmful myths and focus on providing the best care and support for dogs with this condition.

Seeking Professional Help: When to Consult a Veterinary or Certified Behaviourist

Illustration of a veterinarian and a dog during a consultation

If your dog’s behaviour raises concerns, seeking professional help becomes important. Notice behaviours resembling those associated with autism in dogs, such as challenges in social interaction, communication difficulties, or repetitive actions, it’s crucial to reach out to a veterinarian or certified behaviourist for a comprehensive evaluation of dogs with autism. It is worth asking their opinion on can my dog be autistic?

A professional assessment necessitates the use of specific tools like the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale (CCDR) by veterinarians, along with consideration of underlying health issues. A certified canine behaviourist should possess advanced certification, a master’s degree in biological or behavioural science with behaviour emphasis, and a minimum of four years and 500 hours of experience in animal behaviour consulting.

Here are a few organisations:

So, Can My Dog Be Autistic?

In summary, while there is some evidence to suggest that dogs may display autism-like behaviours, the concept of canine autism is not yet fully understood or recognised in veterinary medicine. It’s essential to approach this topic with a nuanced understanding and to seek professional guidance for any behaviour concerns with your dog.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can dogs have ADHD or autism?

Yes, dogs can have autism, and it is not limited to humans. The diagnosis is often based on behavioural characteristics.

What dogs are most likely to have autism?

Ongoing studies may identify other breeds at high risk of autism-like behaviours, such as miniature poodles. Biomarkers elevated in children with autism spectrum disorder are also found in dogs with canine behavioural dysfunction.

Is autism common in dogs?

Yes, certain breeds of dogs may be more likely to display autism-like traits, but there is no recognized diagnosis of ASD in canines. Instead, similar symptoms are grouped under the term “canine dysfunctional behavior” (CDB).

Does my dog have Asperger’s?

Most likely not but it is important to observe your dog’s behaviour for signs such as a lack of interest in social interaction, difficulty making eye contact, and repetitive behaviours, which may indicate a potential issue but understanding some of these indicators can be normal dog body language or lack of early socialisation.

What is Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour?

Canine Dysfunctional Behaviour, or CDB, is a condition in dogs marked by compromised social interactions and repetitive behaviours, akin to autism in humans. It’s attributed to a deficiency of mirror neurons.

Learn more on this topic

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