Due to an unsubstantiated claim by a few outspoken celebrities that vaccines cause autism in children and dogs, some dog owners are skipping their dog's annual vaccinations. Science has disproven the connection, yet the myth persists. Despite the vaccination controversy, many veterinarians say they have never diagnosed autism in a dog. And many research scientists don't believe that canine autism even exists. But one renowned veterinarian and scientist has discovered provocative evidence of autism spectrum disorder in dogs, and it has nothing to do with vaccinations.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder that affects brain development and occurs in early childhood in 1 out of 68 human children. It causes defects in communication, challenges with social interactions, and repetitive behavior. Autism co-occurs with medical conditions such as epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues and sleep disorders, restricts interests and activities, and causes anxiety and depression. Some human children and adults with autistic disorders will experience only mild symptoms and function at a high-level while in others, the range and severity of symptoms are debilitating.
Pet parents may wonder if their dog has autism when they display atypical behaviors. Some human symptoms of autism are similar to those in dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) like epilepsy, anxiety, and depression. Since the mid-1960s, neuroscience studies on dogs and autism have continued with no conclusive evidence until Dr. Nicolas Dodman, veterinarian and pioneer in the study of obsessive-compulsive disorder in animals, researched autism in the bull terrier dog breed. As of 2016, statistical analysis was still underway, yet his research findings are intriguing for the occurrence of autism in dogs.
Can dogs have autism?
Dr. Dodman has spent his entire professional life looking for answers to why animals' behavior goes awry and written many books about his research. He advocates the theory that humans and other animals share the same neurochemistry. This profound recognition that humans and other animals' minds and emotions work in similar ways is both forward-thinking and hotly debated; his groundbreaking work in this area has many critics in the veterinary community.
Dr. Dodman's approach is a new science he developed called One Medicine, which explains why dogs and other pets such as cats, horses, and birds have psychological problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, Tourette's syndrome, and autism. Dr. Dodman's studies of autism in dogs began more than 30 years ago when he met a 1-year-old, white-colored, neutered male bull terrier who was repeatedly chasing his tail. Dr. Dodman had recently read in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association about similar behavior in other bull terriers of the same age, same sex, same color, and neuter status, and he concluded it was genetic. He went on to study 333 tail-chasing, white-colored, 1-year-old, neutered male bull terriers.
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Bull terriers, like many other breeds, are highly inbred. It is common to find bull terriers who have either subclinical or clinical, repetitive tail-chasing. Spinning in tight circles, they are in constant pursuit of their tail. This spinning behavior is reminiscent of the stereotypic spinning of autistic children. In both children and the study dogs, the behavior triggers are stress or trauma. He also saw explosive aggression and trance-like behaviors in the bull terriers. It made sense to him that this could be a canine for of autism since all these features are prevalent in the autistic spectrum of children.
Although many researchers labeled the tail-chasing a compulsive disorder, Dr. Dodman did not settle for that diagnosis. He knew the tail-chasing was more complicated than obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and consulted with a medical researcher specializing in autism in humans. He learned that autism in children correlates with elevated levels of a peptide called neurotensin (NT) and corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). Blood samples from his bull terrier patient and study group showed increased levels of both NT and CRH. Translational Psychiatry, a journal of neuroscience research, published his canine autism findings in 2014.
You can read more about Dr. Dodman's research on canine autism and the story of the original bull terrier who inspired his 30-year study of autism in his 2016 book, "Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry." From parrots plucking themselves bald from anxiety and cats with OCD to the autistic bull terrier, his book and its poignant case studies shed light on the close connection between humans and animals.
Symptoms and diagnosis of autism in dogs
If you suspect your dog may be autistic, seek the professional advice of a veterinarian or dog behaviorist. Keep in mind that many ASD symptoms are common to other disorders and that a dog with autism will have shown at least some symptoms since puppyhood. Remember that some veterinarians may not believe dogs can be autistic. But some signs your dog is not functioning normally and may have symptoms of ASD, or another disorder that needs veterinary care or behavioral intervention are:
- Dysfunctional social interactions with other dogs.
- Lack of interest in you and other people.
- Lack of interest in games, doing new things, and restricted movements.
- Repetitive actions such as spinning in circles chasing his tail, licking, pacing, and other neurotic behaviors.
- Routine-bound with an adverse reaction to any changes in routine.
- Apathy and inability to communicate emotions such as happiness, fear, surprise, love, etc.
- Listlessness and disinterest in activities, especially if the breed is high-energy.
- May show selective hearing or not respond when you call her name.
Document your dog's behavior in a journal so you can discuss the details with your veterinarian or other professionals to aid in diagnosis. It may be wise to seek the advice of more than one veterinarian and consider homeopathic vets.
Treatment and management of autistic dogs
Dr. Dodman found the canine version of autism responded to human medications such as Prozac, a serotonin-reuptake inhibitor and anticonvulsant therapies. Since affected dogs also had co-occurring conditions such as gastrointestinal disturbances and significant skin issues, he treated with Luteolin; a flavonoid found helpful for such problems in autistic children.
Managing the day-to-day emotional needs of dogs with autism may take more work, but it can be rewarding for caregivers. Seeing a spark of interest now and then in a depressed or apathetic dog can be gratifying. You will have to help your dog adapt to unfamiliar places, things, and situations. Dogs with autism do not take well to changes in routine and do best staying inside the same home. You should also try to avoid any change in their toys, crates, or beds.
You will quickly learn what triggers your dog's atypical behaviors such as aggressiveness and fear. During walks, take note where your dog hesitates or feels threatened. For example, if you go to a dog park and your dog is fearful for no reason, steer clear in the future.
Regular sessions with a dog behaviorist may help your dog become more open, cooperative, and engaged in life. Due to demand modeled on Cesar Milan's "dog whisperer" approach, many dog trainers and behaviorists have gone the extra mile to get more education in dog behavior and clocked many hours of on-the-job training. Many offer effective programs to help dogs with mental health disorders.
How autistic dogs are different from other dogs.
Like people who have autism, dogs will have impaired social skills to varying degrees. Because autism is different in individuals, your dog may be able to socialize with some other dogs or only specific ones. Bonding with humans may also be difficult for autistic dogs.
What's the future of canine autism research?
According to News Medical, a coalition of researchers are collectively working on a study called "Canines, Kids and Autism: Decoding Obsessive Behaviors in Canines and Autism in Children." The study seeks to find the causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder in three types of purebred dogs: bull terriers, Doberman pinschers, and Jack Russell terriers. The scientists will conduct whole genome sequencing using state-of-the-art technology to pinpoint genes that may be responsible for atypical behaviors. This research may lead to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of autism in both people and dogs in the future.
- Psychology Today: Pets on the Couch: Do Animals Need Freud and Pfizer?
- Nature: Elevated Serum Neurotensin and CRH levels in Children With Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Tail-chasing Bull Terriers
- Amazon: Pets on the Couch
- Center for Canine Behavior Studies: Nicolas Dodman
- Autism Canada: What is Autism
- Time: Dog Owners: Stop Worrying About Autism and Vaccinate Your Pet
- Psychology Today: Can Dogs Have Autism
- Cesar's Way: Before You Vaccinate Your Dog
- Pet MD: Can Dogs Have Autism
- News Medical: American Humane and TGen uncover genetic basis of obsessive-compulsive disorder in dogs