No, Dogs Can't Have Autism, But There Is a Canine Equivalent

Even though dogs aren't on the spectrum, new research is emerging showing they can inherit a similar condition.

Published June 23, 2023
Young woman kissing her golden retriever dog at the waterfront

Autism is a complex and well-studied spectrum of behaviors in humans, characterized by challenges with social interactions, speech and nonverbal communication, along with repetitive behaviors. Dogs have been known to exhibit similar behaviors, and many people ask if something equivalent to autism can occur in dogs. While autism is a condition diagnosed in humans, there is a condition that is similar in dogs.

Can Dogs Have Autism?

Autism comes with a wide range of potential behaviors associated with it. People who have autism may have difficulty with certain social situations or have more difficulty communicating, among many other possible outcomes.

It turns out, there is a condition dogs can be diagnosed with that is somewhat similar to autism. In veterinary medicine, this is called canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB), and it isn't just a version of autism that dogs can have. Canine dysfunctional behavior has some similarities, but dogs are obviously different from humans, and they communicate with us in completely different ways.

Canine Dysfunctional Behavior

Researchers aren't sure what causes canine dysfunctional behavior. It appears to be a hereditary condition, and if your dog has it, then it's not something that is developed over time.

Border Collie sitting in the living room

Studies have also found that dogs with this diagnosis lack particular neurons in their brain that help them learn how to interact. This could be why dogs with canine dysfunctional behavior act differently than others when they're in a setting with other dogs.

For example, a dog with canine dysfunctional behavior may not be interested in interacting with other dogs. They may be overstimulated and stressed out at the dog park, or have difficulty bonding with other humans. It's important to remember that dogs' behavior is not always directly comparable to humans, and how canine dysfunctional behavior presents isn't always directly comparable to autism. Autism spectrum disorder is a complex, multi-faceted condition that researchers are still struggling to understand.

Fast Fact

While dogs can't be diagnosed with autism, researchers have proposed using canines for study purposes to better understand ASD in humans because they fit models better than almost any other animal.

Signs of Canine Dysfunctional Behavior

There is a lot to CDB, and researchers are really just beginning to understand it.

  • Antisocial behavior: Dogs are naturally social animals that love to play and interact with each other and humans. If you notice that your dog doesn't want to interact with anyone other than you, this could be a sign they have the dog version of autism.
  • Obsession or repetition: Repetitive behavior or obsession with particular objects can be a sign of CDB. This could range from pacing in circles for long periods of time or continuous tail chasing. Some dogs will even go as far as lining up toys.
  • Heightened reactions to stimuli: Dogs with canine dysfunctional behavior often overreact to even the slightest sound. They may also have a hard time with any sort of change in the home. Something as simple as moving your couch to a different area of the room could cause significant stress.
Quick Tip

To help your veterinarian or behaviorist understand what your dog is experiencing, take notes in a designated notepad outlining their unusual behaviors along with what they were doing when the behavior occurred.

Getting to Know the Research

Research into autism-like behaviors in dogs started in the 1960s when veterinarians noticed some dogs exhibiting unusual social behaviors. Jumping ahead to 2011, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists studied Bull Terriers due to their repetitive tail chasing behaviors. The study involved a large sample size of 333 Bull Terriers that offered insight. Of the 333 Bull Terriers:

A bull terrier dog stands on the pavement
  • 145 Bull Terriers repetitively chased their tails
  • 188 Bull Terriers did not display any signs of autistic behavior

The results from this study showed tail chasing behavior was more common in male dogs than females. Dogs that repetitively chased their tails were more likely to show aggression periodically and zoned out from time to time. This study doesn't provide enough information to give a definitive answer on if dogs can have autism similar to humans, but it's an interesting start.

Conditions With Similar Symptoms

It isn't easy to make a one-to-one comparison to canine behavior and human disorders. There are a lot of conditions dogs may have that mimic symptoms of CDB:

  • Canine compulsive disorder: This is similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. Some of the symptoms may appear similar to CDB, but social interaction may not be impacted.
  • Canine anxiety disorders: Dogs can have anxiety, just like humans, and these symptoms also show up in CDB. It isn't always easy to tell whether a dog is just anxious, or if something else is going on.
  • Neurological conditions: Dogs who have tumors or growths - and even cancer - in their brains may exhibit a wide range of symptoms, some of which are similar to CDB.
  • Age-related changes: As dogs age, they can exhibit many symptoms similar to CDB. This is known as canine cognitive dysfunction, and it may be related to be CDB.

Dogs can't just tell us why they're doing the things they do, and their symptoms aren't always obvious. Even common medical conditions can produce behaviors in dogs that someone might mistake for CDB.

When to See Your Vet

Typically, CDB is a life-long condition that your dog will live with. There is no cure, and your best option is managing unwanted behaviors with compassion for your dog. If you suspect your dog has canine dysfunctional behavior, talk to your veterinarian.

Need to Know

The test for canine dysfunctional behavior checks to see how your dog responds to certain situations. But this is difficult because anxiety and stress could cause similar symptoms, so diagnosis is not clear-cut.

Helping Your Dog Live Their Best Life

Even if you can't get a diagnosis, your veterinarian or canine behaviorist can let you know they suspect CDB due to your dog's symptoms. Fortunately, like humans on the spectrum, dogs can also live perfectly normal, happy lives. Your veterinarian or behaviorist can let you know how to help maintain calmness in your dog along with how to best interact with them.

Trending on LoveToKnow
No, Dogs Can't Have Autism, But There Is a Canine Equivalent