Autism is a condition known to impact the nervous system. People with this condition can have a hard time processing emotions and non-verbal signals. Some of the signs of autism in humans can range from having communication issues, to having difficulty dealing with social settings or showing repetitive behavior.
Dogs can show similar behaviors to autistic humans, but instead of calling it autism in dogs, this condition is commonly referred to as “canine dysfunctional behavior”.
What are the causes of autism in dogs?
While the exact cause of autism in dogs is still unknown, scientists have found that autism is congenital which means that dogs are born with this condition. Some researchers suggest that dogs suffering from autism lack what are called “mirror” neurons in their brains.
These neurons are the ones considered to help dogs pick up social norms by mimicking what older dogs do in social environments. Without these neurons, dogs are unable to develop the social skills they need to build relationships with other animals. As these studies progress, veterinarians and dog owners are starting to realize that dogs can react and experience the world much like humans with autism do.
To diagnose autism in dogs, veterinarians perform a number of behavioral tests to see how a dog responds in certain situations. However, these tests are not always accurate since there are other disorders such as anxiety that can result in autism-like symptoms.
Unlike autism in humans, autism in dogs doesn’t seem to have a spectrum which means that veterinarians have to look for behavioral cues and compare them to what is considered to be normal behavior in dogs.
What are the signs of autism in dogs?
As mentioned earlier, diagnosing autism in dogs can be tricky. There are some signs you can look out for and, if you start noticing a lot of them on your dog, you should consider having it checked by a veterinarian whenever possible. These signs are:
- Antisocial behaviors: When dogs don’t want to interact with other animals, don’t pay attention to their owners on walks or during feeding or playtime.
- Communication issues: When dogs aren’t able to express any feelings or moods through the wagging of their tails and other cues. Dogs with autism may appear to be in a constant “trance-like” state, staring in one direction for long periods of time and often avoiding eye contact with humans and other animals.
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviors: When dogs show repetitive behaviors such as circling a room over and over again, chronic tail-chasing, obsessive teeth grinding, lining up toys, or obsessive chewing.
- Inappropriate reactions: When dogs are hypersensitive to any kind of stimuli and even a gentle pat on the head leads them to respond with a reaction of pain, aggression, or fear. These dogs can overreact to sudden sounds, showing a lack of ability to deal with new experiences, and end up avoiding new environments and situations by retreating to safe and familiar spaces.
How can owners manage autism in dogs?
First and foremost, before treating your dog as if it has autism, you’ll need to have a proper diagnosis by a licensed veterinarian, so other medical conditions ruled out. If your dog has been diagnosed with autism, unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for this condition but there are some things you can do to manage it:
- Medication: Although there isn’t any medication that can treat autism in dogs, there are some that can help curb symptoms and provide some relief for compulsive behaviors, and help calm an autistic dog.
- Creating a safe and secure space: Autistic dogs appear to be afraid of almost everything and so it’s important to offer a safe and secure place such as a crate or a bed which they can go to whenever they start to feel anxious or nervous.
- Providing a stress-free space: Try to avoid situations that can stress an autistic dog altogether and don’t force it to do things that can cause anxiety.
- Have a regular exercise routine: Consistent and regular exercise is important for any dog but especially for dogs with autism as it can reduce anxiety and stress and help keep their minds busy and be a great distraction from compulsive behaviors.
- Positive reinforcement: Besides being the key to everything related to dog training, it’s especially important to manage an autistic dog’s compulsive behaviors. Owners of autistic dogs should work with trainers or behaviorists that specialize in positive reinforcement to learn what is the best way to work with their dogs.
Making sense of it all
Although dogs can have autism, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be great pets. It’s all about learning how you can avoid situations that can bring your dog any stress and ensuring it always has an option to get away from it and retreat to a safe and secure space.
Autism in dogs is a condition that should always be properly diagnosed and managed by a vet. Vets are also able to work with owners to determine a dog’s triggers that cause negative behavioral reactions. There is still a lot more that we need to learn about autism in dogs to learn about better ways to diagnose, treat and manage this condition.