Canine Autism



This article is posted as part of PGAA’s curation efforts. This was originally posted at MySweetPuppy


Can Dogs Have Autism – 5 Symptoms That’ll Help You Diagnose It – Nov 9, 2016

Autism is a developmental syndrome that is diagnosed in children. Some dog owners have observed signs similar to those observed in children with autism and they claim that their dogs have autism. But can dogs suffer from Autism? The best answer to this question is that we don’t know yet.

Autism can be defined as a spectrum neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

It also includes restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. These issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning (Mayo Clinic).

“Autism is spectrum disorder that impacts how a child perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in crucial areas of development, such as, social interaction, communication and behavior.” (Mayo Clinic)

The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in human patients is based on the following two key criteria:

  • Impairments in social communication and social interaction
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

It is widely known that some dogs show repetitive patterns of behavior similar to those observed in children with autism. Some animals show repetitive behaviors such as pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behaviors.

Stereotypical behaviors are not just repetitive, but also pointless and usually occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. These behaviors are commonly seen in wildlife animals kept in captivity (e.g. zoo animals). However, some repetitive behaviors such as tail chasing have been related to a syndrome that some people denominate canine autism.

One of the many symptoms observed in children with autism is that they perform repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping, or may perform activities that could cause harm, such as head-banging. For this reason, some scientists and dog behavior experts have linked repetitive behaviors in dogs with canine autism.

However, the mere that fact that a dog presents repetitive or stereotypical behaviors does not mean that he/she is an autistic dog.

On the Tufts University’s Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference in 2011, Dr. Moon-Fanelli mentioned that tail-chasing compulsion in bull terriers appears to have several similarities with human autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Moon-Fanelli describes two research studies where owners of Bull Terries who presented tail-chasing compulsion voluntarily reported that their dogs were “socially withdrawn” and some owners specifically used the term “autistic dog” to describe their dog’s personality.

Dogs with tail-chasing compulsion spin in circles and chase their tails. This conduct presumably derives from a hard-wired predatory behavior. Dogs may vocalize and injure themselves in the process of tail chasing if they catch and bite their tail.

Bull Terriers, German Shepherds and their crosses appear to be particularly susceptible to this troubling compulsion. Experts in the subject have observed several similarities between tail chasing in dogs and children with autism.

Some of these similarities are:

  • Repetitive nature of the behavior
  • Potential for self-injurious behavior as a result of tail chasing
  • Early onset life occurrence
  • Precipitating events triggering onset

Researches have found that tail chasers tend to have impaired social interactions with other dogs and with humans. These dogs are difficult to train, and present a general inability to focus on tasks and relationships. Affected dogs are often unable to cope with normal daily stressors and tend to be very sensitive to some noises.

They can also present unusual fears and phobias, and a lack of self-control. The incidence of seizures in a small percentage of Bull Terrier dogs who present the tail-chasing compulsion also suggests a relationship of this condition with autism in humans (Moon-Fanelli, 2011).

Why Is It Difficult To Diagnose Canine Autism?

Accurate diagnosis of autism in children requires evaluation by clinicians with extensive training and experience. Since autism is a unique mixture of symptoms shown in each child, there is not a specific set of characteristics that will define an autistic child. The same seems to be true for our beloved companions.

We should take into account that autism has been widely studied in humans while there are very little studies on canine autism. Although some people seem to be diagnosing autism in dogs, we do not have the necessary scientific evidence to diagnose the syndrome in our four-legged friends.

We need more scientific evidence to show the reliability of diagnostic criteria in dogs and to determine if the syndrome of canine autism really exists. We should be very careful before we can extrapolate the clinical features and diagnostic criteria from human patients to canine patients.

As mentioned before, autism is characterized by impairments in social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

In dogs, we can easy observe and diagnose stereotypical behavior, however, impairments in social interactions can be very hard to diagnose in our canine companions, making the diagnosis of canine autism a real challenge.

Currently, canine autism is under research and although there is some evidence that points to the existence of this syndrome, or at least a syndrome similar to the one presented in humans, we cannot diagnose autistic dogs yet.

Even though we do not know the precise signs of canine autism we can recognize signs of behavioral disorders in dogs, such as:

  • Difficulty interacting with other dogs or with people
  • Restricted behavior – dogs that limit themselves to performing only a few activities
  • Repetitive actions – such as tail chasing, pacing, circling and spinning
  • Apathy and inability to communicate joy, fear or other feelings
  • Lack of interest in physical activities and games

If you observe these signs on your dog, it is possible that he/she has a behavioral disorder and you should consult a veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist.


Mayo Clinic. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved on January 13, 2016 from:

Mills, D.S. (2010). Repetitive Movement Behaviour Problems Within Veterinary Behavioural Medicine. Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group. Animal Behaviour Cognition & Welfare Group, Dept of Biological Sciences, University of Lincoln, Riseholme Park, Lincoln, United Kingdom. Retrieved on January 13, 2016 from:

Moon-Fanelli, A (2011). Genetic Underpinnings of Anomalous Canine Behaviors. Tufts’ Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference. Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC, Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital, Brooklyn, CT, USA. Retrieved on January 13, 2016 from:

About the author:

Dr. Stephanie Flansburg-Cruz practices mixed animal veterinary medicine and she has a special interested in shelter medicine and animal welfare. Stephanie enjoys volunteering at local animal shelters, reading, writing and traveling.

Mary Nielsen founded and is a passionate dog lover, blogger, and part-time music teacher. She founded to share her ups and downs of being a pet parent to a bunch of adorable mutts. When she is not playing with them or teaching, you can find her experimenting in the kitchen. Terms of Service