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Could Your Dog's Anxiety or Compulsive Behavior Be Autism?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

canine autism

Story at-a-glance -

  • More than a few pet parents have observed behaviors in their dog that appear very similar to behaviors on the human autism spectrum
  • To date, autism isn’t recognized as a disorder in dogs, in large part because much more research is needed into what qualifies as typical and atypical canine behavior
  • Dogs who perform repetitive behaviors and display other classic signs of autism often suffer from generalized anxiety and canine compulsive disorder (CCD)
  • If your dog shows signs of anxiety and/or CCD, there are many things you can do to calm your pet and curb compulsive behaviors

Lots of dogs these days have behavior problems, and more than a few pet parents have wondered if their four-legged family member might have some form of autism. This is especially true for people whose dogs are often non-responsive to their verbal cues or commands, tend to get very amped up in unfamiliar environments, perform repetitive behaviors, or are aggressive.

Even though as far back as 1966 veterinarians observed autism-like behaviors in dogs,1 at the present time canine autism isn't a recognized disorder, in part due to a lack of research into what qualifies as typical and atypical behavior in dogs. But that could change at some point in the future. As DVM and veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valli Parthasarathy explains in an interview with Whole Dog Journal:

"As we are learning more about the complexities of canine neurology, behavior and neurodiversity, the more information there is to help dogs. As we learn more, we may be able to start more finely characterizing different behavioral disorders. We may find that autism is a condition in dogs as it is in people."2

An example of how things can change with additional information is the condition known as canine compulsive disorder (CCD). Dogs with, for example, obsessive licking or tail-chasing behaviors were thought to have the equivalent of the human condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

However, animal behavior experts have more recently determined that the condition in dogs is different from what occurs in humans.

Further, unlike human OCD patients who describe obsessive thoughts, dogs can't tell us what they're thinking while performing repetitive behaviors, so it's not possible to characterize their thoughts as obsessive. As a result, the behavior in dogs is more often referred to these days as simply compulsive rather than obsessive-compulsive.

Signs of Autism in Children and Adults

According to the Mayo Clinic, adults and children with autism spectrum disorder tend to exhibit problems with social interaction and communication skills, as well as limited, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.3 Signs of abnormal social communication and interaction include:

Fails to respond to his or her name or appears not to hear you at times

Resists cuddling and holding, and seems to prefer playing alone, retreating into his or her own world

Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression

Doesn't speak or has delayed speech, or loses previous ability to say words or sentences

Can't start a conversation or keep one going, or only starts one to make requests or label items

Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech

Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them

Doesn't appear to understand simple questions or directions

Doesn't express emotions or feelings and appears unaware of others' feelings

Doesn't point at or bring objects to share interest

Inappropriately approaches a social interaction by being passive, aggressive or disruptive

Has difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as interpreting other people's facial expressions, body postures or tone of voice

Abnormal behavior patterns include:

Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping

Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging

Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change

Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff or exaggerated body language

Is fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn't understand the overall purpose or function of the object

Is unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature

Doesn't engage in imitative or make-believe play

Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus

Has specific food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or refusing foods with a certain texture

Clearly, several of these signs can't be applied to dogs. But my guess is those of you who suspect you have an autistic pup on your hands recognized at least a few, and perhaps several, that describe behaviors you've noticed in your pet.

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Bull Terriers, Tail Chasing and Autism

In 2011, a study was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that looked at the problem of tail chasing in Bull Terriers.4

The researchers evaluated specific traits and DNA analysis of 132 Bull Terriers; 55 tail chasing and 77 control, and found that the behavior is more prevalent in male dogs and is associated with trance-like states of consciousness, as well as episodes of aggression described as "explosive, violent, sudden, and unpredictable, with little to no provocation and no typical warning signals." The researchers observed that (emphasis added):

"Although tail chasing in dogs is commonly described as a compulsive disorder or partial seizure disorder, findings of the present study lead to another possibility. Males had a slight (8%) but significantly greater risk for developing tail chasing than females (Table 2). Furthermore, tail chasing in Bull Terriers is closely associated with episodic aggression and trance-like behavior.

In terms of the cluster of clinical signs and manifestations of tail chasing, it is speculated that this syndrome in Bull Terriers may have features in common with autism in humans.

Autism is also more common in males, is associated with explosive aggression, trance-like staring, and involves repetitive movements and self-injurious behavior. In addition, autism is characterized by autonomy, impaired social interactions, and obsession with objects.

Many owners of Bull Terriers with tail-chasing behavior describe their dogs as asocial, somewhat withdrawn, and abnormally preoccupied with objects, such as balls or sticks. Indeed, many owners use objects to redirect their dog from tail chasing, and the dog responds to the distraction with similar intensity."

Until we have much more research on this subject, canine autism won't be considered an official diagnosis. However, as Parthasarathy explains to Whole Dog Journal, in her experience, many patients brought to her with autism-like symptoms "have underlying generalized anxiety that needs to be addressed." Anxiety can affect every aspect of a dog's life, including their "ability to learn, problem-solve, retain and recall information."

You can learn all about the signs and triggers of anxiety in dogs, as well as tips to calm an anxious dog in my article 9 Lifesaving Ways to Help Calm an Anxious Dog.

More About Compulsive Disorder in Dogs

As I discussed earlier, canine compulsive disorder is characterized by the repetitive performance of behaviors that serve no purpose, including:

Tail chasing

Spinning

Excessive licking or self-mutilation

Flank sucking

Chasing lights or shadows

Fly snapping

Chasing after or pouncing on invisible prey

CCD shouldn't be confused with similar repetitive behaviors some healthy, well-balanced dogs perform. For example, herding dogs and other working breeds evolved to do jobs that require the same behavior over and over again. Many retrievers will fetch the ball from sunrise to sunset; other dogs spin in happy circles when they're excited.

There are also dogs who fixate on smaller animals such as lizards or birds, or inanimate objects like rocks or golf balls. Bored dogs also tend to develop habits that might seem compulsive, such as running along the fence in the front or backyard, or gently licking and chewing a particular paw.

As with humans with OCD, the favored behavior of dogs with CCD can take them over to the point that it interferes with normal daily activities like mealtime and playing. It can also be difficult to interrupt the compulsive behavior once the dog begins performing it.

You can learn more about the fascinating results of research comparing CCD to human OCD, as well as brain scans performed on a group of Doberman Pinschers with compulsive behaviors here.

Help for Dogs With Compulsive Behaviors

If you suspect your dog is developing a compulsive disorder, I strongly encourage you to take her to your veterinarian for a wellness exam to ensure the source of the repetitive behavior is indeed behavioral and not an underlying physical condition that needs to be identified and addressed.

The sooner strange behavior stemming from CCD (and diseases causing behaviors that mimic CCD) is addressed, the sooner you can intervene and help. For example, there are lots of reasons dogs lick certain areas of their bodies, many of which can involve allergies and/or skin disorders. It's important to rule out a problem that actually started in the body rather than CCD, which starts in the head. Other steps you can take to help a dog with CCD:

Feed a nutritionally optimal, species-specific diet that provides everything your dog needs and nothing she doesn't (e.g., dyes, preservatives, artificial flavors, synthetic nutrients).

If your dog has any GI symptoms, evaluate their microbiome. Research shows disruptions in the gut barrier and dysbiosis can exacerbate behavior problems in mammals, human or animal.

Ensure she's getting daily (and sometimes twice a day, depending on the dog), consistent, rigorous exercise that promotes good muscle tone and body weight, and provides for a strong and resilient musculoskeletal system and organ systems. Exercise releases "feel good" hormones dogs benefit from on a daily basis.

Find a hobby or "job" she really enjoys (my personal favorite is K9 nose work) and provide regular social outings where your dog can interact, sniff and communicate with other dogs.

Limit exposure to EMFs5 in your home by turning off the wireless router at night and providing a grounding pad, which can provide relief to animals that are electrosensitive.

Ensure your dog's immune system is balanced and optimally functional. Titer test in lieu of potentially over-vaccinating.

In my experience, there are very few extremely healthy, physically active dogs with intractable compulsive disorders, so I can't overstate the importance of helping your dog be as healthy and active as possible.

Additional Recommendations

As I discussed earlier, dogs with compulsive disorders tend to be more anxious and high-strung than other dogs. An anxious nature may be inherited, but studies suggest environment also plays a role in triggering the expression of a compulsive behavior.

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, makes the point that environmental enrichment by itself probably won't resolve a compulsive disorder, but a stress-free, enriched environment can prevent CCD in the first place and make relapse less likely after a dog has been successfully treated.6

Veterinarians often treat dogs with CCD with drugs that block opioid receptors, but needless to say, I'm not in favor of jumping immediately to pharmaceuticals to treat this condition. They are sometimes appropriate in extreme, intractable cases (for example, a dog headed for the shelter) or when an animal is causing harm to himself.

They can also be beneficial as an interim measure to interrupt the cycle of behavior at the same time other less harmful remedies are being attempted. But my general recommendation is to try behavior modification along with a wide variety of natural remedies first, since every drug has side effects.

In a post in Whole Dog Journal, professional trainer Mardi Richmond discusses additional treatment strategies such as avoiding known triggers, interrupting and redirecting the compulsive behavior, teaching an alternative response, and creating a structured daily routine (to reduce stress).

It's also important not to try to prevent a dog from performing a repetitive behavior with physical restraint, because it typically causes more anxiety, not less.