(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Fairmont Preparatory Academy

Can animals get autism?

If you have a pet at home, you might have wondered why your companion often gets obsessed with certain objects, sometimes to an excessive degree. If so, the chances are: your pet might have autism. 

As Mayo Clinic defines, autism is a type of developmental disorder that impairs one’s ability to communicate and interact. While its cause and diagnostic methods are yet to be fully established, scientists have identified common symptoms and characteristics unique to the disorder: The condition is predominantly shown in males, and patients display obsessive and antisocial behaviors.

Interestingly enough, recent research executed by Nicholas Dodman and his colleagues at Tufts University revealed that some dogs — especially a breed known as bull terriers — showed behaviors similar to that of human autism. 

In a 2011 experiment, Nicholas Dodman and Alice Moon-Fanelli observed and analyzed the behaviors of 145 bull terriers with the typical symptoms of autism mentioned above, along with 188 control breeds. The result turned out: most of the dogs classified as having autism were males and showed explosive aggression, obsession, seizure-like behavior and trancing (dazing at an empty space).

While all of the listed traits are analogous to the human form of autism, the team had to identify the biological markers to further corroborate their hypothesis, Dodman elaborated in his article in Psychology Today. 

To identify the biomarkers in the dogs’ brain, the researchers initially relied on CAT scan and EEG recordings, which revealed that affected dogs showed symptoms of hydrocephalus and abnormal brain wave patterns, according to Dodman. In addition, the team executed a blood sample test of the affected population to identify the neurotensin and corticotropin-releasing hormone levels.

Comparing the NT and CRT levels can give a deeper insight into whether the conditions of these bull terriers can be classified as a canine version of autism, as these peptide levels tend to increase in human autism, according to Dodman.

The result turned out: both NT and CRT levels were greater in the group identified with autism than those of the control group. Such data suggest that dogs can also suffer from similar symptoms of autism as humans, yet deeper research into the field would be necessary to further generalize the findings to all canines as a whole. 

Dogs were not the only animals identified with autism; another research done by a team led by Kyoko Yoshida in Japan revealed that monkeys can also be diagnosed with the same condition.

To find the genetic factors that contribute to the autistic behaviors in monkeys, the team studied the correlation between sociability and adaptability of Macaque monkeys and their mirror neuron function. In the experiment, Yoshida devised a simplified version of the “Wisconsin Card Sorting Task,” where the monkeys had to match the picture cards by their numbers, colors or shapes.

Like human autism, the researchers found out that affected monkeys could not adapt to the changes in the rules shown by other monkeys, and displayed reduced socially affiliative behaviors among the population. In addition, such monkeys had a reduced number of mirror-type neurons and showed genetic variation in a gene related to serotonin function, further suggesting that the conditions may be genetic-linked, according to the research

Still, there are limitations to their study. Like the previous experiment with bull terriers, the team implies that more detailed descriptions of social and repetitive behaviors throughout development would be necessary to apply their findings to other species of animals.  

In conclusion, it is still too early to conclude that dogs, monkeys and animals develop the same type of autistic disorder like humans. More in-depth research regarding this topic would be necessary to further generalize the scientists’ findings to other species, and possibly, to humans.

Yet, it is evident that such efforts will ultimately pave another path in finding the treatment of one of the biggest enigmas in the human brain: autism.