This article is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, June 14, Future Tense will host a dog-friendly happy hour event called “What Your Dog Really Thinks of You” in Washington. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
The first couple of spins are pretty funny. “Moon,” a white dog with a black spot over one eye, is chasing his tail. He looks playful, puppyish. But the next several circles start to wear thin, like a toddler repeating a joke. At 12 seconds, Moon has been spinning so much and so aimlessly you’re not laughing any more. The behavior seems off, even concerning.
The video belongs to Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University and the author of Pets on the Couch, a book about animal psychiatry. Moon is a bull terrier, and Dodman believes the animal has a dog version of autism spectrum disorder.
Dog autism, like Moon’s spinning, may seem unserious. But investigating possible autisticlike behavior in canines could also help people. With ASD now affecting 1 in 68 human beings, psychiatrists are eager to find a faster, more accurate way of diagnosing and understanding the disease in people. At the moment, you can’t do a blood test to diagnose ASD. In fact, autism doesn’t have a definite lab test of any kind. For now, autism can only be identified by observing and then analyzing how a patient behaves. Two areas of behavior are scrutinized for telltale autistic patterns: sociability (both verbal and nonverbal) and stereotypies, which are repetitive, intense movements like rocking, spinning and hand-flapping, and fixations on objects or topics. To get a diagnosis of autism, a patient has to have multiple problems across both areas.
Delineating subtle behaviors requires as much art as science, and doctors would love to have a less subjective process, one based on biological markers like genetics or chemicals. Biologizing mental illnesses doesn’t just make diagnoses more accurate. It can also destigmatize psychiatric conditions, make them seem less like an individual’s fault.
Asking “Do animals get autism?” is one way to get at a biological understanding of ASD. Humans aren’t the only living creatures with complex social behaviors that range along a spectrum. From meerkats to California condors, animals in groups protect, instruct, compete with, and support one another. As for stereotypies, nonhuman animals often develop intense repetitive behaviors. Polar bears pace and bob; horses crib and huff; dogs lick their flanks or chase and chew objects.
Dodman is not the first scientist to wonder about autism in nonhuman animals. Laboratory rodents and primates have been studied, and in 1966 the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a paper titled “A Syndrome in the Dog Resembling Human Infantile Autism.” But lab environments (even putting aside ethical concerns) are poor places to study a complex neuropsychiatric condition that has a core element of anxiety and sociability. Pet dogs—loved, owned dogs that live in people’s homes—offer an intriguing comparative population. And Dodman is the first researcher to look seriously at that, starting with bull terriers like Moon.
Bull terriers have long, horsey faces and stout fire-hydrant bodies, but despite their tough reputations, the breed is notorious for odd behaviors and quirky personalities—none of which you see in most public portrayals of the breed. Bull terriers are surprisingly common in pop culture, and you reveal your age by which one you affiliate with. The Bud Light spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie is a bull terrier. So is the Target dog, Bullseye. The toy-terrorizing kid in Toy Story unleashes his bull terrier, Scud, on Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the crew. Gen. George Patton owned Willie, a bull terrier whose namesake was William the Conqueror. If you were reading picture books in the early 1990s, your iconic bull terrier might be Boodil, the eccentric protagonist of a children’s book by Swedish author Pija Lindenbaum.
Of the celebrity bull terriers, only Boodil reliably demonstrates what scientists call the “behavioral phenotype” of the breed. Boodil cowers at the sight of a vacuum cleaner; phobias are common for these dogs. “Trancing” bullies go into a sort of liquid suspension slo-mo state, stopping what they’re doing to stare blankly into a middle distance. Boodil does that, too. “Ghost-walking” or “moon-walking” is a distinctive gliding gait they snap into particularly when walking under shrubbery. Their episodic rage attacks can be directed toward human beings or other dogs. Stereotypies include obsessive tail-chasing, ball-playing, bone-chewing, and a wild rear-end-tucked-under running action bully enthusiasts affectionately call “hucklebutting.”
Dodman has found that as many as 85 percent of any bull terrier litter have compulsive tail-chasing behavior, indicating a strong genetic component. And certain other traits “travel with” the condition. Tail-chasers are predominantly male. They are prone to partial seizures, skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues, and fixations. Some of them seem socially withdrawn and avoid interacting with people and other dogs. “Not all of them do everything,” Dodman says, but “a light bulb came on” when he realized the clustered behaviors had “intriguing parallels” with human autism (which also affects boys and men more than women and girls).
Working with behaviorist Alice Moon-Fanelli, Dodman studied more than 300 bull terriers, about half of which had the autisticlike behaviors. They published the findings in a veterinary journal, but when Dodman approached a human medical journal he was turned away. The editors told him, “You can’t just say this ‘looks like’ autism; you need a biomarker.” So working with a physician at Tufts, he did a follow-up study on two blood chemicals (neurotensin and corticotropin-releasing hormone) that had been associated with ASD in a previous study. Dodman and his team tested a new group of children and a new group of bull terriers. The autistic children and tail-chasing bull terriers had similar elevations in the same chemicals, which was not seen in the control groups. With the behavioral study plus the biomarkers, Dodman published the results in Translational Psychiatry.
Since that paper, Dodman has been working with canine genome experts at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Pinpointing genetic areas that underlie autism would be the gold standard for diagnostics and is something Dodman has done before. (He found a genetic basis of a canine version of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Doberman pinschers.) The autism study is still underway.
Not too long ago, human researchers were resistant to this kind of comparative work, claiming that autism is too complex and too human to be described in other animals. But that’s changing. David Beversdorf studies the condition at the University of Missouri. He became interested in the idea of dog autism when his wife, a therapist and former show dog handler, noticed a subset of miniature poodles with repetitive behaviors that also had difficulties interacting socially with dogs and people. Beversdorf and an interdisciplinary team published a study describing autismlike behavior in poodles. Like Dodman’s work on bull terriers, the behaviors seem relevant, but biomarkers are the next necessary step.
“It’s still seen as somewhat exploratory,” Beversdorf says. “But we do have some evidence that there is something here worth looking for.”
When ASD’s disease pathway is finally found, the first thing that may need to be rethought is the term disorder. Temple Grandin, the author and animal behaviorist who also has autism, points out that autism is a different way of seeing the world, one that connects us to other animals. “Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans,” she wrote in Animals in Translation. “I think most of the time animal genius probably happens for the same reasons autistic genius does: a difference in the brain autistic people share with animals.”