What Animals Can Have Autism?

Discover what animals can have autism and how they contribute to autism therapy and research.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
July 8, 2024

What Animals Can Have Autism?

Understanding Animal Therapy for Autism

In the quest to understand autism and develop effective therapies, researchers have often turned to the animal kingdom. The query "what animals can have autism?" leads to a fascinating exploration of various animal models used to study Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Animal Models for Studying Autism

Different animals, due to their unique genetic, neurobiological, and behavioral characteristics, serve as models to mimic the clinical features of ASD. Each animal species and modeling method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages in ASD research.

Here's an overview of some of the animals commonly used in autism research:

  1. Dogs: Dogs are considered an innovative and unique model for studying human neuropsychiatric diseases, including ASD. They exhibit significant inter-individual differences in social cognitive performance, greater phenotypic similarity to humans, and symptoms functionally similar to the human condition [1].
  2. Rodents: Rodents, such as mice and rats, are classic animal models widely used in ASD research due to their similarities in neuroanatomy, biochemistry, electrophysiology, and genetics to humans. They are advantageous for basic scientific studies and preclinical trials.
  3. Non-Human Primates: Non-human primates (NHPs) like macaques are used as animal models due to their genetic, neurobiological, and behavioral similarities to humans. They exhibit complex social groupings, communication through facial expressions, body language, and sound, and behavioral defects similar to humans.
  4. Zebrafish: Zebrafish serve as a model system for studying ASD due to their genetic and physiological similarities to humans. They have been used to study brain development, synaptic growth, social behaviors, and other functions related to ASD.
Animal Advantage Use in Research
Dogs Significant inter-individual differences in social cognitive performance Studying human neuropsychiatric diseases
Rodents Similarities in neuroanatomy, biochemistry, electrophysiology, and genetics to humans Basic scientific studies and preclinical trials
Non-Human Primates Genetic, neurobiological, and behavioral similarities to humans Studying complex social groupings, communication, and behavioral defects
Zebrafish Genetic and physiological similarities to humans Studying brain development, synaptic growth, social behaviors

Through these diverse animal models, researchers continue to gain a deeper understanding of autism, paving the way for more effective and targeted therapies.

Dogs in Autism Therapy

Research into canines and autism has brought forth some fascinating findings. Dogs have been observed to display autism-like symptoms, and some researchers believe that understanding these behaviors could provide further insight into human autism.

Signs of Autism in Dogs

In the 1960s, veterinarians started to take notice of autism-like symptoms in some dogs. More recently, in 2015, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists presented a study on tail-chasing behavior in Bull Terriers, suggesting a possible link to autism. The study observed specific traits in 132 Bull Terriers, with tail chasing being more prevalent in males and associated with occasional aggression and trance-like behaviors [2].

A few key signs of autism in dogs can include:

  • Antisocial behaviors, such as avoiding interaction with other animals or humans.
  • Lack of attention during walks, feeding, or playtime.
  • Communication issues, such as avoiding eye contact and entering trance-like states.
  • Repetitive motions, such as circling a room, chronic tail-chasing, obsessive teeth grinding, or lining up objects.
  • Inappropriate reactions to stimuli, such as yelping or barking at gentle touches, and hypersensitivity to various stimuli.
  • Avoidance of new environments or situations, with a preference for familiar and safe spaces like under the bed or in a closet.
  • Lethargy and tiredness, with a preference for resting in familiar areas rather than engaging in high-energy activities.

Behaviors in Dogs with Autism

Dogs potentially on the autism spectrum may display certain characteristic behaviors. These can include repetitive motions, such as circling a room, chronic tail-chasing, obsessive teeth grinding, or lining up objects. These behaviors are considered characteristic of autistic behavior in dogs.

Additionally, dogs with autism may exhibit inappropriate reactions to stimuli — for example, yelping or barking at gentle touches. Such dogs can be hypersensitive to various stimuli. They may also avoid new environments or situations and have a strong preference for familiar and safe spaces, like under the bed or in a closet.

Autistic dogs may also show signs of lethargy and tiredness, preferring to rest in familiar areas rather than engaging in high-energy activities. They may lack interest in their surroundings and exhibit reduced physical activity, which could be concerning, especially for high-energy breeds [2].

In conclusion, while more research is needed to definitively link autism in dogs to the human condition, the observed behaviors and signs provide a promising avenue for further study. Dogs with autism-like behaviors can also serve as a potential model for understanding and treating autism in humans.

Rodents as Autism Models

To further understand autism, scientists often turn to rodent models, particularly mice and rats. These animals can display behaviors directly related to the three core symptoms of autism, providing valuable insights into this complex disorder.

Autism-like Behaviors in Mice and Rats

Mice and rats can exhibit deficits in social interaction and communication, as well as increased repetitive or stereotyped motor behaviors - all key symptoms of autism. Various methods such as the 3 chamber assay, ultrasonic vocalizations, self-grooming, and marble burying are used to assess these behaviors [3].

Autism Symptoms Rodent Behavior Assessment Method
Social interaction deficits Avoidance of other animals 3 Chamber Assay
Communication deficits Altered ultrasonic vocalizations Ultrasonic Vocalization Analysis
Repetitive behaviors Excessive self-grooming, burying marbles Self-Grooming and Marble Burying Assay

Additionally, mouse models with mutations in genes like Shank3 and Cntnap2 have shown impairments in social behaviors, repetitive self-grooming, and resistance to change, resembling some features of autism spectrum disorders.

Risk Factors for Autism in Rodent Models

Maternal infection, particularly viral infection in the first trimester, has been identified as a risk factor for autism in offspring. Rodent models utilizing maternal respiratory infection with influenza virus or maternal immune activation with polyinosine:cytosine (poly(I:C)) have been studied extensively to observe behaviors similar to core symptoms of autism in offspring.

Additionally, maternal administration of valproic acid (VPA) during early pregnancy can lead to offspring with behavioral abnormalities consistent with autism, including increased stereotypic/repetitive behavior, decreased social interaction, altered sensitivity to sensory stimuli, impaired PPI, elevated anxiety, and impaired reversal learning. These behaviors are also observed in offspring from maternal immune activation (MIA) models [3].

Autism Risk Factors Observed Behaviors in Rodent Models
Maternal Viral Infection Deficits in social interaction and communication, increased repetitive behaviors, enhanced anxiety
Maternal Valproic Acid (VPA) Administration Increased stereotypic/repetitive behavior, decreased social interaction, altered sensitivity to sensory stimuli, impaired PPI, elevated anxiety, impaired reversal learning

Finally, mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders like Fragile X syndrome and Tuberous sclerosis have provided insights into the underlying mechanisms of these disorders and potential therapeutic strategies for autism spectrum disorders [4].

Non-Human Primates in ASD Research

In the quest to answer the question, "what animals can have autism?", non-human primates, particularly macaques, have proven to be of significant interest in the field of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research.

Macaques as Models for Human Behavior

Macaques, including rhesus and crab-eating macaques, are used as animal models due to their genetic, neurobiological, and behavioral similarities to humans. These primates exhibit complex social groupings and communicate through facial expressions and body language, much like humans do. Their use in ASD research provides valuable insights into the nature of autism and the potential interventions that may be beneficial [1].

Primate Species Use in ASD Research
Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) Modeling human behavior
Crab-eating Macaques (M. fascicularis) Modeling human behavior

Behavioral Similarities to Humans

Not only do macaques share key genetic and neurobiological traits with humans, but they also display behavioral patterns that mirror those seen in individuals with autism. This includes behavioral defects and unique brain regions associated with social behavior similar to humans.

These behavioral similarities have made macaques a valuable model in ASD research, allowing scientists to study the intricacies of autism in a controlled environment. Such studies help to further our understanding of autism, its causes, and potential therapies.

In conclusion, while it's not accurate to say that these primates "have autism" in the human sense, their behavioral and neurological similarities to humans make them a crucial component in autism research [1].

Unique Advantages of Zebrafish

While dogs, rodents, and non-human primates have been explored in relation to autism, another, perhaps more unexpected, animal has also proven useful in ASD research: the zebrafish.

Zebrafish in ASD Research

Zebrafish, a common freshwater species found in many aquariums, serve as a model system for studying Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These small fish are increasingly used in scientific research due to their rapid development, high reproductive rate, and transparent embryos which make them ideal for genetic manipulation and observation.

Remarkably, zebrafish have been used to study brain development, synaptic growth, social behaviors, and other functions related to ASD. Their use in such research offers a unique advantage, as they allow researchers to observe and analyze the impacts of ASD-related genetic mutations in real-time.

Genetic and Physiological Similarities

One of the main reasons why zebrafish are used in ASD research is due to their genetic and physiological similarities to humans. A large proportion of human genes have functional counterparts in zebrafish, making them a powerful tool for investigating brain development, synaptic growth, and other functions related to the central nervous system.

Zebrafish Feature Human Counterpart
Brain Development Neural Development
Synaptic Growth Neuron Connection Growth
Social Behaviors Social Interaction

This remarkable genetic similarity allows researchers to study the effects of ASD-related genes in a controlled, observable environment. In turn, this provides valuable insights into the biological mechanisms underlying the disorder, paving the way for potential treatments and therapies.

When considering what animals can have autism, it’s important to remember that while these animals may not have autism in the same way humans do, their genetic and physiological similarities can provide crucial insights into the disorder. By continuing to study these animal models, researchers can further our understanding of ASD and contribute to the development of new and effective therapeutic strategies.

Animal Therapy Benefits for ASD

When it comes to understanding and treating Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), animal models have proven to be an invaluable tool. ASD is a collection of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by early onset deficits in social behavior and communication, paired with repetitive behaviors and restricted interests [5]. Animal models play a key role in both "forward translation", in which new basic science discoveries are developed into novel clinical therapies, and in "reverse translation", which allows for mechanistic exploration of clinical findings.

Social and Communication Symptoms

Animal therapy can be particularly beneficial for addressing the social and communication symptoms associated with ASD. The interaction with animals can help to improve social interaction, communication skills, and even reduce anxiety levels. This is particularly true for animals such as dogs, who can provide a non-judgmental and comforting presence for individuals with ASD.

For instance, a child with ASD may find it easier to practice communication skills with a dog, as the dog will not judge or criticize them. This can boost the child's confidence and help to improve their communication skills over time. Dogs can also provide a calming influence and help to reduce anxiety levels, which can often be a challenge for individuals with ASD.

Comorbidities and Cognitive Abilities

ASD often presents with a multitude of common comorbidities, which may include epilepsy, anxiety, gastrointestinal dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and abnormal sensory processing [5]. Animal therapy can help to address some of these comorbidities. For example, the presence of a therapy dog can help to reduce anxiety levels, while the routine of caring for an animal can improve sleep patterns and general well-being.

Moreover, interacting with animals can also help to improve cognitive abilities. Tasks such as grooming, feeding, and walking an animal can help to improve motor skills, while the responsibility of caring for an animal can improve planning and organizational skills.

In conclusion, animal therapy can offer a range of benefits for individuals with ASD, helping to improve social and communication skills, address comorbidities, and enhance cognitive abilities. As with all therapies, it's important to tailor the approach to the individual's specific needs and preferences to ensure the best possible outcomes.

Animal Attention and ASD

The unique relationship between animals and individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) extends beyond therapy and companionship. It also relates to the intriguing patterns of visual processing and attention allocation observed in people with ASD when they interact with animals.

Visual Processing Patterns

Studies show that children with ASD display atypical visual processing patterns from as early as 2 to 6 months of age, with differences becoming clearly discernible towards the end of the first year of life. Specifically, significantly decreased attention is given to the eyes and direct gaze in children with ASD when compared to typical controls.

However, when it comes to animals, the visual processing patterns appear to differ. Research evidence suggests that children with ASD exhibit a significantly greater attention allocation to animal faces and eye regions, and lesser attention to the animal mouth when compared to human faces. This indicates a clear attentional preference to socially salient regions of animal stimuli.

Attention Allocation in Autism

A closer look at attention allocation reveals another fascinating aspect of the interaction between individuals with ASD and animals. Children with ASD may perceive greater social reward from animal faces compared to human faces, as indicated by greater activation in the amygdala and putamen. Eye tracking studies have shown that children with ASD looked significantly longer at the eyes in animal pictures compared to human pictures [6].

This pattern of attention allocation extends to different regions of animal faces. Children with ASD showed a significantly greater visual attention to the face, left eye, right eye, and eye region regions of all social images when compared to typical controls. However, they allocated comparatively greater attention to the screen or the part of the image that did not contain socially significant information across all the images [6].

In conclusion, these findings suggest that animals play a significant role in the lives of individuals with ASD, not just as companions or therapeutic aids, but also as objects of attention that elicit unique visual processing patterns and attention allocation behaviors. This may further our understanding of the ASD cognitive profile and pave the way for more effective therapeutic interventions involving animals.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8645879/

[2]: https://petcheckurgentcare.com/signs-of-autism-in-dogs/

[3]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3088489/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3513683/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5810939/

[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7309441/