I Think My Cat Has Autism


Before you suspend that vaccination regiment for your pet because you listened to what some celebrity had to say about vaccines causing autism, do a little research. In fact, when it comes to vaccinology and immunology, it would be wise to consult resources from the scientific community.

Autism in humans is a pervasive developmental disorder and those on the autism spectrum typically have difficulty with communicative behavior. Such problems with verbal and nonverbal communication often persist for a lifetime. Severely autistic people and those with high functioning autism (AKA Asperger's Syndrome) also tend to exhibit repetitive behaviors and have obsessive interests and routines. Does this sound like your dog or cat? The cause of autism is not confirmed, but it is suggested that both the environment and genetics play a role.

In her comical book, All Cats Have Asperger's Syndrome Kathy Hoopmann explores some similarities between autistic people and cats, citing that both have "sensitive hearing, scampering at the first sign of being stroked and particular eating habits." According to Mieshelle Nagelschneider, author of The Cat Whisperer and founder of The Cat Behavior Clinic, "Cats may seem aloof and withdrawn at times, but I wouldn't say they they are on the Autism Spectrum Disorder!"

On a more serious note, others claim that all animals are savant-like. My colleague and renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin suggests, in her 2005 book Animals in Translation, that animals are similar to autistic savants with some extraordinary abilities. Temple has great insight as she, herself, is autistic. In the open access journal PLoS Biology, Vallortigara et al. argue that "the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specializations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."

At times my doberman seems to be withdrawn, particularly at home, but I have learned that this is characteristic of the breed. I wouldn't suggest that all dobermans are autistic or have autistic tendencies. I was recently diagnosed with high functioning autism. Perhaps I caught it from my dog and I do hope that I can now claim to be a savant. I'm kidding about "catching" the disorder, but before you start diagnosing your pet with developmental and cognitive deficits, please do a little research and consider the source carefully.

Photo of cat behaviorist Mieshelle Nagelschneider (AKA The Cat Whisperer)

Citation: Vallortigara G, Snyder A, Kaplan G, Bateson P, Clayton NS, et al. (2008) Are Animals Autistic Savants. PLoS Biol 6(2): e42. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060042