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Can Dogs Suffer From ADHD?

Dogs, like human children, can suffer from ADHD symptoms.

Source: Victor Trovo Afonso photo/Creative Commons License
Source: Victor Trovo Afonso photo/Creative Commons License

The more information that scientists uncover about the behavior of dogs, the clearer it is becoming that there is a lot of similarity between the behavior of young human children and canines. While the focus of most of the research has been on mental abilities shared by children and dogs, we are now learning that certain behavioral problems are also shared by young humans and canines. One of these possible behavior problems is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

ADHD is a behavioral condition that has been extensively studied in humans, and in children, in particular. The symptoms in children typically involve hyperactivity, distractibility, an inability to pay attention for sustained periods, impulsiveness, poorly adjusted social behavior, and sometimes snappish or aggressive responses, although it is not necessary for any one individual to have all of these symptoms at the same time. ADHD greatly reduces the individual's ability to learn, particularly in educational settings, and to live in harmony with others.

The recent consensus among researchers is that dogs, especially those who appear to be consistently out of control, might be suffering from ADHD. This is supported by the fact that dogs have the same chemical markers as human sufferers do, such as low blood phospholipid levels. In dogs, the flock of symptoms can also include fearfulness and noise sensitivity, which added to the impulsiveness and hyperactivity can be a nightmare for their owners. Some of the predisposition toward ADHD seems to be genetic in nature, since the data shows that certain breeds, such as German shepherds, are more likely to have the problem. One dog trainer that I know laughingly claims that as far as he is concerned, all terriers are born with a predisposition to ADHD.

A new piece of research published in the journal Veterinary Medicine Open Journal has also recently shown that certain aspects of the dogs' experience and environment can lead to increased symptoms which look like ADHD. The research team was headed by Nikolai Hoppe at the Institute for Biology and Environmental Sciences at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany. It involved an extensive set of questionnaires that were given to dog owners. The survey questionnaires looked at the personality of the dogs, as well as social factors and living conditions.

The research report contains quite a number of analyses, and I can only touch on the highlights here. Not surprisingly, when it comes to personality measures, the dogs that are most likely to show ADHD symptoms are those which are rated as being less calm overall. These dogs are also rated as being less trainable and less sociable.

Of more interest is the fact that certain environmental and social conditions affect the appearance of ADHD symptoms. Dogs that have lots of social contacts with other dogs and many interactions with people seem to show fewer symptoms of ADHD. The more that you physically connect with and play with the dog, the fewer the problems. Dogs that are left alone for extended periods of time are also more likely to show hyperactive symptoms on your return. Another interesting association the researchers found is that dogs who sleep alone (isolated from their owner or other dogs) have more problems. Finally, male dogs who have been neutered are more likely to show symptoms of ADHD.

Is there any way to be definitely sure that your dog has ADHD? Remember that some dogs (as my trainer friend pointed out about terriers) are naturally more active, bouncy, and distractible than others. The true test of ADHD is to give your dog a prescribed stimulant under controlled clinical conditions and then monitor changes in heart rate, respiratory rate, and behavior. For a dog with ADHD, a stimulant will reduce the symptoms. Yes, you read that right—the paradox is that a stimulant can actually calm a dog (or a person) who has ADHD.

To see why a stimulant might help to reduce ADHD symptoms, let us consider the situation where we are dealing with a child suffering from this problem. The child is constantly self-stimulating. They wiggle and twitch, they talk continuously, and seem to do everything except follow directions. When you give a stimulant to such a child they no longer have such an urgent need to self-stimulate, which means that they are then more likely to listen and follow directions rather than engaging in behaviors that involve lots of movement and responses to any sort of distractions in their environment. The same seems to be true for dogs with ADHD. Thus, the application of the stimulant seems to be the best test, and is often also the treatment prescribed by veterinarians to help lessen the problem.

All of this research tends to support the existing belief that human and canine diseases and mental conditions are similar, which suggests that dogs can serve as excellent models for a variety of human problems, or conversely humans can serve as an excellent model for understanding canine mental conditions and illnesses.

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Hoppe N, Bininda-Emonds ORP, Gansloßer U. (2017). Correlates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)- like behavior in domestic dogs: First results from a questionnaire-based study. Veterinary Medicine Open Journal, 2(3, 95-131. doi: 10.17140/VMOJ-2-122