It’s been said that there is no stronger bond than that between a dog and a child. Humans and dogs developed together, which may explain why we have such deep connections to these companion animals.
A study by Emory University researchers showed that canine brains are very similar to human brains. Dogs share with humans the capacity to experience emotions as well as mental health and brain-based conditions. More recent research delved into the question many dog owners have asked at some point: Can dogs have ADHD?
The mind of your dog
“Even though many people are convinced they know what their dog is thinking, little is actually known about what is going on in dogs’ heads,” says Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He works with dogs in functional MRI research and is the author of What It’s Like to Be a Dog.
“In the last decade or so, however, the situation has begun to change, and we are in the midst of a renaissance of canine cognitive science,” he says. “New research is beginning to shed light on what it’s like to be a dog and the nature of the dog-human bond.”
Dr. Berns says there is growing evidence that dogs do experience the same, or very similar, mental health conditions as humans. This is in part due to the commonality of canine and human brain structures. Carefully watching and evaluating a dog’s behavior can allow veterinary specialists to assess a dog’s mental health and offer guidance to the dog’s owner on how to best help their companion. This can include medications originally developed to treat depression or anxiety in humans.
“Dogs, of course, cannot speak, so they can’t report whether they’re feeling sad or anxious,” says Dr. Berns. “Although neuroimaging may soon change things, we currently have to rely on dogs’ behavior to infer what they are feeling. The psychopharmacopeia for dogs is nearly the same as for humans. The fact that these medications work in dogs speaks to common biological mechanisms of mood regulation.”
Researching canine ADHD
More than 11,000 dogs and their owners were recruited in Finland to explore canine ADHD. Researchers worked with the dogs’ owners and observed the dogs’ behaviors for identifiable levels of hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention.
“Our findings can help to better identify, understand, and treat canine hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention,” says Hannes Lohi, PhD, head of a canine gene research group at the University of Helsinki and Folkhälsan Institute of Genetics in Finland. “Moreover, they indicated similarity with human ADHD, consolidating the role of dogs in ADHD-related research.”
Dr. Lohi’s team discovered additional similarities between canine and human versions of ADHD: Dogs who could be diagnosed with ADHD were more likely to be young (not much more than puppies), male, demonstrated low levels of frustration as aggression, and tended to be more fearful or shy. In humans, boys are almost twice as likely as girls to receive a diagnosis of ADHD, and ADHD is frequently diagnosed in childhood when a child demonstrates symptoms. While some of the specific markers of hyperactivity and inattention differ, many of the symptoms of ADHD in dogs share the appearance of symptoms in humans.
Supporting the understanding that heredity and inherited genes play a strong role in the development of ADHD, the researchers noted that certain breeds of dogs showed a greater risk of developing ADHD than other breeds. Since dog breeders strive to maintain breeding lines, the ability to trace the genetics in certain breeds shows how passing specific genes from parent to child can lead to a child’s inheriting ADHD.
“Hyperactivity and impulsivity on the one hand, and good concentration on the other, are common in breeds bred for work, such as the German shepherd and border collie,” Dr. Lohi says. “In contrast, a more calm disposition is considered a benefit in breeds that are popular as pets or show dogs, such as the chihuahua, long-haired collie and poodle, making them easier companions in everyday life. Then again, the ability to concentrate has not been considered as important a trait in these breeds as in working breeds, which is why inattention can be more common among pet dogs.”
Does this mean dogs can have ADHD?
“It depends on how you define ADHD,” says L. Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd, CHADD’s resident expert. “I think some dogs could pass the DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition] criteria, because it involves a symptoms checklist. Although if dogs don’t get enough attention, they will come up and stick their noses into things. I bet they would pass enough criteria to be able to make the diagnosis.”
Including dogs in research to better understand ADHD is not surprising to him. Dr. Arnold conducted similar research on ADHD-like behaviors and symptoms in dogs in 1973. His research also demonstrated that dogs displayed many of the same behaviors related to ADHD that children did, along with a similar response to treatment. He said the University of Helsinki study was another step from his 1973 study.
“Dogs do contribute additional knowledge about the disorder,” he says. “But what we learn there, we have to try out in humans, because humans are bigger and better than the animal model.”
Dr. Arnold reviewed Dr. Lohi’s study for CHADD. He noted that many of the dogs in the study spent considerable amounts of time alone, which could lead to some of the hyperactive or aggressive behaviors Dr. Lohi’s team observed.
Noting that some breeds in this study seemed to have a higher risk of ADHD-like behaviors, Dr. Arnold says, “These dogs may have a gene that allows them to develop ADHD if they are left alone without a lot of affection. A genetic condition is also environmental. Genes are only expressed by interacting with the environment.”
Does this mean that a child carrying the set of genes that could produce ADHD, might only have ADHD based on environment, similar to some of the dogs in the study? Dr. Arnold says that this is a possibility, and studies like this one on dogs can help ADHD researchers better understand how and why some children with a family member who has ADHD will—or won’t—develop ADHD. He added that environment can include many factors beyond parenting or living situations, and these factors can be outside a person’s ability to control.
As for any specific dog developing ADHD or other neurobiological conditions, it’s always best to check with your own veterinarian if you are concerned about your dog’s mental health. The research team hopes their results can be directed toward both canine and human mental health fields.
“These results can both make it easier to identify and treat canine impulsivity and inattention as well as promote ADHD research,” says team member and doctoral researcher Sini Sulkama.
Interest in more on dogs, pets, and ADHD?
- Q&A: How a Helping Paw Helps with ADHD Symptoms
- More Than Puppy Love
- ADHD and Pet Ownership
- Is Therapy Using Horses Effective for ADHD?
- Animal-Assisted Activities for Children with Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs