Senior cat

Everyone – myself included – wants their cat to live forever. But it’s important to remember that as the years accumulate, so does the likelihood that your feline friend will develop age-related health problems.

Among the most perplexing of these problems is feline dementia, also called feline cognitive dysfunction.

Can cats get dementia?

Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviorist based in Ontario, has seen his fair share of this over the past few decades. He describes it as a progressive neurodegenerative disease that “shows many similarities to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, especially in its earlier stages.”

Of course, while it’s easy to feel that way, pet parents aren’t completely powerless when it comes to making sure their senior cats are as comfortable as possible—even after a dementia diagnosis.

“We can, especially the earlier we diagnose, improve the quality of life,” says Landsberg, now veterinary science director at the research organization CanCog and head of research in No fear. “If your GP is seen regularly, he can and will manage [symptoms] early, on first discovery.’

Here’s what you need to know to make sure it’s possible.

Read more: Determining whether dementia is uniquely human

Signs of dementia in cats

Wondering when you should start paying attention?

Although cats can’t communicate with us verbally, “some of the lab studies show a loss of learning and memory in cats as early as 6-8 years of age,” Landsberg explains. “Obvious clinical signs usually don’t appear until after 11 and increase from then on.”


And just as the age of onset can vary depending on the senior cat in question, so can the symptoms they show. Some UK-based researchers have suggested using the acronym VISHDAAL to keep things straight.

  • V — excessive vocalization
  • I — changes in social interaction
  • S — changes in a dream habits
  • H — pollution of the house
  • D – disorientation
  • A — changes in activity
  • A – increased anxiety
  • L — studying the and/or memory deficits

Landsberg notes that some of these changes fall on a spectrum. For example, some cats may suddenly show increased sociability while others show decreased sociability; likewise, some may sleep more and others less.

Not surprisingly, all of these signs have a greater chance of going unnoticed if the cat spends most of its time outside and away from the family. But even for domestic cats, says Landsberg, the most observant owners may still have difficulty recognizing certain changes.

“Cats are more likely to show subtle changes in behavior,” he says, adding that it’s typical for them to avoid family members altogether if they’re not feeling well. “If cats hide or don’t interact as much with owners, they’re less likely to notice subtle changes in behavior.”

There’s still a lot we don’t know

Research shows that feline and canine cognitive dysfunction share many similarities, particularly with regard to clinical features, age of onset of progression, and brain pathology.

“[Yet] there aren’t many studies on prevalence in cats, compared to numerous studies in different countries around the world looking at prevalence in dogs,” says Landsberg.

He suggests that researchers are more invested in the mysteries of canine dementia because man’s best friend is a model for the aging human brain. But that doesn’t mean cats are completely in the dark.

Prevalence of cognitive dysfunction in cats

One of the first studies on the prevalence of cognitive dysfunction in cats was actually done by Landsberg and colleagues. It was published in Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 2003

“We looked at cats coming into our general practice who were over 11 years of age at the time. We assessed them for behavioral signs; we gave them medical examinations,” he says.

They found that nearly 30 percent of cats between the ages of 11 and 14 showed signs of cognitive dysfunction (namely, changes in social interactions). However, that percentage jumped to almost 50 percent when the team looked at cats over the age of 15.

This older group of cats showed a different set of behavioral changes on average: aimless activity and excessive vocalization. Just a few decades ago, Landsberg says, any of these behaviors could have been simply dismissed as “old age” and gone undiagnosed.

Fortunately, this is now changing.

Read more: Signs of dementia in dogs

Does my cat have dementia?

As pet owners become more aware of the various symptoms associated with cognitive dysfunction, Landsberg says, they are reporting them more during routine veterinary visits. That’s a good thing.

Early diagnosis

“The earlier you diagnose [age-related health issues] and don’t think of them as part of normal aging, the better you can manage and prevent their progression,” he says.

During these routine visits, which Landsberg recommends roughly twice a year starting at age 7 or 8, owners are asked to report any behavioral changes they may have noticed. Sometimes this may involve completing a screening questionnaire or medical history – but not always.

Physical examination

The vet will also perform a physical exam to look for signs of age-related problems such as sensory decline, dental disease or heart disease that owners may not have noticed yet. Finally, laboratory tests can reveal any other abnormalities before the outward clinical signs have even had a chance to manifest.

When troubling symptoms occur and cognitive dysfunction is suspected, Landsberg says, “the first thing in treatment is to identify potential medical problems and treat them, because sometimes the signs will improve.”

Symptoms related to pain

Certain thyroid and kidney diseases, for example, can also cause some of the signs associated with cognitive decline. The hardest signs to identify, according to Landsberg, are related to pain (think arthritis), since cats often don’t limp.

Instead, as mentioned earlier, they may simply be less active or less social to hide their pain. On the other hand, the reduction of social interactions can also be explained by hearing and vision loss.

“It’s hard to isolate because older pets—and people—have multiple problems,” Landsberg admits. “You don’t get an aging brain without aging in other organs.”

Treatment of feline dementia

Unfortunately, even after other medical problems are ruled out and cognitive dysfunction appears to be the cause, there aren’t many medical or dietary therapies to turn to.

Food additives

There are some dietary supplements that may prove helpful, Landsberg says, although few have been evaluated for use in cats—and he declined to name specific brands. Instead, he suggests looking for ones that contain antioxidants like Vitamins C and E, or those that support mitochondrial function through L-carnitine, beta-carotene and fatty acids.


As for medications, there are several that are marketed just for dogs. Instead, Landsberg suggests, you may want to put your cat on medications designed to improve the behavioral changes caused by cognitive dysfunction—rather than the cognitive dysfunction itself.

“We have anxiety medication [or pain] which we can use for any cat. We just have to be more careful with the dosing and selection of these drugs for older cats,” he says, adding that natural products such as pheromones and melatonin are also potential options.

Lifestyle changes

In addition to nutritional supplements and medications, lifestyle changes are another great option. Landsberg recommends making sure your cat gets plenty of physical and mental enrichment every day—especially if he can’t see or move well and needs a little prompting.

“Maybe they can’t see either, so you have to put the little toy closer to them,” he says. “[If] have trouble climbing, keep them on the same level or make the climbs easier.”

Also, keep an eye out for stressors in the household (like a new puppy, perhaps) and offer your cat a safe place away from these potential triggers. Somewhere high up, away from others, is always a good idea if the cat can easily climb up there; otherwise, if you can, maybe give the cat its own little room to really get away from it all.

Ultimately, your feline friend will appreciate all the efforts you make to improve their health and happiness.

Read more: How long can cats be left alone?

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *