Mental Retardation in Cats

Cat Reflection
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Cats, unlike dogs, are discerning and less eager to please their owner. A cat may not come when called or even respond to its name. And while a forgotten trip to the litter box shouldn't be cause for concern, when a cat seems unusually confused, disoriented, or uncoordinated, a visit to the vet may be warranted. It could be suffering from an acute sickness or could have been exposed to an environmental toxin, causing a temporary lapse of normal behavior. Any abnormal behavior that continues on a daily basis may be the result of a plethora of different health issues. This type of neurologic anomaly can only be diagnosed by a vet.

What Is Mental Retardation?

Metal retardation in cats refers to a host of disorders that can lead to disrupted cognitive functioning. This type of brain misfiring can result in memory loss, incoordination, and basic malfunctioning in everyday cat life. Sometimes these issues are small and acute, caused by a temporary injury or inflammation. And sometimes brain disorders can be major, resulting in a compromised quality of life. Assessing the symptoms and leading your vet towards the cause are the initial steps in treatment, as the conditions causing mental retardation can vary.

Symptoms of Mental Retardation in Cats

Cats learn by remembering. But a kitten who suffered an early head injury may have damaged the portion of the brain that affects short-term memory. A traumatic brain injury could account for difficulty remembering the location of food bowls or litter boxes. It can also explain an unsteady gait, incoordination, and balance issues. Traumatic injuries can also cause stunted growth. So a new pet that seems to be on the smaller side for its age and breed, or a kitten who fails to grow, may have succumbed an injury. Seizure disorders can also cause disorientation, pacing, and confusion just following an episode. And old age can result in senility, presenting as forgetfulness, anxiety, and uncoordinated behavior. When witnessed over and over again, this could be confused for mental retardation.

Toyger (Felis silvestris catus), age 6 weeks, with crossed paws, color black tabby mackerel
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Causes of Mental Retardation

There is much debate over whether or not a cat can have a mental illness. So chances are if your cat seems off, it's probably just sick. However, other forms of "slowness" can be the result of brain damage due to injury, environmental toxins, seizure disorders, genetic mutations, and even cognitive dysfunction in older cats. In the case of brain injury, a functioning cat is a happy cat. If its setback doesn't interfere with life, there's little you can do about it. But a seizure disorder can result from a prior brain injury and genetic mutations can also cause seizures in cats, especially in purebred varieties. Get a firm diagnosis so you can take appropriate measures to prevent further seizures.

Cognitive dysfunction (or kitty dementia) can occur in cats over 9 years old. If you adopt an older cat and feel like its personality is "off," it could be suffering from senility. In addition to general uncoordinated behavior, cats with dementia can also show unnecessary aggression and may display incontinence.

Information for Your Vet

Before whisking your cat to the vet, take notes on your observations: Did Fluffy forget the location of its food? If so, how many times? And, did this occur after a noticeable trauma? Make sure you disclose your cat's age, any preexisting health problems, and record the names of any household chemicals or toxins that it might have been exposed to. A detailed account of when the problem started and the severity of symptoms will lead your vet toward the proper screenings, and determine if a CT scan or blood test is needed or if immediate supportive treatment should be administered.

Cat having a blood sample taken by a vet
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At the vet's office, any brain issue is treated as an emergency, especially if it was a result of head trauma. So in addition to stabilizing your pet, the vet will perform an initial exam that may dictate the need for an MRI or CT scan to confirm the matter. In the case of environmental toxin exposure—most specifically lead ingestion (which can cause a slew of neurological issues)— your vet will perform a urine or blood test. Seizure disorders are diagnosed through blood tests, as well. And severe cases may require an EEG to measure the electrical activity in your cat's brain. For feline dementia, a vet will look at your cat's full history and, if necessary, perform blood tests to rule out pre-existing conditions.


Any cat who suffers a potential head injury needs to be inspected by a veterinarian. A vet will attempt to stabilize the injured kitty and give it IV fluids and oxygen. However, a full recovery is not always guaranteed. After the injury, your cat may act different, lose its laser-sharp coordination, and take on a change in personality. If this happens, the best you can do is provide a loving and supporting environment, reduce stressors, and eliminate unpredictable events as much as possible. Observe your cat's limitations and provide a lifestyle that works within them.

Cats exposed to environmental toxins also need to be inspected by a vet, as the extent of exposure could be fatal. Treatment by a vet may include inducing vomiting, feeding your cat charcoal to absorb the toxin, administering IV fluids and medication, and waiting. If your cat has a full recovery, any neurological symptoms should eventually subside.

For seizure disorders (brought on by genetic conditions or other), a vet will prescribe medications to control the seizures. Most cats go on to live happy and healthy lives and any post-seizure temperament disorders should be alleviated.

There is currently no cure for feline dementia. Maintaining a good routine, providing options for exercise, and feeding your cat a high-quality food will help treat further decline. Supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, SAMe, and melatonin can improve brain function in older cats and aromatherapy with essential oils can ease anxiety.

How to Prevent Mental Retardation

While you can't protect your pet from falls that could result in brain damage, you can assure proper brain health in the developmental years. Early nutrition greatly influences kitten development, so feed your kitten high-quality food. Also, provide your kitten opportunities to exercise and sharpen its skills to create greater coordination down the road. And, of course, any cat needs socialization in order to establish behaviors that work well within the confines of domestication.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.