Dementia in Cats

old cat

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Can cats get dementia? Yes, cats may experience a decline in cognitive abilities as a result of aging changes in the brain. Cognitive functions include the mental processes of perception, awareness, learning, and memory, which allow an individual to acquire information about the environment and decide how to act. This is sometimes referred to as dementia, as in humans, but is more correctly termed cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS in cats. Due to improvements in veterinary care and nutrition, our feline friends are living much longer than they used to, so it's important to know the health issues associated with this life stage.

What Is Dementia in Cats?

Feline dementia is called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in veterinary terms. Prevalent in older cats, this cognitive disease is directly related to brain aging, leading to changes in awareness, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in humans are diseases with symptoms comparable to CDS in cats. 

Symptoms of Dementia in Cats

Cats with dementia will typically show gradual behavior changes. These may not be noticeable at first, but they tend to get worse over time.

Symptoms of Dementia in Cats

  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness or changes to sleep patterns
  • Personality changes (irritability, more affectionate than before)
  • Appetite changes (eating more or less, eating at different times)
  • Withdrawal from family / avoiding social interactions
  • Deterioration of learned behaviors (not using the litter box, forgetting where the food bowl is)
  • Changes in activity levels
  • Increased vocalization
  • Decreased or lack of self-grooming

CDS is characterized by behavioral changes, however, these changes can also result from other diseases such as renal failure and hyperthyroidism. Behavioral changes can often be dismissed by owners as, “My cat is just getting older.” Many behavior changes are symptoms of medical issues. If you notice any behavior changes in your cat, it is important to take your cat to the vet to get a diagnosis and rule out other diseases. CDS is diagnosed once other illnesses are ruled out. 

What Causes Dementia in Cats?

Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome is caused by neuropathologic changes in the brain that occur as a result of aging. While the process is not completely understood, it is believed that there are genetic, nutritional, and environmental elements involved.

How Vets Diagnose Dementia in Cats

DISHA is an acronym that is commonly used to remember the most common symptoms associated with CDS and can help veterinarians diagnose it in your cat. Your vet will ask if you have seen the following signs:

Disorientation: The cat appears lost or confused in a familiar environment which can result in your cat becoming trapped in corners or behind furniture, staring at walls or into space, and having difficulty finding their resources (food, water bowl, perch, or litter box). Many cats with dementia will have memory deficits. For example, a cat may forget they have been fed and repeatedly request more food.

Interaction Changes: Social interactions might be altered between the pet and owner or pet and other pets; some pets may appear to be more clingy, while others might be disinterested or even irritable when petted or approached.

Sleep-Wake Cycle: You may notice changes in sleep-wake cycles. Perhaps your cat used to sleep throughout the night and now wakes up at 4 a.m. you may also notice abnormal night-time behaviors which can include vocalizing, wandering, pacing, and decreased activity during the day.

House soiling: Your cat may begin to urinate or defecate outside of the litter box.

Anxiety: Cats may exhibit increased anxiety or increased irritability. Your cat may become withdrawn.

Activity Changes: Decreased exploration and response to things, people, sounds around the house, and decreased grooming or appetite

How to Treat Dementia in Cats

Treatment of CDS can be difficult since it cannot be reversed or cured. The goal of treatment is to improve the welfare of the cat by intervention focused on relieving the anxiety, slowing the disease process if possible, and supporting cognitive function. Therapies in the form of dietary change, supplements, medication, and environmental enrichment can help manage cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Your veterinarian will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan to help your cat. 

Keep your cats enriched. We have all heard the saying, use it or lose it, this applies to cats as well. Keeping your cats enriched in the form of exercise, new and interactive toys, and learning new things can lead to increased mental stimulation and an increase in cognitive function. 

Senior-ify your house. As we age, we change our environment to adapt to our needs, but this is not common for cats. There are a few things you can do to help your cats be more comfortable as they age:

  • All resources should be easily accessible for your cat. Your senior cat should not have to walk up and down a flight of stairs to have access to water, food, perches, and/or litter boxes.
  • Senior cats commonly have difficulty with mobility including jumping due to pain as they age. Setting up a ramp or series of steps that your cats can use can help them to more easily get up on the higher surfaces they are used to, such as windowsills, tables, couches, and countertops.
  • Providing your cats with elevated feeders and water eliminates the need to lift the head while eating or drinking. 
  • Adding nightlights in the basement, dark hallways, and other areas will help the cats see and easily locate their resources as they age.
  • Provide various resting places including a heated bed, but make sure your cat is still mobile enough to be able to move away from it. Provide some non-heated options as well.
  • Create litter boxes that are large enough for your cat and have a low entrance.

Consistency and Predictability 

Consistency and predictability are important for all of us, including cats. Do your best to maintain a consistent schedule and routine. For example, if you are going out of town, be aware this may not be a big change to you, but it is for your cat. Also, be sure to have your cat sitter feed the cat and have an interactive play session with your cat at the same time you usually do. 

As cats age, it is more difficult for them to deal with changes, even positive changes. Remember this when introducing changes to your cat’s schedule and environment, changes should be made gradually at a pace your cat is comfortable with. 

Prognosis for Cats With Dementia

Can a cat with CDS have a good quality of life? In most cases, yes, but it’s important to recognize that your cat’s needs have changed. Once you understand the changes that accompany aging and work with your veterinarian to manage them, your cat’s senior years can be rewarding for both of you.

How to Prevent Dementia in Cats

While there's no surefire way to prevent dementia from developing in your cat, you can take steps to keep them mentally stimulated throughout their lives. Create an enriching environment for your cat starting at an early age. And be sure to see your veterinarian for regular check-ups. Your vet may notice subtle changes in your cat before you do and can address concerns early.

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.
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  1. Cognitive DysfunctionCornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2020

  2. Stilwell N. Unpacking feline dementia: A veterinary guideVetted.