Just like humans, cats can begin to lose their mental faculties as they move into their senior years. This can come as quite a shock to pet owners, as dementia is not something most people associate with cats. This condition is known as "cognitive dysfunction syndrome".
It is not a disease in itself, but it is a gradual decline in cognitive ability.
A cat is classified as "senior" from around ten years of age. One study found that close to 30% of cats between 11 and 14 show signs of dementia, this figure jumps up to 50% in cats over 15 years of age and up to 80% in cats aged 16 and onwards. From my personal experience, most ten-year-old cats are still in relatively good physical and mental health. They may have slowed down, have a bit of arthritis and even some kidney failure, they spend more time sleeping, but they are generally doing pretty well. Age really begins to become apparent from around the 13-14th year. That is when it is obvious that they are in their senior years. Again, this really can change from cat to cat, some 15-year-olds may be sprightly, but on the whole, they slow down around 13-14.
What causes dementia in cats?
The cause of dementia still isn't known. In humans, it is believed to be caused by plaques forming on the brain or reduced or blocked blood flow to the brain due to damaged blood vessels. Other factors include alcoholism, which obviously isn't a problem in cats.
What are the common signs of dementia in cats?
- Increased vocalisation is the most common symptom I hear about from pet owners, particularly on a night. The cat will wail for no apparent reason. He is not sick or in pain, and owners are mystified as to why he is crying so much.
- Change in temperament. One friend says that her shy and somewhat grumpy cat has become friendly and outgoing. Crankiness is quite normal in older cats. They're stiff, sore, tired and who wouldn't be cranky with that?
- Changes to the sleep/wake cycle. A cat who ordinarily would sleep during the night may spend more time awake (often crying).
- Confusion and disorientation are quite often seen in older cats. Wandering aimlessly, forgetting where their food bowls or litter trays are, staring into space, getting lost in the neighbourhood. Some pet owners report that their cat no longer recognised familiar faces.
- Clingy behaviour with their owners. Not wanting to be left alone. Crying when they can't find their owner.
- Litter box accidents. Going to the toilet in places other than the litter tray can occur. This may be due to senility (forgetting where the litter tray is), but physical conditions can also cause him to go elsewhere. Any changes in litter tray habits should be seen by a veterinarian to rule out a urinary tract disorder such as cystitis, urinary tract infection, urinary blockage. Incontinence is also quite common for senior cats. A cat who has accidents shouldn't be punished, he's not doing it to spite you. Increase the number of litter trays in your house, if you live in a multi-story home, make sure you have litter trays on all levels. Avoid high sided trays with older cats as it can be difficult for them to get in and out of.
- Grooming less. There are two causes of this, a decline in cognitive function, which can result in your cat paying less attention to his grooming regime, also, arthritis is extremely common in senior cats, making grooming quite painful.
- Withdrawing from normal activities such as spending more time sleeping alone, loss of interest in usual activities such as sitting outside, following a human around the house, no longer greeting you at the door when you return.
Treating dementia in cats:
Firstly, your veterinarian will want to perform a physical examination on your cat to determine if there is an underlying medical cause for changes to behaviour. Routine blood tests such as complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis can give him an overall profile of your cat's physical health. Other tests may include x-ray or ultrasound to look for tumours (especially of the brain) and check for arthritis (which may make grooming and stepping in/out of the litter tray difficult).
There is no treatment for dementia in cats, therapy is aimed at slowing down progression and helping your cat cope.
This may include:
- Anti-anxiety or antidepressants may be prescribed.
- Supplements in your cat's diet. There is a small amount of research that suggests antioxidants and omega 3 may slow down the progression of dementia.
- Keep his routine the same. Cats of any age thrive on routine, but this is even more important as your cat ages. Feed him at the same time, don't move things around the house. Keep his litter tray/food bowls in the same place.
- Don't punish him if he misses the litter tray. Clean it up, seek medical attention (to rule out medical causes), and increase the number of trays you have in the house. If he is having problems remembering where his tray is, maybe consider reducing the amount of space he has in the house.
- Daily activity with your cat may also help to slow down progress. Talk to him, groom him, play gentle games with him. All of these can keep the brain stimulated.
- Give him lots of love and attention.