“My senior cat is behaving weirdly. He howls for no reason, his sleeping pattern has changed and sometimes he appears disoriented or confused. What’s wrong with him?”
Senior cats with cognitive dysfunction, or what we would know as Alzheimer’s, occurs in up to 28 percent of cats aged between 11 and 15, and 50 percent of cats over the age of 15, studies show.
The exact causes of declining mental function in older cats cannot always be identified but whatever the cause, there are identifiable physical and physiological differences between the brains of healthy cats and those with cognitive dysfunction that go beyond the normal changes associated with ageing.
“Cats are secretive creatures and any change is behaviour is a huge clue for us that something might be up. So I encourage any owner who notices even the smallest change in behaviour to visit their vet,” says senior veterinarian Dr Ingrid de Wet.
“Most older cats are suffering from pain due to arthritis and this can cause a variety of symptoms. We screen for this during annual check-ups so we strongly recommend bringing senior cats for their check-ups so we can quickly pick up issues and improve their quality of life.”
My senior cat: symptoms to watch out for
- Cats with CD may show less interest in interacting with people or other pets. Conversely, some cats may become overly dependent, seeking constant contact with their owner. Some cats may stop grooming themselves properly and/or become less active. Others may become restless or irritable.
- Disorientation, restlessness and wandering: affected cats may get lost, even in their own home. They may stare fixedly at one spot. They may wander aimlessly or get ‘stuck’ because of an inability to navigate around objects in their path.
- Vocalisation, especially at night, is not unusual.
- Memory loss: cats with cognitive dysfunction may stop using the litter box. They may be unable to recognise familiar people and/or objects.
- Altered sleep patterns: a cat that slept at night may now sleep all day and wander the house at night. Sleep may be fitful for affected cats.
Diagnosing cognitive dysfunction
“This sounds like my senior cat. What should I do?”
The first thing to do if you suspect that your older cat is developing cognitive dysfunction is to get him or her in to your veterinarian for a check-up. Other diseases can have symptoms that mimic cognitive decline. Your veterinarian will need to rule out conditions like arthritis, liver disease, neurologic problems (e.g., a brain tumour), hormonal disorders, kidney failure and high blood pressure before reaching a definitive diagnosis. The symptoms of cognitive dysfunction can mimic those of other diseases, many of which are also common in senior cats. For instance, arthritis can cause strange vocalisations in response to pain and arthritic cats are likely to be less active and more irritable. Cats with kidney disease may miss the litter box. Cats with diabetes may exhibit similar symptoms. Cats suffering from hyperthyroidism may vocalise abnormally.
Your vet may order blood and urine testing for your cat, as well as X-rays to rule out arthritis. Naturally, your veterinarian will need to do a thorough physical examination.
We are doing elderly cats a disservice if we simply assume that their behavioral changes are due to cognitive dysfunction without addressing other potential causes as well.
Coping with cognitive dysfunction
There are things that can be done to help cats struggling with impaired cognition. Medication, supplements and pheromones are prescribed but effectiveness varies greatly depending on the patient.
Enrichment, mental stimulation, and stress relief can also go a long way towards improving or maintaining a cat’s mental acuity. Activities such as leash walking, time spent outside in a safe enclosure or on a perch in front of a window, and playing with toys help keep senior pets sharp. Old cats can learn new tricks, and doing so helps to keep their minds and bodies strong.
There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction. However, there are some things that you can do to ease your cat’s symptoms.
- If possible, avoid changes in routine that may stress your cat. Try to keep to a routine schedule and leave your cat’s surroundings unchanged.
- Environmental enrichment can be helpful for stimulating the brain of cats with cognitive dysfunction. Interactive play and puzzle toys can be beneficial.
- Make your cat’s environment easy to navigate. Provide ramps if stairs are difficult. Provide low-sided litter boxes in easily accessible locations.
- A diet change may be necessary as a cat with CD needs higher levels of nutrients. Discuss with your vet.
- Drugs are sometimes used to treat cognitive function also. Your veterinarian will help you decide whether your cat is a candidate.
Additional sources: DVM