As a function of better veterinary care, advances in nutrition, and protection from accidental death, cats are increasingly living longer lives. With this longer life span comes age-related changes in various systems, such as the visual, auditory, kidney, and muscle and joint systems. Degenerative changes also occur in the brain, which can result in noticeable loss of full cognitive function.
Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder in senior dogs and cats. It is usually described as a long, gradual cognitive decline that is comparable to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Clinical signs include acting lost in the house, increased spraying as a result of stress, a decrease in litter box use, disorientation, increased vocalization, decreased activity level, anxiety and altered socialization.
Diagnosis of feline cognitive dysfunction
Since there is currently no test to diagnose cognitive dysfunction in animals, the diagnosis is made by excluding all other potential causes of dementia. Cats with medical disorders such as other neurological diseases, kidney and liver disease, feline leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), loss of vision, hearing impairment and arthritis can show signs that can be mistaken for cognitive dysfunction. Primary behavioral issues must also be ruled out.
Treatment options for cat dementia
Treatment for cognitive dysfunction is focused on slowing the progression of the disease through a combination of nutritional therapy, medications and keeping the pet’s brain active via training, exercise, puzzles and toys, and social interaction. Nutritional therapy involves supplementing a pet’s diet with antioxidants, specific vitamins and essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Other options include making the cat’s environment as comfortable and predictable as possible and attempting behavior modification. You can make the cat’s environment predictable by keeping the physical arrangement of your household the same. Sleeping areas should be comfortable and easy to access, and it’s a good idea to close off areas where your cat may get stuck or injured.
Litter boxes should be very accessible and attractive to your kitty. Try placing at least one litter box on each floor or in each area of the house. Make sure you put the litter boxes in quiet, out-of-the-way spots, away from noisy appliances like the clothes dryer. Keep the litter boxes very clean and make sure that the edges are low enough so that the cat can get into and out of the box comfortably. KittyGoHere, a litter pan product with one low side, works well for cats who have difficulty getting in and out of the box.
Consulting your vet about a cat’s cognitive challenges
If your cat is exhibiting any of the symptoms described above, consult your veterinarian. He or she can rule out any other potential causes of dementia and then advise you about treatment options if it seems likely that your cat suffers from cognitive dysfunction.
Many people fail to discuss behavior changes in their older pets with their veterinarian because they incorrectly assume that these problems are unfortunate but untreatable aspects of aging. Sometimes, though, these problems are not just related to old age and, in fact, can be treatable medical conditions or underlying behavioral issues that can be resolved.
Even if the problem is related to old age, sometimes there’s a simple solution. For example, one veterinarian had a client who complained that her cat would begin yowling at 3 a.m., until she turned on all the lights in the house and brought the cat into her bedroom. The vet suggested that she keep a light on all night in the cat’s room, so he could find his litter box and food. Turns out her cat could no longer see very well in the dark and was getting confused. Keeping a light on helped him locate the litter box, and the vocalizing at night ceased completely.
In summary, if you have an older cat who’s exhibiting behavior change, be aware that it could be caused by a wide variety of factors. With the help of your veterinarian, you can most likely figure out what’s going on, and help your cat be more comfortable and happy in her golden years.