It may sound like a silly question but I would bet most owners with older cats could recount multiple examples of ‘feline senility’.  Some are funny, some are sad and some are just plain unpleasant.  But as tempting as it is to be angry with your cat for, say, mistaking your bed for a litter tray, the truth is that more than 50% of cats over 15 years of age suffer from some degree of dementia, also known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).  Is your cat one of them?

Let’s start with a couple of questions to get you thinking:

  1. Has your older cat started to urinate or defecate in inappropriate places?
  2. Does your cat demand more attention than she used to?
  3. Have you noticed your cat crying out more frequently, particularly at night?
  4. Is your cat less adventurous than he used to be, preferring to stay close to home?
  5. Is she behaving strangely – staring at walls, forgetting there is food in her dish or perhaps interacting differently with a housemate?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then your cat is in fact showing at least one of the signs of feline dementia or CDS.

What is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?

The first question that often comes to mind is whether or not it is related to human dementia and in fact the answer is yes, there are many physical and behavioural similarities between CDS in cats and Alzheimer’s disease in humans.  Both diseases are likely caused at least in part by physical changes related to decreased blood flow to the brain and an increase in nasty little molecules called ‘free radicals’. 

They may have a funny name, but the damage these molecules do to living cells is hardly a laughing matter.  The older the body gets the more free radicals it produces and when combined with decreased blood and oxygen flow, these molecules wreak havoc on the particularly sensitive and fragile cells in the brain.  All this damage also leads to the deposition of protein ‘plaques’ around the nerve cells, making it even harder for signals to make it through.  The end result is a collection of tired, damaged and dirty cells trying unsuccessfully to maintain normal brain function.  A pretty distressing thought!

The longer this process goes on, the harder the cat finds it to do the simple things that used to come so naturally.  They may forget where the litter tray or cat flap is, resulting in poor toilet habits.  Changes in sleeping habits and activity levels can lead to increased stress, which in turn can result in loud, seemingly pointless crying. 

Meals are forgotten and relationships with both human and animal housemates may suffer.  Nobody wants to see their cat experience this kind of stress, yet in reality, most of the time the symptoms of CDS either go unnoticed or are simply put down to ‘getting older’ and as a result, nothing is done about it.

What CAN be done about it?

The first step to treating Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is actually diagnosing it in the first place.  CDS is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that it cannot be diagnosed directly but rather by ruling out other conditions.  There are many other conditions which can cause similar symptoms though, so it’s important to speak with your vet to try to figure out what’s really going on.  

The disease that most closely resembles CDS in terms of symptoms is arthritis, and in fact there are many similarities between the two conditions as both the underlying causes and the treatments are quite similar.  Other conditions that result in some of the same symptoms as CDS include kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, deafness, blindness or brain tumours.  As some of these are easily treatable, it is definitely worth trying to get to the bottom of it.

If your vet diagnoses your cat with cognitive dysfunction, there are several things that you can do to help your feline friend as they learn to cope with their illness.  The first is to feed a high-quality diet, and preferably one that is particularly high in antioxidants (which kill off those free radicals) and other supportive compounds such as vitamin E, beta carotene and essential fatty acids.  Several other vitamins and molecules have also shown promise in treating the condition and this has led to the development of several therapies including special diets and nutritional supplements.

Perhaps equally if not even more important than changing what goes into a CDS cat’s body is changing their environment to support their condition.

Some of the things that owners can do at home to help cats with dementia (and, incidentally, arthritis as well) include:

  • Feed your cat according to a routine schedule so they know what to expect when
  • Increase the number of food bowls, water dishes and litter trays to make them more accessible from wherever the cat may be in the house.  Litter trays should be wide with shallow rims to allow easier access and sand-like litter may be kinder to older toes.
  • Try to keep their environment otherwise unchanged (especially for those cats who may also be blind or deaf) as change creates confusion which increases anxiety and stress.  If changes do need to be made, try to introduce them slowly and gradually.  A Feliway or Pet Remedy plug-in or spray can help anxious cats cope with daily life
  • Provide several deeply padded and comfortable resting/hiding places throughout the house and make them easily accessible by building a ramp or steps up to those that would otherwise require a big jump.
  • Give your cat the attention and reassurance they seek but do not overdo it as they also appreciate time to themselves.  Don’t rush to get a new kitten thinking they need companionship, as this usually causes more stress than it is worth.

As with so many diseases of older cats, Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome may be common, but it isn’t normal so if you think your cat may be showing some of the symptoms, the first thing to do is speak with your vet.  Together you may be able to significantly improve the quality of your cat’s life with a few simple changes. 

It can also help to think about your cat’s schedule and environment from their point of view rather than your own, as you may discover other ways to make their lives a bit easier.  Next time your cat has a ‘senile moment’ and wakes you up at 3am with a howl, spare a thought for their ageing brain before getting cross!

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