The veterinarians call it cognitive dysfunction syndrome. We call it feline dementia. My reading of the situation in the UK is that with respect to feline dementia the domestic cat is following in the footsteps of humans to which you can add feline diabetes and feline obesity.
The title is a bit provocative in suggesting that cats are living too long by which I mean that they are able to live longer due to better care but the extended lifespan allows the brain to begin to fail.
My father always used to say that people lived too long. He suffered from dementia over the last half a dozen years of his life and it does make life rather pointless. It’s almost as if the brain has died before the body; the two parts of anatomy are out of synchronisation.
According to a study at the University of Edinburgh, 50% of cats over the age of 15 and 33% of cats aged between 11 and 14, suffer from feline dementia. That equates to about 1,300,000 cats and dogs in the UK who have dementia.
I’m sure all of us have read stories in the newspapers about Alzheimer’s disease which is also very similar to feline dementia. There are some quite tragic stories of couples who have been together for decades and then all of a sudden one of them develops dementia and the other loses her partner but in a slow and inexorable way which is very distressing. Nothing can be done. The able-bodied partner simply ends up living with a stranger and the stranger is the person they love.
Well, the same thing can happen between human and cat. A case in point is the story of Nicole whose cat Poppy has dementia at the age of 15.
“Every night it takes me two or three hours to try to settle her to sleep because she’s so distressed and doesn’t know where she is…She’ll miaow loudly and pace up and down for ages before she sleeps…In the morning I’ll come downstairs and whereas before she used to jump off the table and come purring around my legs, now she simply doesn’t respond. She just stares blankly back at me and it’s obvious she has no idea who I am. It breaks my heart.”
Just as in older people, older cats may have memory problems, forget behaviours such as using the litter box and lose awareness of their surroundings. Sometimes they howl at night in confusion.
These are the sorts of behaviour patterns that Nicole sees in her cat Poppy.
‘She never used to have toilet accidents but now it happens most nights. Sometimes when the back door opens she will wander outside and I feel a huge sense of panic because if she gets lost, she won’t be able to find her way home again. She can’t even find her bowl.’
Jon Bowen, a lecturer in small animal behaviour at the Royal Veterinary College, London, says that as with people areas of the brain stop working properly. He also believes that as is the case with people, cats and dogs are being stricken with the disease because they are living longer than ever.
The average age of a cat today apparently is 14 years. Some cats live to their late teens and even beyond 20. Years ago this was not the case.
Apparently, disorientation may be evident in up to 40% of cats between 16 to 20 years of age. If cat illness is removed from the assessment then a vet will diagnose feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
Apparently, there is a drug called Anipryl which is approved for use in dogs for dementia. I do not know whether it has been approved for cats at the date of this post. It has been used on occasions for feline dementia. The objective is to increase the action of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the expectation that they will help older cats with this condition.