Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats

There is not much on the subject of cognitive dysfunction in cats. We have to rely on common sense. Humans live much longer than they used to. This brings some problems to humankind, usually of the financial kind. The domestic cat lives much longer than the feral cat and substantially longer than most wild cats. Domestic cats are usually cared for nicely leading to a longer life. This puts lots of cats into the geriatric category. I am not sure that cat caretakers are always fully aware of this.

The changes in behavior can be subtle, initially, and may go unnoticed. At the end of a cat’s life if she has lived a long life, the behavioral changes are very noticeable and a cat caretaker becomes a carer in the true sense.

Cognitive dysfunction is a well known medical condition in people. There are changes to the nervous system. The same condition affects cats.

In a survey in America (Landsberg at al 2003b) 43% of cats attending a veterinary clinic that were over 11 years of age showed signs of cognitive dysfunction. That is a figure that should make us sit up and think. Eleven years of age is not that old for the modern domestic cat. Although it seems to be well into geriatric territory in terms of cognitive function.

Some cats aged 11 and older will also have physical disabilities that compounds the effects of their fading mental capacity, but putting that aside there still remains 33% of cats over 11 years of age who showed consistent signs of cognitive dysfunction.

At aged 15 and over the survey found that 48% of cats were affected. Typical signs are:

  • Alterations in social relationships
  • Altered sleeping patterns
  • Lower activity
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion

A marked sign of cat dementia is howling at night. I think this is caused by confusion. It can sound worrying. When I have gone to my cat under these circumstances it has comforted her.

Anxiety is perhaps brought about by confusion. The cat loses her grip of what is going on. Clearly a really protective and predicable environment is helpful in reducing anxiety. Anxiety may also be the reason why one behavioral problem associated with mental decline is inappropriate elimination. Clearly making sure the litter tray is just right for your cat will help: correct placement, clean, correct litter material etc.

Although research seems to be scant on cat dementia it seems that the cause for it is the depositing of excessive amounts of a type of protein in the brain. This impairs brain function. Medical conditions associated with old age can be mistaken for dementia. Arthritis, failing hearing and sense of smell are examples. Medical disorders such as FeLV and FIV, kidney and liver disease can also produce symptoms that can be mistaken for cognitive dysfunction.

What about treatment? Well, you can see your vet about it or course. But I would doubt there is much he or she can do. In any case should something be done other than applying common sense and excellent care? I don’t think so. Drugs come to mind but personally unless there is some other aspect to the dementia I would not go down that route.

If your cat lives to aged 20, as mine did, it can mean many years of caring for a cat with some form of dementia. Most times, early on in the decline of cognitive ability it does not not present a problem and may not even be noticed partly because cats compensate well. But towards the end of a cat’s life there is no doubt that one becomes a carer in exactly the same way we may be called upon to care for our parents at the end of their lives. It can make the relationship closer.

Associated (selected):

  1. Geriatric Cat Care
  2. Changes in Older Cats
Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.
Useful links
Anxiety - reduce it
FULL Maine Coon guide - lots of pages
Children and cats - important

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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2 Responses

  1. admin says:

    Yes, Ruth, it is hard. I found I became more anxious because all the time I was worried about my cat. It can be quite stressful actually. At the end it was very stressful and upsetting. But it is part of family life. We will all be old one day and when that moment comes I hope someone looks after me!


  2. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    Our old cat Ebony needed a lot more care towards the end of her life, in the last few weeks she mournfully meowed most mornings just around dawn and we had to comfort her, she seemed to need reassurance that she wasn’t alone.
    It’s quite physically hard and also heartbreaking to care for an old cat whose time you know is short, but as you said Michael, it makes your relationship closer.
    It upsets me when people punish their old cat for ‘accidents’ on the floor instead of using the litter tray. Like old people, cats sometimes can’t get to the toilet in time or become forgetful about where it is and just like old people cats need understanding and to be treated patiently and kindly too.

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