Can domestic cats be mentally challenged?

Cat intelligence
Cat intelligence. Image: PoC based on images an image in the public domain.

Can domestic cats be mentally challenged or in ruder language ‘retarded’? I believe that in order to answer the question it might be useful to divide the domestic cat into two groups: the random bred cats i.e. moggies and the purebred, pedigree cats that you normally buy from a breeder.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome

There is a condition causing mental impairment called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) which can, according to my research, be caused by inbreeding due to artificial selection aka selective breeding. It is also called feline cognitive impairment or cognitive decline. It is usually associated with elderly cats in the same way elderly people can suffer from cognitive decline (dementia) but some experts believe that inbreeding can also cause it.

RELATED: Infographic on 5 cat abilities reflecting intelligence

This is supported by CDS in humans due to consanguine marriage (marriage between individuals who are closely related). Children of parent-child or sibling with sibling mattings can suffer from lower intelligence quotient levels and higher incidence rates of being affected by an intellectual disability. There may also be physical defects due to the deleterious, mutated recessive genes which make their presence known when there is inbreeding. You see this in purebred cats with undershot jaws as a typical example.

Picture of an ugly cat
This is a picture of an ugly cat which is sad and no fault of the cat. The breed is the Exotic Shorthair. The breeding has gone wrong quite dramatically as the upper and lower jaws are misaligned badly. You can see tear duct overflow down the sides of the nose because the tear ducts are blocked once again due to the breeding. It would not surprise me if this cat suffered from mild CDS. The picture is in the public domain.


Under normal circumstances you won’t find any individual random bred cats that are mentally challenged because by and large they procreate through natural selection to a large extent by which I mean breeders are not involved. Yes, there are occasional informal cat breeders but this is not selective breeding. Selective breeding means inbreeding to fix physical characteristics to match the breed standard.

No selective breeding for moggies helps these cats to retain good physical and mental health from genetic diversity.

Purebred cats

This is a reference to the cat breeds. All of them. They are all created through selective breeding which is inbreeding as mentioned. So, the conclusion is that, rarely, some purebred cats might suffer from CDS if the breeder has overdone selective breeding and bred her cats too ‘closely’ meaning too much inbreeding with a high coefficient of inbreeding (COI). Extreme breeding can also compromise health generally and shorten lifespan.

How can you tell if a cat is mentally challenged?

Well, I’d like to chip in here if I may. My late mother bought a couple of British Shorthair cats which to my mind were cognitively challenged as they were unresponsive, not really able to engage and showed a sluggish demeanour.

CDS can be manifested in confusion, decreased responsiveness, and decreased ability to recognize familiar people or surroundings.


Elderly cats – either moggie or pedigree – can be mentally challenged. Some younger pedigree cats can also (rarely) be mentally challenged if inbred to extreme in my view. I would also expect there to be some variation in intelligence among domestic cats. But the cats at the lower end of intelligence will be not be suffering from CDS. But they will probably be less responsive and engaging.

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Elderly cat diet to delay onset or progress of cognitive dysfunction

In veterinary circles cognitive dysfunction is referred to as CD. To laypeople it means senility. I have found a nice tip which may help to slow the onset of CD in an elderly cat.

Free radical scavengers

Dr Bruce Fogle explains what free radical scavengers are and how they can help slow the onset of CD. Cells use oxygen to produce energy. Some oxygen is converted to molecules called “free radicals”. Older cells are less efficient at producing energy and consequently more free radicals are produced. They are removed by the body’s antioxidant defences.

These defences are called “free radical scavengers” and they include special enzymes, vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium and zinc. The brain can be damaged by free radicals and is particularly susceptible because it is high in fat, has a high demand for oxygen and it is not good at repairing itself. A chronic buildup of free radical damage can lead to CD.

31-year-old-cat Nutmeg
31-year-old-cat Nutmeg. Photo in public domain.


A five year study on the feeding of healthy but elderly cats found that a diet supplemented with antioxidants, essential fatty acids and chicory root resulted in the cats living longer and more healthily than cats who were not fed with this supplement according to Dr Bruce Fogle (Complete Cat Care).

Most of the major cat food manufacturers use these supplements in their foods for older cats and they may be useful for delaying the onset or progress of CD.


An associated issue with respect elderly cats is that they are particular sensitive to environmental changes. Elderly cats can become very stressed with a change to their environment. They are not equipped to deal with change as well as younger cats.

If you do have to change your environment and you see signs of stress such as hiding, not eating or changes to their toilet habits, it is advised, if you can, to return to the former status quo i.e. the way things were before.

Pops a senior cat
Pops a senior cat aged 19. Photo: in public domain.

Signs of CD

I think people are probably aware of these but I’ll just touch on this point. The signs of the beginnings of senility are quite subtle and include a blank expression, continuous stereotype pacing, poor grooming even if they are pain-free and free of disease. The cat may be disorientated which is shown by e.g. getting lost in familiar surroundings, failing to recognise people or places of objects and going to the wrong side of a closed-door when asked to go through.

There may be increased daytime sleeping, decrease night-time sleeping and more disturbed sleep. The cat may respond more slowly to requests, play less, be more irritable, demonstrate less enthusiasm when greeted and social interactions may be incomplete or shortened. Health issues need to be removed from the equation when assessing these signs.

Old cat
Mr Minns. Sarah Hartwell’s old cat who has now passed on.


A supplement called Aktivait may help older pets. When it was given for two momths to older dogs they showed improvements in terms of reduced disorientation, better social interaction and less house soiling. This supplement is also available for cats. Do not give the dog version to cats. It contains omega-3 fish oils, vitamins E and C, l-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q, selenium and phosphotidylserine.

I am thankful to Dr Bruce Fogle DVM.

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What happens when a cat goes senile?

What happens when a cat go senile? This is a reasonable question because the changes in behavior can be quite subtle. Diagnosis can be tricky especially for the cat owner.

Geriatric cat
Geriatric cat

Difficult diagnostically

I believe that we have to be careful that we do not confuse senility with the perceived quirkiness of domestic cat behavior. Also there is a slight disconnect in terms of communication between cats and human in any case. We tend to project our thoughts onto our cat. There’s quite a lot of guessing sometimes as to what our cat is saying or thinking. These present barriers to deciding whether your cat is senile or not.

Secondly, in this article we are speaking about brain function. We are not discussing any other anatomical or physical changes due to old age such as arthritis.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Professionals probably tend to call feline senility ‘Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome’. It is a well-known syndrome in geriatric dogs. The condition is similar to that found in elderly people. The geriatric cat who is senile may have memory problems, forget usual behaviors, lose some awareness of his surroundings and demonstrate confusion.

Forgetting behaviors can include unlearning how to use the litter box, for example. Of course this is where complications arise because there are other reasons why a cat may misuse or stop using their litter box. You have to be careful when diagnosing feline senility.

My Cat

Personally, I feel that a female cat that I lived with and who died at a good age of 18 became somewhat senile at the end of her life. She howled at night indicating that she was confused. The confusion was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t around because I was sleeping. There was silence and nothing was happening. She wanted company and to be reassured. So she howled.

Some More Symptoms

Some cats will sleep less at night or walk around crying as if they are lost. They may be disorientated and feel lost. They may pace. This sort of spatial disorientation may be apparent in up to 40% of cats from 16 to 20 years of age. My cat looked at me as if she was confused.

An elderly cat may also become cranky and irritable. They may become less tolerant of extremes of heat and cold and seek warm spots and sleep for longer periods. These changes do not necessarily point to cognitive dysfunction syndrome but may be due to physical ailments. I’m referring to diminishing senses combined with stiffness and muscular weakness. Deprived of these usually excellent traits a cat might withdraw and start compulsive self-grooming.

Bad Coat Due to Stiffness?

A bad coat because it has not been groomed by the cat is not necessarily linked to feline senility. It may be but it may be caused by stiffness and perhaps depression.


I’m sure that cat owners want some sort of definitive way to diagnose senility in domestic cats. There probably isn’t an answer but I would have thought that confusion due to a loss of some awareness of her surroundings together with howling at night might be good pointers.


There appears to be a drug on the market for treating feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome which is L-deprenyl or Anipryl. This is available in the USA. In 1995 it was used “off label” in some cats beneficially. It apparently increases the action of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the hope that it may help older cats deal with cognitive dysfunction.

P.S. My love to the cat in the photo. I think he was euthanized in a shelter. If it exists, may be happy over the rainbow bridge.

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Feline Dementia: Cats Are Living Too Long

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.

Geriatric cat Smoky
Geriatric cat Smoky. No dementia!

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.

Nicole says:

“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.

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