Unfortunately, as our cats grow older, they become more likely to develop age-related health conditions. Some of the health issues experienced by older cats can be easy to diagnose and treat. Others, such as dementia in cats may have more subtle signs and symptoms and go undetected for some time.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that your senior cat has a reduced appetite or lack of interest in playing? Or, you may have noticed your cat sleeping more during the day and restlessly walking around the house at night whilst meowing loudly.
If this sounds familiar, keep reading to learn more about the signs of dementia in cats. We’ll discuss how you can help your feline friend live out their senior years as comfortably as possible.
Can cats get dementia?
Just like an elderly person who develops Alzheimer’s disease, as a cat gets older they can develop feline dementia. In recent years, with advances in veterinary medicine and our pets living longer, more has been discovered about this condition in cats.
Cat dementia is known as feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). It is a degenerative condition that reduces or alters different functions of the brain. This can affect many aspects of your cat’s physical and mental well-being and may cause some unusual or potentially disruptive behaviours.
Although your cat may still be young at heart, cognitive decline in cats can start between 7 and 10 years of age. Not all cats experience dementia though. Research has shown that about a third of cats over 11 years of age show signs of dementia. 50% of cats 15 years and older display behavioural changes and symptoms that are consistent with dementia.
Signs and symptoms of dementia in cats
During the initial onset of dementia in cats, the clinical signs may be quite subtle and can be easily missed. However, over time, the signs of dementia will become more obvious, and any of the following symptoms may be seen:
Altered behaviour patterns
- Cats with senile dementia frequently become anxious or restless and may struggle to remember familiar routines. It is not uncommon for cats with dementia to demand food immediately after they have been fed. Or, ask to be let outside again straight after they have come indoors.
- Your cat may seem confused or appear to have forgotten house rules they were previously familiar with. Any changes will cause your cat to become disorientated, and your cat will struggle to adapt to new situations.
Changes in social interactions
- Sadly, your cat may suffer from some personality changes as a result of dementia. Your sociable or playful cat may no longer be interested in playing or interacting with you or other family members.
- You may also notice symptoms such as extreme irritability or aggression. Your cat may be less friendly or affectionate than they once were.
Activity and sleep pattern changes
- If your elderly cat has started prowling and howling around the house throughout the night dementia may be the cause. Cats with dementia often sleep throughout the day and become more active at night, normally with increased vocalisation.
Reduced personal hygiene standards
- Dementia in cats can lead to them going to the toilet outside the litter box. Toileting issues are often a result of faecal and urinary incontinence.
- Your cat may not groom itself frequently, leading to an unkempt or soiled coat and sore skin. Other cats may over-groom themselves, causing hair loss and bald patches of skin.
What causes cognitive dysfunction in cats?
Like dementia in humans, the cause of cognitive dysfunction in cats is not yet fully understood. The root issue is known to be a gradual degeneration of the brain, linked to a build-up of certain proteins in the brain tissue.
It is thought that some cats may be genetically predisposed to this condition. At present, there is no definitive way of identifying which cats are at risk of feline dementia. Research suggests there could be a link to diet and environment. Current studies are focused on the link between free radicals (chemical changes that take place in cells) and dementia in cats.
How is dementia in cats diagnosed?
If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it is essential that you get your cat checked out by your veterinarian. Many of the symptoms of feline dementia are the same as signs of other age-related conditions which require medical treatment.
- Night-time vocalisation is common in cats with untreated hyperthyroidism and hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Deaf cats can become confused and disoriented in their own homes as they get older and meow more often.
- Cats with kidney disease have an increased thirst and frequently experience urinary incontinence as a result.
- Cats suffering from arthritis or other chronic pain may also have accidents outside the litter box.
If your cat is showing signs of dementia, your veterinarian will start by ruling out any other underlying health problems. It is a good idea to keep a diary of your cat’s behaviour to record any unusual or changing habits.
There is no specific test for dementia in cats, so a conclusive diagnosis is normally based on the elimination of other health problems combined with a thorough evaluation of any behavioural changes.
Treatment options for dementia in cats
Dementia in cats cannot be cured, but there are treatment options available to slow the progression of this degenerative disease. Whilst many cat parents choose to ignore the signs of dementia in cats, thinking that it’s ‘just old age’, seeking veterinary advice can significantly improve the quality of life for your cat. Some of the signs of dementia in cats may be cute or amusing, but others can be very distressing for both your cat and for you.
The medical treatments available for dementia in cats are considered to be supportive rather than curative. This means they cannot cure or alter the changes that have occurred within the brain, but they will help your cat feel better and ease dementia symptoms.
Currently, there are no pharmaceutical drugs approved for treating dementia in cats. In severe cases, your veterinarian may discuss using off-label medicines that are licenced for humans or dogs.
Many cats with dementia benefit from anti-anxiety medication and supplements. There has been promising research into the use of CBD (cannabidiol) which has brain-boosting effects to help fight dementia. As many of the symptoms of dementia in cats can be linked to chronic pain, long-term use of painkillers such as gabapentin may be recommended by your vet.
How to care for cats with dementia at home
Senior cats that suffer from dementia benefit from a regular and consistent routine, which you can adapt to accommodate your cats changing needs. Avoid any significant lifestyle disruptions if possible, and monitor your cat’s behaviour to identify when additional support may be needed.
Diet and supplements
Ensure your cat’s diet is rich in vitamin E and antioxidants, and includes fish oils These can help cats with dementia by counteracting free radicals and reducing further degeneration of the brain tissue.
Nutritional supplements such as Zylkene or L-theanine (an amino acid naturally found in green tea leaves) can also help reduce symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, and night-time vocalisation by promoting a more restful sleep at night.
Maintaining a healthy body and mind
Like humans, cats with dementia benefit from mental and physical stimulation. Tailor a program that meets the needs of your cat, taking into account their physical limitations. For example, a senior cat with arthritis may not be able to run and jump but will enjoy a play session at ground level. You can also try different cat toys, games, food puzzles or a supervised walk outdoors. All of these things will help to stimulate your cat’s senses and keep their brain healthy and active.
Getting a peaceful nights sleep
If night-time prowling and vocalisation are becoming a problem, ensure your cat has a warm comfortable place to sleep – a heated cat bed is ideal. An elderly cat will appreciate a peaceful place to sleep, away from other pets and household noise. Your cat may also sleep better with a night light nearby, or listening to background music.
Easy access to litter boxes
House soiling can become a huge problem in cats with feline dementia, so ensure your cat has easy access to clean litter boxes in multiple areas of your home. Keep litter boxes in the same location and ensure they have have low sides for easy entry and exit.
Stick to consistent daily routines
Changes to their environment can be stressful and confusing for a cat with dementia. That’s why it’s important you keep your cat indoors in familiar surroundings and stick with consistent daily routines. Make sure you keep litter boxes and food or water bowls in the same place so your cat can always find them. If your cat is used to going outside, limit their outdoor access to a secure garden or yard, rather than letting them roam freely.
With an understanding of feline dementia, you can help your cat navigate their senior years and maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible.