Thanks to advancements in nutrition and veterinary medicine, our cats are living longer lives. Cats aged between 11 and 14 years are known as ‘senior’, while cats aged 15 years and over are termed ‘super senior’.
It is wonderful if your cat lives to enjoy old age; however, unfortunately these life stages are associated with health issues. One such issue is a decline in cognitive abilities (eg, learning, memory, attention, spatial abilities) as a result of ageing changes in the brain. This is sometimes referred to as senility (being senile), or dementia, as in humans, but is more correctly termed cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).
CDS is characterised by behavioural changes. However, the behavioural changes associated with CDS can also result from other diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, chronic renal failure, diabetes mellitus and more. Therefore, if you notice any changes in behaviour in your senior or geriatric cat, it is very important to take it to the vet to get a proper diagnosis and rule out any of these other diseases. CDS can only be diagnosed once all other illnesses have been ruled out.
The most commons signs of CDS are the following behavioral changes in cats:
- Confusion about where they are e.g., becoming trapped in corners, forgetting the location of the litter tray
- Confusion about what time it is e.g., forgetting that feeding time has just occurred
- Changes in sleep-wake cycles e.g., the cat is awake when normally sleeping and vice versa
- House soiling i.e., inappropriate urination and/or defecation
- Inappropriate vocalisation e.g., loud crying at night
- Altered interaction/relationships with owners and/or other pets in the household eg, increased attention seeking, increased aggression
- Altered interest in food e.g., increased or (more commonly) decreased appetite
- Decreased grooming
- Changes in general behaviour e.g., increased irritability, increased anxiety, decreased responsiveness
- Changes in learning and memory e.g., forgetting commands, forgetting previous litter tray training
- Changes in activity e.g., reduced activity, aimless wandering or pacing
What to do if you notice any of these behavioural changes in your cat
As mentioned above, if you notice any of these behavioural changes in your cat, is very important to take it to the vet to determine whether any other diseases are the cause of these changes, and so to get your cat the treatment it needs. CDS will only be diagnosed once all other illnesses have been ruled out.
Can cognitive dysfunction be treated?
Although sadly CDS cannot be cured, the signs of it can be reduced with suitable management, including making changes to the cat’s environment, changing or supplementing their diet, and there are also some drug therapies available. Your vet will be able to discuss these options with you.
Changing environmental factors can help a cat with CDS. Try enhancing the cat’s environment with extra toys, increasing the amount of time you spend with the cat (if the cat enjoys human company), increasing your interaction with the cat eg, through play, providing hiding places, elevated sites (which are easily accessible eg, using ramps), and providing puzzle feeders.
Puzzle feeders are objects which hold food and must be manipulated to release this food, which provide a fun ‘brain-teaser’ for your cat. All the factors mentioned above are known as ‘environmental enrichment’, which can lead to increased mental stimulation, an increase in the growth and survival of nerve cells in the brain, and an increase in cognitive function.
Introduce changes to your cat’s environment gradually, so as not to confuse them. If your cat has never used puzzle feeders, introduce them gradually and start with easy ones. For ideas on puzzle feeders, visit our puzzle feeder page here.
Other adjustments to the environment can be made to make life easier for the elderly cat and reduce potential frustration and stress. These include:
- Avoiding placing food and water on high surfaces that elderly cats might find difficult to access, or provide a ramp up to the surface if you do.
- Raising food and water bowls up slightly from the floor, to make it easier for the cat to reach them, especially arthritic cats. Ensure that food and water bowls are separated.
- Provide several comfortable beds in easily accessible areas; consider providing heated beds for added comfort.
- Provide large, low-sided litter trays for easy access and place them in easily accessible locations.
Provide soft litter eg, sandy-types which are softer on the paws.Elderly cats may find it more difficult to use cat flaps – consider letting them in and out via a door.
- Allow elderly cats to have peace and quiet, away from other pets and members of the household, when they want it.
- Introducing a new cat or dog can be very stressful for elderly cats, so this should be avoided.
Finally, another environmental factor which could be introduced to help a cat with CDS is a synthetic version of a feline facial pheromone, known as ‘Feliway Classic’; this can help to reduce anxiety.
Read more about CKD in cats here