Everyone — myself included — wants their cat to live forever. But it’s important to remember that as the years pile up, so does the likelihood of your feline friend developing age-related health issues.
Among the most perplexing of these issues is cat dementia, also called feline cognitive dysfunction.
Can Cats Get Dementia?
Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviorist based in Ontario, has seen his fair share of it over the past few decades. He describes it as a progressive neurodegenerative disease that “shows many similarities to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, particularly in its earlier stages.”
Of course, though it's easy to feel this way, pet parents aren’t totally powerless when it comes to ensuring their senior cats are as comfortable as possible — even after a dementia diagnosis.
“We can, especially the earlier we diagnose, improve quality of life,” says Landsberg, currently a veterinary scientific director at the research organization CanCog and head of research at Fear Free. “If your general veterinary practitioner is seen regularly, they can manage and handle [symptoms] early on, when first detected.”
Here's what you need to know to ensure that's possible.
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Signs of Dementia in Cats
Wondering when you should start keeping a wary eye out?
Though cats can't communicate with us verbally, “some of the laboratory studies show loss of learning and memory ability in cats as early as 6 to 8 years of age,” Landsberg explains. “The obvious clinical signs generally don’t show up until after 11, and increase from that point on.”
And just as the age of onset can vary depending on the aging cat in question, so too can the symptoms they display. Some U.K.-based researchers have suggested using the acronym VISHDAAL to keep things straight.
V — excessive vocalization
I — changes in social interaction
S — changes in sleep habits
H — house-soiling
D — disorientation
A — changes in activity
A — increased anxiety
L — learning and/or memory deficits
Landsberg notes that some of these changes fall on a spectrum. For example, some cats may display suddenly increased sociability, while others display decreased sociability; likewise, some may sleep more and others less.
Unsurprisingly, all of these signs have a higher chance of going unnoticed if the cat spends the majority of its time outside and away from the family. But even for indoor cats, Landsberg says, the most attentive of owners may still have a difficult time recognizing certain changes.
“Cats are more likely to show subtle behavior changes,” he says, adding that it’s typical for them to avoid family members completely if they aren’t feeling well. “If the cats are hiding or not interacting as much with the owners, it’s less likely that they would perhaps notice the subtle changes in behavior.”
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There’s a Lot We Still Don’t Know
Research has shown that feline and canine cognitive dysfunction share many similarities, particularly when it comes to clinical signs, age of onset progression and brain pathology.
“[Yet] there haven’t been a lot of studies on the prevalence in cats, compared to multiple studies in different countries around the world looking at the prevalence in dogs,” Landsberg says.
He suggests researchers are more invested in the mysteries of dog dementia because man’s best friend is a model for human brain aging. But that doesn’t mean cats are totally in the dark.
Prevalence of Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
One of the first studies on the prevalence of feline cognitive dysfunction at all, in fact, was done by Landsberg and his colleagues. It was published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 2003.
“We looked at cats coming into our general practice that were over the age of 11 at the time. We assessed them for behavioral signs; we did medical workups on them,” he says.
They found that nearly 30 percent of cats aged 11 to 14 demonstrated signs of cognitive dysfunction (namely changes in social interactions). That percentage shot up to nearly 50 percent, however, when the team looked at cats over the age of 15.
This older group of cats displayed, on average, a different set of behavior changes: aimless activity and excessive vocalization. Just a few decades ago, Landsberg says, any of these behaviors might have been dismissed as simply “old age” and gone undiagnosed.
Thankfully, that’s now changing.
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Does My Cat Have Dementia?
As pet owners become more informed about the various symptoms associated with cognitive dysfunction, Landsberg says, they’re reporting them more during routine veterinary visits. That’s a good thing.
“The sooner you diagnose [age-related health issues] and not consider them to be parts of normal aging, the better you can manage and prevent their progression,” he says.
During these routine visits, which Landsberg recommends doing roughly twice a year beginning at 7 or 8 years of age, owners are asked to relay any behavioral changes they might have noticed. Sometimes, this may include filling out a screening or medical history questionnaire — but not always.
The vet will also conduct a physical exam to pick out signs of age-related issues, such as sensory decline, dental disease or heart disease, which owners may not have yet noticed. Lastly, laboratory tests can reveal any other abnormalities before outward clinical signs have even had a chance to manifest.
When troubling symptoms do arise and cognitive dysfunction is suspected, Landsberg says “the very first thing in treatment is to identify potential medical problems and treat those, because sometimes the signs will improve.”
Pain Related Symptoms
Certain thyroid and kidney diseases, for example, can also cause some of the signs associated with cognitive decline. The hardest signs to identify, according to Landsberg, are pain-related (think arthritis) because cats often don’t limp.
Instead, as mentioned earlier, they might simply be less active or less social in order to hide their pain. On the other hand, a decrease in social interactions can also be explained by hearing and vision loss.
“It’s hard to separate it out because older pets — and people — have multiple issues,” Landsberg admits. “You don’t purely get an aging brain without aging of other organs.”
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Cat Dementia Treatment
Unfortunately, even after other medical issues have been ruled out and it seems cognitive dysfunction is to blame, there aren’t a lot of medical or dietary therapeutics to turn to.
There are some nutritional supplements that might prove helpful, Landsberg says, though few have been assessed for use in cats — and he declined to name certain brands. Instead, he suggests looking for those that contain antioxidants like Vitamins C and E, or those that support mitochondrial function via L-carnitine, beta-carotene and fatty acids.
When it comes to drugs, there are a few that are marketed only for dogs. Instead, suggests Landsberg, you might want to put your cat on medications meant to improve the behavioral changes caused by cognitive dysfunction — rather than the cognitive dysfunction itself.
“We do have medications for anxiety [or pain] that we might use for any cat. We just have to be more careful with dosing and choices of these drugs for older cats,” he says, adding that natural products such as pheromones and melatonin are also potential options.
Beyond dietary supplements and medications, lifestyle changes are another great option. Landsberg recommends making sure your cat is getting plenty of physical and mental enrichment each day — particularly if they can’t see or move well and need a bit of prompting.
“Maybe they can’t see as well, so you have to put the little play toy closer to them,” he says. “[If] they have trouble climbing, keep them on one level or make the climbs easier.”
Also, look out for stressors in the household (such as a new puppy, perhaps) and offer your cat a safe place away from those potential triggers. Somewhere up high, away from others, is always a good idea if the cat is able to easily get up there; otherwise, if it’s within your means, maybe give the cat its own small room to really get away from it all.
Ultimately, your feline friend will appreciate any efforts you take to improve their health and happiness.
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