Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Apr. 10, 2012

I’ve written previously about cognitive dysfunction in dogs, and while we don’t see cats suffering from this age-associated condition to the same degree, it is still common and severe enough to be worthy of our attention. Studies have shown that 28 percent of cats between the ages of 11 and 15 and 50 percent of cats over the age of 15 show some signs of cognitive dysfunction.

The exact causes of declining mental function in older cats cannot always be identified. An increase in the breakdown rate of neurotransmitters and the build-up of damaging free radicals in the brain may be to blame in some cases. Whatever the cause, there are identifiable physical and physiological differences between the brains of healthy cats with those with cognitive dysfunction that go beyond the normal changes associated with aging.

Typical symptoms of cognitive decline in cats include:

  • Changes in behavior and activity levels
  • Problems with litter box use
  • Restlessness and wandering
  • Disorientation
  • Vocalization
  • Memory loss
  • Changes in the way a cat relates with people or other pets
  • Altered sleep patterns

The first thing to do if you suspect that your older cat is developing cognitive dysfunction is to get him or her in to your veterinarian for a work up. Other diseases can have symptoms that mimic cognitive decline. Your veterinarian will need to rule out conditions like arthritis, liver disease, neurologic problems (e.g., a brain tumor), hormonal disorders, kidney failure, and high blood pressure before reaching a definitive diagnosis. We are doing elderly cats a disservice if we simply assume that their behavioral changes are due to cognitive dysfunction without addressing other potential causes as well.

Yes, there are things that can be done to help cats struggling with impaired cognition. Medications and supplements like selegeline, propentofylline, antioxidants, sertraline, lorazepam, melatonin, L-theanine, alpha-casozepine, and pheromones have been studied more in dogs but do appear to be safe for use in cats. Effectiveness varies greatly depending on the patient. Finding the right combination for each individual is more of an art than a science at this point, I’m afraid.

Enrichment, mental stimulation, and stress relief can also go a long way towards improving or maintaining a cat’s mental acuity. Activities such as leash walking, time spent outside in a safe enclosure or on a perch in front of a window, and playing with toys help keep senior pets sharp. Old cats can learn new tricks, and doing so helps to keep their minds and bodies strong.


Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: isabel Engelmann / via Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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