What Is Dementia in Cats?
Dementia, also known as cognitive dysfunction, is a condition seen in some senior cats that affects their memory, critical thinking, behavior, and reason. This condition is like Alzheimer’s disease in people.
Dementia is commonly referred to as “becoming senile” and can result in some sudden changes in your cat's behavior.
More than a quarter of cats aged 11 to 14 show at least one sign of dementia. It’s even more common as they age, with half of cats over the age of 15 showing signs of cognitive dysfunction.
Dementia is the result of age-related degeneration of the brain and subsequent death of neurons, or the powerhouse cells inside of the brain. These neurons are needed for memory, learning, attention, normal sleep cycles, and spatial awareness, among other things.
There are many other conditions that are common in senior cats that can result in behavior changes that can look like dementia. If you notice any changes in your senior cat’s behavior, visit their veterinarian to rule out common medical conditions affecting older cats. Many of these conditions are manageable with early intervention.
Symptoms of dementia in cats include:
Acting disoriented or lost
Vocalizing, often at night
Staring off into space while looking at a wall or corner
Forgetting to eat or drink unless food bowls are put in front of them
Going to the bathroom outside the litterbox
Forgetting that they have just been fed and asking to eat again
Poor grooming habits
Sleeping more than usual
Causes of Dementia in Cats
Cognitive dysfunction occurs when age-related decline causes a buildup of a protein called beta amyloid. As this protein builds up, damage occurs to the brain, and blood flow to the brain is slowed. This results in the death of a cat’s brain neurons.
Neurons are responsible for receiving information and for sending out commands based on that input. When neurons start to break down, it affects the cat's thought process and behavior.
Memory is often affected. Cats may forget when feeding time is or where their litter box is located. They may even find themselves lost in a room, or even in a corner.
Because circadian rhythms are controlled by the brain, sleep patterns are often disrupted by dementia. Your cat may often be awake at night, vocal and confused why everyone is sleeping. They may sleep more during the day to make up for restless nights.
Senior cats of any breed can develop dementia.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Dementia in Cats
Dementia can be tricky to diagnose, so veterinarians rely on ruling out other conditions first.
Chronic kidney disease is common in senior cats and can contribute to urinating outside of their litter box. Arthritis can make cats slow down, sleep more, or struggle to maintain normal grooming habits.
Because there are many other common diseases that could be causing your cat's behavior changes, it’s important for your veterinarian to rule out other conditions before diagnosing dementia.
Your vet will perform a physical exam, looking for any changes in your cat’s overall health. They will also do blood work and may recommend a urinalysis. X-rays or pain medication trials may also be done to see if arthritis or other pain could be contributing to your cat's changes in behavior.
Pay attention to any patterns tied to your cat’s abnormal behavior. It may be helpful to video these episodes to share with your vet.
Treatment of Dementia in Cats
Treatment for dementia in cats is often focused on a combination of environmental enrichment or changes, supplements, and medication.
Enrichment and Environmental Changes for Dementia in Cats
With enrichment, new elements are added to a cat's environment to help with disorientation.
A treat ball can be given to cats that feel like they’re hungry after eating. These toys are made to stimulate the mind while rewarding your cat with treats when they succeed. Like crossword puzzles for older people, they may help to keep the mind stimulated to combat rapid decline of brain function.
You may also want to provide your cat with an automatic feeding bowl. These can provide small meals in the middle of the night for senior cats who find themselves hungry at odd hours.
A night light or a radio playing soft music may help your cat with anxiety caused by disrupted sleep patterns and a quiet home. Your veterinarian may also recommend melatonin in cats experiencing an irregular sleep cycle.
Environmental changes may mean altering your home to minimize your cat’s stress and help them have easier access to their needs.
This may include purchasing a litter box with a low entry point. Creating better access for your cat can help prevent house soiling.
Your cat may benefit from being in a smaller space with access to food, water, and a litter box to minimize their chances of getting disoriented and lost, especially at night.
Supplements for Dementia in Cats
The use of supplements may have some benefit in cats with dementia. SAMe, an antioxidant, may be helpful. CoQ10, omega fatty acids, and Vitamin E may also be recommended.
Supplements containing some of these ingredients like Nordic Naturals® Omega-3 Cat™ and Fera® Fish Oil + Vitamin E are readily available. Some senior diets, like Hill’s® Feline j/d prescription food, contain antioxidants, fatty acids, and joint protectors. Your vet will be able to determine if a supplement addition makes sense based on your cat’s diagnosis.
Calming pheromones can also be placed in the home to reduce stress.
When these changes and supplements aren’t enough, prescription medications may be recommended.
Medications for Dementia in Cats
Selegiline and propentophylline (Vivitonin®) are also commonly prescribed for patients with cognitive dysfunction.
Occasionally, anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants are also prescribed.
Speak with your vet to see what the best treatment is for your cat.
Recovery and Management of Dementia in Cats
While there’s no cure for dementia in cats, you can do several things to manage dementia and minimize stress in your cat’s life.
Make sure your senior cat has easy access to all their basic needs (food, water, litterbox)
When enriching your cat’s environment, try to avoid making any big changes that could be stressful to them.
Cats with dementia may be stuck in their ways and may perceive any change as anxiety-inducing.
If you’re introducing something new to help improve their access, consider keeping their old litter box or food bowls where they were. Add newer, easier elements to the space.
Medications or supplements may be helpful for your cat to navigate this time in their lives.
Prevention of Dementia in Cats
While there is no clear way to prevent the development of dementia in cats, keeping your senior cat sharp can delay symptoms.
Playing regularly with your cat can be helpful for keeping your cat stimulated. Consider the use of treat puzzles, treat balls, and other interactive games.
Establish a routine for exercise. This will benefit your cat’s mind, joints, and overall wellness. Open the blinds during the day so that your cat can look outside to see what’s happening beyond your home.
Dementia in Cats FAQs
How long can a cat live with feline dementia?
Cats can have normal lifespans with dementia if quality of life can be maintained.
Featured Image: knape/E+ via GettyImages
Cognitive Dysfunction, Cornell Feline Health Center. 2018.
Gunn-Moore, D. Geriatric Cats and Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. 2008.
Sordo, L, Gunn-Moore, D. “Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats: Update on Neuropathological and Behavioural Changes Plus Clinical Management.” VetRecord, 188(1) 2021.
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