Cats between the ages of 7 to 10 are considered mature, and those between 11 and 14 are considered seniors. The human equivalent of 7 cat years is 44 years and as with humans, this is when they begin showing signs of getting older. After reaching this point, their veterinary visits become more important and they also start showing obvious behavioral changes.
Instead of brushing it off as your cat “just getting old,” consider including your pet more in your daily activities. This could be as simple as holding your cat on your lap and leaving it alone when it has settled in contentedly.
Do Cats Experience a Midlife Crisis?
As your cat gets older, it’s normal to see some behavioral changes. The first sign of aging in cats is typically a general decrease in activity along with a tendency to nap more. Your cat that was once a high-energy curious explorer may prefer to curl up somewhere warm and comfortable instead of indulging in play. It’s important to note that a mature or senior cat may be subject to illnesses that most owners don’t consider when their cats are young.
Cats experience the same diseases as humans do as they get older. Some of these diseases include arthritis, diabetes, dental issues, hyperthyroidism, liver or kidney problems, and cognitive impairment. Your senior cat may also come off as a little moody. It may no longer ask for much physical contact or play.
Note that grumpiness can be a sign of pain and discomfort caused by an underlying condition. If your cat meows continuously despite having enough attention, food, and water, it could be a cause for concern. Therefore, it is worth taking your cat to a veterinary clinic for a proper diagnosis. Inappropriate litter box behavior is another sign to look out for as it may indicate diabetes, kidney problems or a urinary infection.
What Are the Causes of Behavioral Changes in Older Cats?
Your cat may experience several complex physical changes as it ages, but aging in itself is not a disease. Although many conditions that occur among older cats cannot be cured, they can be controlled with proper education, care, and management techniques.
The key to ensuring that your cat has the highest quality of life possible is to recognize signs and symptoms of a disease, keep a lookout for behavioral changes, and take your cat to a vet when needed to prevent the progression of an illness.
With that in mind, the following are some health conditions that may cause behavioral changes in cats and what you can do about them.
1) Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
Feline cognitive dysfunction affects over 55% of cats within the ages of 11 to 15 and 80% of cats above the age of 16. Feline cognitive decline can cause deterioration in the ability to learn, memory, awareness, hearing, and sight. This decline in function can result in sleep pattern disturbances, decreased activity, and disorientation. It can also cause a cat to forget learned habits, including where the litter box and food bowls are placed.
Cognitive decline can also increase anxiety levels in cats and increase their tendency to react with aggression and grumpiness. The condition can also impair social relationships with their owners and with other furry friends at home. Pay attention to the changes your cat is undergoing, in order to effectively and caringly deal with behavioral changes that may occur during its senior years.
Note that some behavioral changes may only appear as if they’re related to cognitive decline. Make sure you keep a log of all changes and symptoms you see in your cat so that you can report them to your veterinarian during your next visit. Never assume that the aging cat cannot be helped. Most changes in behavior are caused by medical conditions that can be treated or controlled, allowing your cat to live comfortably for many years to come.
How to Identify Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats
Feline cognitive dysfunction can lead to learning and memory impairment, confusion, disorientation, changes in social behavior, increased apathy, sleep problems, reduced activity and increased irritability in cats. The following lists down behavioral changes caused by cognitive dysfunction, helping you identify the condition much faster.
Anxiety, irritability, and grumpiness are common in aging cats with cognitive dysfunction. Mood changes can be identified via the following signs:
- Your cat appears increasingly restless or irritated
- Vocalizes more. Your cat may use a more urgent tone, as if it’s in pain
- Responds to being disturbed with agitation
Your cat may experience changes in its sleep-wake cycles. Here’s what you should look out for:
- Sleeping more during the daytime
- Restless sleep, waking up more during the night
- More vocal in the night
Signs and symptoms associated with a decline in memory and learning in cats include:
- Not using the litter box
- Eliminating in eating or sleeping areas
- Inability to recognize familiar family members or pets
Your cat may be more lethargic due to cognitive dysfunction. To identify apathy and lethargy, look out for the following:
- Doesn’t groom as much
- Less interest in food
- Less curious about its surroundings, barely responding to what’s going on
Cognitive decline can also cause confusion in cats, which can be seen as:
- Wandering aimlessly
- Staring into space or on a single object for no reason
- Loss of navigation and getting lost in familiar spaces
- Inability to navigate around or getting stuck in obstacles
Changes in social behavior can be seen as:
- Increased clinginess and dependence
- Doesn’t show the same level of interest in social interactions or petting
- Not as enthusiastic. Doesn’t greet people or pets
Ruling Out Other Medical Conditions
According to the Veterinary Clinics of North America, diagnosing feline cognitive dysfunction involves recognition of visible signs and ruling out other medical conditions that may cause behavioral changes.
If your cat exhibits any of the above signs and symptoms, take your pet to the vet as soon as possible to rule out any medical condition. Any illness that causes pain, discomfort or decreased mobility can cause behavioral changes in cats. Some of these include:
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Poor sight or hearing
- Urinary Tract Disease (UTI)
The above conditions can lead to increased grumpiness and sensitivity in cats. They may make your cat more anxious when being approached to be petted or touched. Your cat may also show signs of increased aggression, especially if it decides to bite when threatened, instead of walking away. Other signs of aging diseases include reduced ability to adapt, reduced responsiveness when called, and inability to get to the litter box.
Once your vet rules out medical problems and behavioral changes that are not associated with aging, your vet may decide whether your cat’s behavior is connected to the aging of the brain.
Treatment for Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
Once your vet determines that your cat’s behavioral changes are attributed to the aging of its brain, your next step should be to seek therapy. Treatment for feline cognitive dysfunction primarily involves making appropriate changes to your cat’s environment, while maintaining a consistent daily routine.
Cognitive dysfunction can also be managed using medication, such as Selegiline. Although the drug is currently licensed to be used for canine cognitive dysfunction only, some vets have reported positive outcomes with its use among cats. Your vet may also prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, depending on the severity of your cat’s condition.
Managing Feline Anxiety Caused by Cognitive Dysfunction
Feline cognitive dysfunction commonly affects sleep-wake cycles in cats and causes increased restlessness in the night. Anxiety is a common cause for this. Your cat may be anxious about the lack of attention it receives from family members because of them being asleep, or it may worry about moving around in the dark. An anxious cat may keep you awake at night, by vocalizing, purring near your head, pawing at your face and pacing in your room.
Anxiety caused by feline cognitive dysfunction can be controlled with drug therapy. Talk to your vet or a veterinary behaviorist to determine whether medication is the right course of action.
Note that your cat’s increased nighttime activity may be a result of a different reason, other than cognitive dysfunction. For example, if your cat sleeps more in the daytime, it will be more active or restless in the night. Hearing loss and decline in eyesight can also lead to poor sleep in cats.
Your cat may experience an increased urge to eliminate due to a urinary tract infection or kidney disease, that’s causing it to wake up in the night. Furthermore, your cat’s impaired ability to access, locate or use a litter box may cause it to wander around in the dark.
In addition to getting your pet diagnosed by a vet, it’s also important to reestablish a normal sleep-wake cycle in your cat by increasing its activity levels in the day. Playing with your cat more during the day can cause your pet to feel tired and sleep more restfully in the night.
How to Control Excessive Vocalization
According to an article published in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, it is common for older cats to vocalize more due to loss of hearing, increased pain and disorientation caused by an underlying medical condition. If your older cat has been vocalizing more recently, take it to a vet to determine the cause.
Feline cognitive dysfunction often causes increased vocalizations in cats due to separation distress, anxiety, disorientation, and poor navigation. You’ll be able to tell that your cat is anxious if it meows sound melancholy. A senior cat’s vacuolization may be a cause for concern if it becomes too frequent, especially when everyone is asleep.
However, showing your frustration or trying to discipline your cat for waking you up may increase its anxiety and worsen the condition. It’s better to prevent your cat’s nighttime vocalization by increasing your cat’s daytime activity and slowly rebuilding a normal sleep-wake cycle.
You can also use pheromone sprays or diffusers in areas where your cat spends most of its time to reduce anxiety in your cat.
Arthritis is a common cause of “grumpy cat syndrome” as it causes increased pain and inflammation of the joints. Changes associated with arthritis can take place gradually, affecting one or many joints at a time. According to research published in the Journal Feline Medicine and Surgery, symptoms associated with the condition are slow and cause gradual behavioral changes in cats. Therefore, arthritis may not easily pop into your mind.
Common behavioral changes associated with arthritis in cats include:
- Growling, biting and/or scratching when you try to pick your cat up or move it from its favorite resting spot
- Your cat doesn’t like to be carried anymore
- Eliminating outside the litter box
- Limping and difficulty moving
- Changes in grooming habits
Your cat may become less mobile because arthritis can cause pain when your cat attempts to move. Therefore, a cat with arthritis may prefer not to be moved or may rest in one spot for prolonged periods. Your cat may not jump onto your bed, desk or kitchen counters anymore. If it does jump onto higher levels, it may use many “stepping stones” to reach its desired destination. Alternatively, it may stare at where it wants to go but doesn’t make any movement.
If you suspect your cat has arthritis, take it to a vet immediately. Your vet may recommend dietary supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to improve joint health and manage symptoms. You can also ask your vet about Adequan injections to treat joint inflammation. Cold laser therapy is another option which is noninvasive and can help alleviate joint inflammation.
3) Dental Disease
The three most common dental diseases in cats include gingivitis (gum disease), tooth resorptions and periodontitis. Dental disease can cause pain and thus, increased irritability in cats.
Some signs of dental disease in cats include:
- Increased fussiness towards food
- Foul breath
- Not letting you touch its face
If left untreated, dental disease may lead to future complications when dental bacteria enter your cat’s bloodstream and deposit in vital organs. Therefore, it is critical that your address your cat’s dental issues immediately. Doing so will not only improve your cat’s mood and overall wellbeing significantly; it will also reduce its risk of severer problems later on.
Make sure you brush your cat’s teeth on a regular basis and take it to a vet if you notice any signs of teeth deterioration or oral pain. Depending on the cause of the issue, your vet may prescribe antibiotics, remove plague via scaling or remove the entire tooth if the lesions extend to the crown of the tooth (in the case of tooth resorptions).