cognitive dysfunction syndrome in cats
Cat Health and Wellness

Feline Dementia Signs and Symptoms Explained

We all hope that our cats live a long and healthy life, but aging takes its toll on a feline. In addition to physical concerns, a cat’s cognitive performance will start to decline with age. By the time your cat reaches 15, it will be considered geriatric, which may be followed by signs of dementia.

Feline dementia, cognitive decline, is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Your cat will undergo personality changes, including bursts of temper and aggression. It will start to become confused and may not recognize you. It will likely start soiling outside the litter box. The cat will also interact less and lose interest in play, grooming, and eating.

Cats in cognitive decline require patience and special care. While there is no cure for this condition, spotting the signs early on improves the prognosis. If you notice a cat’s cognitive faculties declining, work to slow down the process. This improves quality of life for you and your cat.

What is Feline Dementia?

This condition occurs when a cat’s cognitive functions begin to decline. As cats age, the body is no longer as supple and flexible as it once was. The same applies to the mind. Older cats start to struggle with the basic thought processes that were once taken for granted.

Neuropathology of Feline Dementia compares cognitive decline in cats to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. So much so that feline dementia is considered a research model for this ailment. This provides some idea of what to expect from a senile cat.

Dementia should not impact cats until they age well into double figures. A cat is considered a senior from the age of 10. At this age, cats may start to show one or more symptoms of cognitive decline.

Symptoms usually become more pronounced after the age of 15. At this age, a cat is considered geriatric. 15 is the equivalent to the age of 76 in cat years. This means that some drop in mental acuity is to be expected.

Do not ignore the warning signs of feline dementia. Never write them off as part of aging. Cognitive decline negatively impacts a cat’s quality of life, as well as the owners. Senile cats require elaborate care.

Do All Cats Develop Feline Dementia?

Not necessarily. It becomes increasingly likely as a cat reaches geriatric status, though. In some respects, this is comforting. Only cats that live long, contented lives reach an age where dementia is a concern. All the same, it will change your dynamic with your cat.

The Journal of Veterinary Behavior suggests that cats can be protected from cognitive decline. This paper links dementia with exposure to excessive noise and air pollution. Due to sensitive senses of hearing and smell, cats should be shielded from these elements anyway.

All senior cats act differently to younger counterparts. All the same, do not shrug your shoulders and assume your cat is just getting older. Any change in behavior, especially if sudden, merits further investigation.

prognosis for feline dementia

Diagnosing Feline Dementia

Signs of dementia in cats will typically be picked up by a veterinarian at a check-up. As your cat ages, it should attend these appointments more regularly. A vet will ask questions about your cat’s behavior and demeanor. Based on your answers, tests may be run. In most cases, vets will follow the DISHA methodology to diagnose cognitive decline:

  • (D)isorientation in your cat as it goes about its business
  • (I)nteraction becoming increasing infrequent and erratic
  • (S)leep patterns growing disturbed, for both feline and human
  • (H)ousetraining being forgotten, leading to soiling outside the litter tray
  • (A)ltered activity levels and heightened (A)nxiety

Each of these symptoms could still be assigned to other concerns. To be certain of cognitive decline, an MRI scan will be required. This could involve referring your cat to a feline neurologist. It depends upon the equipment and expertise at the disposal of your vet.

Signs And Symptoms of Feline Dementia

As your cat grows older, you must learn the signs of cognitive decline. Start paying attention to your cat’s behavior from the age of 10. Once it reaches 15, you’ll need to be particularly vigilant.

There are many and varied symptoms and signs of feline dementia. On paper, these look quite obvious. They can be confused with other illnesses though, or even just the natural aging process. All cats undergo changes in behavior and personality as they grow older.

If you suspect that your cat has dementia, speak to a veterinarian. Tests can be run, and a diagnosis made. Better still, take your senior or geriatric cat for twice-annual general health checks. This will help a vet identify warning signs early and recommend advance treatment.

Personality Changes

Your cat is likely to change in personality as it gets older. Senior cats sleep more and play less than they once did. Many older cats also become a little grumpier than their younger selves when disturbed.

All the same, do not just write off your cat’s changes in behavior as mere old age. Extreme shifts in personality can often be ascribed to dementia. Look out for the key warning signs of cognitive decline.

Mood Swings and Uncharacteristic Aggression

One of the first signs of feline dementia is a sharp adjustment in temperament. Oftentimes, this manifests as aggression. All senior cats can be a little cantankerous. A senile cat will take this to another level, though.

Aggression will only be linked to cognitive decline if it is unprovoked. A senior cat growing antagonistic when touched, for example, may not be living with dementia. It is possibly in pain – likely arthritic in nature – and rejecting unnecessary handling.

Cats in cognitive decline will hiss, growl and even attack at random intervals. These violent outbursts will be punctuated by moments of sweetness. This takes some adjustment. The cat can turn from purring to scratching in a matter of seconds.

Excessive Clinginess

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, we have clinginess. A cat in cognitive decline may follow you around the house, verbalizing to excess and seeking constant reassurance. Cats can be needy for a number of reasons, but dementia is a common explanation.

As an owner, you’ll need to strike a fine balance here. Senility can be frightening for felines. The cat does not fully understand what is happening around it. This makes it your duty to provide comfort and support.

Heaping too much reassurance upon a cat can have a detrimental effect, though. In essence, the cat starts to believe that it has good reason to be afraid. Your reaction is cementing the idea that something unpleasant is unfolding.

Bring structured petting into your cat’s day, using this time to soothe your cat. Cats with dementia often forget their routine, so this will take time and patience. The more you retain a schedule, the likelier it is to stick with the cat.

Lack of Engagement

Cats with dementia lose interesting in anything and anybody. The cat will likely spend prolonged periods of the day hiding. It will only emerge to seek reassurance or launch an unprovoked attack.

Senile cats have no interest in play. They may also need to be encouraged to interact with any kind of stimulation. This includes scratching posts and climbing trees. The cat may even cease such basic activities as watching birds from a window.

All senior cats start to slow down a little. They can be coercing into play though, if only to keep weight manageable. Senile cats are completely disengaged. This must be managed, for both physical and mental health. The more a cat interacts, the sharper its mind will be.

Lack of Grooming

A cat in cognitive decline will also lose all interest in grooming. A greasy and matted fur coat is always a cause for concern in cats. Felines are proud animals that like to stay clean.

Again, there are many possible reasons for a cat to cease grooming. It may be struggling to do so due to limited mobility or obesity. A cat with dementia will simply forget. In addition, such cats lose interest in caring for themselves.

Any time a cat stops grooming, it merits investigation. Letting itself go is not in the nature of a cat. If this change is coupled with other behaviors, cognitive dysfunction is the likeliest explanation.

Memory Loss

Alzheimer’s disease in humans is often associated with memory loss. The same applies to cognitive decline in felines. Your cat’s mind will no longer be a steel trap. Previous activities and understandings that were took for granted will cease.

Memory loss in cats can manifest in a variety of ways. Do not mistake unwillingness to cooperate with lack of cognition. Cats are stubborn, especially once older. They have long established their own routine and preferences. Memory loss through dementia should be identifiable.

Failure to Recognize Owners

A surefire sign that your cat is struggling with cognitive decline is a failure to recognize you. Contrary to popular belief, cats to love – and identify – their owners. Current Biology explains how cats form important bonds with human caregivers.

Older cats may appear to ignore you by default. This could be because the cat is losing hearing as it ages, or just by choice. The cat is secure in its bond and will find you later. It remains possible that your cat no longer remembers you, though.

Call your cat’s name when you first enter a home or room. Cats distinguish humans by voice, not face. We all look the same to cats. Your cat should react to your voice, even if just a little. The ears should prick, or the tail swish.

You’ll also know if a cat recognizes you by body language. Cats that acknowledge you as friendly approach with a high tail, curled like a question mark. A low tail denotes apprehension and anxiety. This suggests uncertainty of who you are, and if you can be trusted.

Eating Less

It is rare for a healthy cat to forget to eat. Most felines build their daily routine around snacks and meals. Cats in cognitive decline, though, will struggle to recall their schedule. This means the cat may forget to eat for prolonged periods.

As with any instance of a cat not eating, this is a worry. Senior cats, in particular, should never go longer than 24 hours without nutrition. Check that the loss of appetite is not related to physical illness, though. Cats can refuse food for a number of reasons.

Encourage a senile cat to eat. If necessary, lead your cat to the meal. Offer reinforcement and praise for eating. A cat that does not eat is likely to wake up hungry in the night. It will not hesitate to inform you of this, expecting an immediate resolution.

signs of dementia in older cats

Eliminating Outside the Litter Box

Litter training is one of main things that cats with cognitive decline forget. Veterinary Sciences discusses how house soiling becomes increasing frequent in cats aged over 11. Initially, this may be due to restricted mobility and incontinence. Dementia plays a sizeable role, though.

Give your cat a fighting chance of using the litter tray. Place several of these trays around the home, clearly identifiable by scent. The cat may connect this aroma with elimination in the tray. Even cats with dementia retain instincts in the recesses of their mind.

Alas, unpleasant though it may be, house soiling is likely something you’ll have to live with. It is inevitable on occasion. During waking hours, you can watch the cat. When it looks likely to eliminate, carry it to the litter tray.

In lucid moments, the cat will remember its training accordingly. Just remember, cats with dementia can be aggressive. The cat may misunderstand your intention and not take kindly to handling. Decide which is the lesser of two evils; a soiled floor or scratches and bites.

Confusion and Disorientation

In addition to your cat’s memory loss, it may start to grow increasingly confused and disoriented. This will differ from standard, seemingly inexplicable, feline behavior. Your cat will act increasingly odd, potentially growing distressed while doing so.

Staring into Space

Cats in cognitive decline often stare into space, sometimes for hours on end. Equally, the cat may fixate on a wall or other seemingly uninteresting locations. The cat will sit for a prolonged period as though in a trance. Nothing can break its concentration.

Note that this is different to look out the window, or at a fish tank. In these instances, the cat is being stimulated by movement and colors. Staring into nothingness will only occur with cognitive decline. 

Entering and Leaving Rooms

Another sign that your cat is confused is entering a room, then leaving again. The cat has wandered in, perhaps following instinct. When it arrives, it forgets why it came. The cat may walk in circles a handful of times, then leave the room. This cycle can repeat constantly.

Cats in cognitive decline also have ever-changing demands. A cat may scratch and yowl at a door, requesting it is opened, then walk away. This behavior is not unique to dementia. Some felines do this to display dominance. Senile cats often forget why they made demands, though.

Getting Lost

Your cat will struggle to remember common paths and routes. This includes inside the house and out. A cat in cognitive decline must be kept indoors. The outside world is far too dangerous. The home can also become an unfathomable labyrinth, though.

It will become commonplace to hear distressed vocalizations. The cat has found itself in unfamiliar terrain, unsure of where it is. Obviously, this is not actually the case. The cat just has forgotten the layout of the home. It feels as though it is in a strange house.

Help your cat by providing clues to paths. Scent is best for this. Apply strong aromas around key parts of the home to jog memory. The exception to this is around food and water. Leve neutral scents around bowls. Cognitive decline already makes feeding habits erratic.

Reversed Sleep-Waking Cycles

A prominent symptom of feline dementia is a reversed sleep-waking cycle. The cat will doze throughout the day and come to life at night. This will often lead to disturbed sleep for owners.

At first, this may be difficult to identify. Senior cats spend the majority of their day asleep anyway. Simply sleeping more is not an immediate sign of cognitive decline. It becomes likelier if the cat is also avoiding any contact with you, though.

Pay particular attention if your cat grows active at night. This will be problematic for a number of reasons. The cat may soil the house by night. This can be unhygienic and stressful for the cat. In addition, if it grows confused, the cat may have an accident and hurt itself.

Distress at Night

A cat with dementia will likely become vocally distressed at night. This is an extension of the enhanced anxiety discussed preciously. This is magnified when the cat is active after dark. The problem manifests for a number of reasons, including:

  • Eyesight is failing and the cat is frightened by darkness
  • The cat is hungry and cannot remember where to find the food bowl
  • Sleep training has been forgotten and the cat demands immediate attention
  • There are other pets in the home and the cat is upset by their presence

Nocturnal distress can be frustrating for cat owners. All the same, you’ll need to hold your temper. Your cat does not understand that it is behaving inappropriately. Do not scold the cat, and certainly do not lock it in a separate room. This makes the cat likelier to hurt itself.

Do your best to reinstate sleep training. Encourage your cat to eat, sleep and groom late at night. This will, theoretically, lead to sleeping.

In addition, work to keep your cat calm at night. Use calming scents, such as lavender or frankincense. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery also recommends Feliway. This enhances the likelihood of your cat soothing itself and returning to sleep.

Caring for a Cat with Dementia

If your cat has been diagnosed with dementia, it will need particular care. Steps to take to make your cat more comfortable include:

  • Multiple litter trays in numerous locations
  • Reliable, unchanging routine
  • Assigned territory and quiet areas for resting
  • Healthy diet and exercise regime
  • Regular reassurance – without making the cat feel it has something to fear

Most importantly, you will need boundless patience. The cat does not understand what it did wrong. You will just add further anxiety to a feline that is likely already distressed.

how to treat dementia in cats

Can Feline Dementia be Cured?

Sadly, there is no cure for feline dementia. The best any owner or vet can achieve is slowing the decline of the cat’s brain. Thankfully, this can be achieved. This will involve a combination of drugs and lifestyle changes.

Selegiline hydrochloride is sometimes prescribed to cats in cognitive decline. This compound is found in the drugs Selgian and Anipryl. These are human medications, typically used to treat Parkinson’s disease, extreme depression or ADHD.

As per Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, Selgian and Anipryl have also been found to slow cognitive decline in dogs. Research into felines is still ongoing. Many vets will prescribe these drugs to cats, though.

Drugs alone will only go so far. You will also need to play a part as a cat owner. This means keeping your cat’s mind as sharp as possible. The more your cat thinks, the slower the dementia will take hold. Ways to achieve this include:

  • Talking to your cat and encouraging conversation (use meows if necessary)
  • Playing puzzle games with your cat
  • Providing a stimulating environment with smells, sights, sounds and textures

These are not miracle cures and will not remedy cognitive decline. They can reverse the condition if caught early, but even this is just delaying the inevitable. These drugs and lifestyle changes will improve a cat’s quality of life, though.

Can’t Cope with Feline Dementia

Nobody would ever claim that caring for a cat with dementia is easy. As an owner, though, you have a responsibility to meet a senior feline’s needs. Your cat has provided you with years of pleasure and companionship. Now you need to make it as comfortable as possible.

Do whatever you can to slow to progression of feline cognitive decline. Establish a routine, sharing responsibility among your family members. If you really cannot cope, consider alternatives. If is unfair on the already-vulnerable cat to suffer and see its needs unmet.

Adoption

If you cannot meet the needs of a senile cat, look into adoption. Be aware, though; this approach is difficult. If at all possible, find a friend or family member to take on your cat. Shelters and charities will often be unable to accept a cat in cognitive decline.

Shelters are often already stretched to breaking point. They can only accept cats that are likely to be adopted. If you cannot care for your cat, what makes you so sure somebody else can? You know your cat better than anybody, and you’re struggling.

There is also the issue of problematic behavior to consider. A shelter needs to factor safety of all feline residents into their daily operation. A cat in cognitive decline may become aggressive. This places other cats at risk.

Remember how much care and special attention a senile cat requires. You are struggling with just one pet. A shelter has dozens, maybe even hundreds, to think of. Staff simply will not have the time to treat the cat appropriately.

Euthanasia

If adoption or care is not an option for your cat, you may be considering euthanasia. This is the last possible resort, and in many cases unavailable.

A vet will rarely euthanize a cat exclusively on the grounds of cognitive decline. Quality of life must have diminished to the point that euthanasia is a mercy. A human Alzheimer’s patient lives until nature takes its course. Cats are extended the same legal protection.

Most vets will only euthanize a cat if it experiences an incurable disease or irresolvable injury. The following criteria are sufficient to merit putting a cat to sleep.

  • No ability to eat or drink without vomiting or diarrhea
  • Finding movement impossible without being carried
  • Inability to breathe without assistance
  • Constant seizures and fits
  • Illness in senior cats that cannot be rectified with medication or lifestyle changes

If your senile cat has a health condition, a vet may discuss euthanasia. Otherwise, this solution is off the table. If a vet willingly agrees to put a cat to sleep without consideration, think twice. Most vets will at least recommend a second opinion.

Living with a cat in cognitive decline is hard. You’ll need a great deal of patience. Your cat needs you now more than ever, though. Remember the good times you have shared together. Show your cat how much you cherish it by providing suitable end-of-life care.