cognitive dysfunction syndrome in cats
Cat Health and Wellness

Feline Dementia Signs and Symptoms Explained

When your cat reaches advanced senior status, they will inevitably start to struggle with their health. Of all the health problems in older cats, senility and dementia are the most debilitating. The earlier you recognize the warning signs and consult a vet, the more they can help your pet.

The symptoms are similar to the human form of Alzheimer’s disease. Your cat will grow confused and disoriented. They will struggle to make it to the litter box on time. They will stare into space, or at blank walls, for hours on end. Perhaps the most saddening symptom comes when your cat starts failing to remember or recognize you.

If your cat has reached an impressive age, well into double figures, dementia becomes increasingly likely. You will need to understand the symptoms of this condition, and act accordingly. Senility has a major effect on the quality of a cat’s life and must be minimized wherever possible. 

What is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Cats?

As reluctant as we are to admit it, our pets do age faster than we’d like. If we subscribe to popular theory, one year in human terms is equal to seven years for cats.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats reach senior status from the age of 10 years. This seems young, as well-cared-for felines can reach the age of 20. All the same, your cat will spend more time as a senior than any other phase of their life.

Aging comes with many different health complications. Senior cats often experience problems with their mobility and internal organs.

As they become more sedentary, older cats often gain weight and live at risk of diabetes. Eyesight and hearing will start to fail. Perhaps most importantly, many older cats get dementia.

This illness sees your cat losing more and more of their ability to think clearly. They’ll struggle with basic cognitive function, and become increasingly difficult to live with. Essentially, this condition is your cat’s equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease.

What Causes Feline Cognitive Dysfunction?

In short, old age. Feline cognitive dysfunction can impact upon any cat, or any breed. The first signs of dementia may start to manifest at around 12 years of age.

By the time a cat reaches 15, however, they are particularly likely to suffer. By the time your cat turns 17, they are more likely to develop dementia than not.

The scientific explanation for senility revolves around molecules known as free radicals. These molecules are generated by the body organically, and make use of oxygen in the blood.

As a result, less oxygen reaches the brain, making cognitive function increasingly challenging. Free radicals are essential, but they must be balanced by antioxidants. As our cats grow older, they generate fewer antioxidants – but the free radicals keep on coming.

signs of dementia in older cats

This is why cats are not born senile, and tend not to struggle until they reach senior status. Time takes its toll on all of us, and felines are no exception.

Larger cats may struggle with dementia earlier than their smaller counterparts. Their bodies need to work harder, leaving less oxygen to share with the brain. This means that some diet and lifestyle choices can help your cat.

Feline cognitive dysfunction can still claim the most active of cats. Just like Alzheimer’s disease, it can even be hereditary. Tracking down a feline’s family tree can be difficult, though.

What are the Symptoms of Feline Cognitive Dysfunction?

There are many common symptoms of feline cognitive dysfunction, as the ASPCA explains. The most common of these include:

  • Loss of memory
  • Failure to recognize human family members
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • General disorientation, such as getting lost easily
  • Staring into space, or at blank walls, for hours
  • Seems confused by basic obstacles in their path
  • Excess clinginess
  • Loss of interest in playing, or the world around them
  • Lack of grooming
  • Eating less
  • Uncharacteristic aggression
  • Constant vocalizing, such as meowing and yowling
  • Erratic sleep patterns, and behaving distressed at night

That can be a lot to take in, however. Indeed, some of these behaviors could be attributed to other conditions – or just old age. To this end, vets have devised the DISH diagnosis system.

All four of these symptoms in harmony point to senility:

  • Disorientation in general day-to-day affairs.
  • Interaction is becoming less frequent.
  • Sleep patterns are becoming increasingly erratic.
  • Housetraining takes a nosedive as your cat misses its litter tray.

Let’s take a look at these symptoms in more detail.

My Cat is Staring at the Wall

One of the first warning signs of cognitive dysfunction is aimlessly staring. Senile pets spend hours staring at walls, or you may find your cat staring into space.

This is all part of the confusion that comes with feline dementia. Your cat will forget what they were supposed to be doing. This aimless staring will continue until something clicks into place.

Another sign to look out for is your cat rubbing their head against walls. Once or twice, for just a moment, is fine. That’s likely just a marking behavior. Prolonged rubbing of the head, however, is a warning symptom of feline cognitive dysfunction.

My Cat is Acting Disorientated

Is your old cat pacing around constantly, as though they’re looking for something? This confusion is part and parcel of the feline dementia experience.

When cats start to suffer from senility, they struggle with even the simplest acts of coordination. Your cat will wander around rooms they previously knew, seemingly baffled by where to find the exit.

They’ll suffer from memory loss, forgetting their way around the outdoor territory they once ruled. They’ll forget how to use a cat flap, crying at the door instead. Minor obstacles in their path will baffle them. Perhaps most pertinently, they’ll pace constantly.

The sleep schedule of a senile cat turns upside down. You’ll need to tire them out during the day. Walk and talk with your cat, treating their pacing as an opportunity to spend time together.

If they allow it, you could even place a collar on your cat and walk them outdoors. It’s certainly not advisable to let a senile cat roam unattended. Be aware, however, that even healthy cats often dislike harnesses. This may go double for a senile pet.

My Cat is Constantly Yowling and Meowing

Regular vocalizing without rhyme or reason is one of the most troublesome symptoms of feline dementia. This becomes especially problematic when it happens late at night.

A senile cat will often find their sleeping and waking hours reversed. This will lead to your pet growing distressed at being ‘ignored’ late at night. Don’t forget that cats are nocturnal. Their instinct will be to come to life when the sun goes down.

If your cat is yowling and howling all night long, action will need to be taken. That is not a sustainable lifestyle. Ensure that your pet is not in heat.

Dementia is no barrier to female cats entering season. There is no such thing as feline menopause. A senile cat in heat will also behave just like its younger counterparts.

Beyond this, all you can do is tire your cat out during the day. Keep them entertained, as much as they’ll allow. Remember that mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise for exhausting a cat.

prognosis for feline dementia

A cat with dementia will not be as mentally sharp, but there’s still capacity. Do whatever you can to tire your pet out.

As frustrating as being kept awake by your cat can be, don’t yell at them. Don’t lose sight of the fact that they behave this way because they’re scared. Reprimanding your pet will magnify this anxiety.

My Cat is Not Using the Litter Box for Elimination

Ah, the messiest and most unpleasant symptom of feline dementia. Eliminating outside the litter box is often the first warning of cat senility.

The reasons for cats failing to use their litter tray are legion. It could be a consequence of the stress and anxiety that cats feel during cognitive dysfunction.

They could be worried that the litter tray is what’s making them unwell. They may be experiencing side effects from medication for their condition.

What’s most likely, however, is that your pet is confused. They did not realize that they needed to eliminate, or more likely, forgot what to do. When a cat is not thinking clearly, they won’t take themselves to a litter tray.

You can try to remedy this by keeping multiple litter trays throughout the home. If you can, have one in every room. Don’t like the idea of the smell of cat litter? The consequences will smell a lot worse. The more trays your cat encounters, the more likely they are to use them instinctively.

What’s important is that you do not tell your cat off for missing their litter tray. If you notice an accident, don’t react at all. Clean it up, and move on. Scaring your already-anxious cat will make them fear elimination. If your pet has dementia, they have enough to worry about.

My Cat is Not Grooming Themselves

Cats are naturally clean animals. They spend prolonged periods of every day grooming themselves. If your pet suddenly loses interest in this activity, it’s a cause for concern.

It isn’t difficult to tell when a cat has stopped grooming. Their coat will lack its usual luster, and there will be a distinct smell. Of course, senile cats also struggle to make it to the litter tray. This can make a lack of grooming even more noticeable.

It’s important that you pitch in to help a senile cat with their hygiene. Set aside time each day to give your cat a once-over with wet wipes, at least. This sense of structure will help your pet’s mind regain or retain some semblance of structure.

My Cat is Not Eating

A cat that stops eating is always a cause for concern. Most felines are wholly food-focused. Yes, they can also be very fussy and picky. All the same, it’s rare for a cat to disregard food completely.

Observe your cat around mealtimes. Do they meow and ask for food, even after being fed? This suggests that they have entirely forgotten that they have eaten.

Also, be sure to watch how your cat eats. Are they consuming less food than usual? Are they just licking the gravy or jelly, and not consuming solids? Have they suddenly gone off their favorite meal? Are they walking away from their food and staring into space?

Your pet’s behavior toward their dinner can be a real insight into their mental clarity. If your cat does not eat for two days straight, call a vet. That’s potentially very dangerous. If they lose their appetite and display other symptoms of dementia, escalate the appointment.

My Cat Does Not Seem to Recognize Me

Memory loss is as prominent in feline cognitive dysfunction as it is in Alzheimer’s disease. When your cat stops greeting you, or doesn’t seem to recognize you, it can be heartbreaking.

Remember that cats acknowledge and recognize their owners by voice, not sight. Your cat could never tell your face apart from anybody else’s. As far as they’re concerned, you’re just another big, giant cat. When you speak, however, their ears prick up.

The only way to stave off this issue is to talk. Speak directly to your pet, ensuring they understand that you’re addressing them. Talk to friends and family members around your pet. If you have a phone call to make, make it in a room that your cat is reclining in.

The more your cat hears your voice, the more it will jog their memories of who you are. We’ll be blunt – they may still not understand exactly who, or what, you are.

They may remember that you were once important to them, though. When dealing with dementia, you need to take the small wins where you can.

My Cat is Growing Aggressive

Arguably the most worrying sign of feline dementia is the onset of aggression. A senile cat will start to act out of sorts, and this can mean hostile behavior. How severe this is will vary from case to case.

Some cats are just a little grumpier than before. They will not take kindly to being woken from naps, and will spend more time alone. Other cats, alas, will be outright antagonistic. They will claw, scratch and bite at will, seemingly for no reason at all.

During this experience, you have to remember one thing – your cat is very old. Part of this aggression may stem from a loss of sight, hearing, or both.

If your cat cannot see or hear you coming, you may give them quite a fright. A scared cat will often attack first, and ask questions later.

Ensure that your pet’s senses are being checked regularly. There are many steps you can take to accommodate failing sound and vision receptors.

Some cats fall into the opposite end of the aggression spectrum. Rather than acting violently, they become incredibly clingy and affectionate.

This is essentially your cat experiencing major anxiety. They know that they’re not quite right, and seek reassurance why. Offer this by the bucket load. A senile cat needs you more than ever.

Can Dementia in Cats be Prevented?

Dementia can strike any cat. Sadly, there is sometimes no warning or explanation. What may help, however, is encouraging your cat to make specific dietary or lifestyle choices. These can delay the inevitable, and slow down the progress of the condition.

Keep your cat’s brain active. As cats grow older, they take less interest in playing and more interest in sleeping. This can easily lead to complacency as a pet owner. After all, a lazy cat is very easy to look after. All you need to do is feed them once or twice a day.

This ignores the universal truth that an active brain is a young brain, though. The more you keep your pet engaged, the slower the degeneration of their cognitive function. Your cat doesn’t need to be a member of American Mensa.

Consider engaging their minds by making your cat hunt for their food, though. You can stuff kibble in toys, and make it a game. This may be more appealing than attempting to encourage your senior cat to play hunting games.

Cats are also very stimulated by sound. Talking to your cat will keep them mentally sharp. Felines recognize their owner’s through their voices, so you can keep this association alive.

Consider playing music while you’re out of the house, too. Even if a cat is dozing, they’ll have one ear open for interesting sounds.

Also, think about your cat’s diet. Dementia is linked to free radicals outnumbering antioxidants as your pet ages. You can help your cat with this, though.

The following foods are high in antioxidants:

  • Fish
  • Krill
  • Meat and Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Seaweed

All of these foods must be used sparingly, and in moderation. Eggs, for example, are not a substitute for balanced, quality cat food. If your supplement your cat’s diet with them, however, they will feel the benefits.

One thing that may seem initially tempting is to add a younger pet to your family. After all, what keeps an old cat younger than a kitten? This would be a huge mistake.

A new arrival will cause anxiety for your senile cat. This will serve to magnify their existing symptoms and condition. Besides, your older cat may be aggressive. This will end badly for the kitten, who could get seriously hurt.

These steps will not prevent feline cognitive dysfunction. If your cat is destined to be struck down, it will happen. Taking these actions, however, can make help your pet live a longer, fuller life.

How is Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Diagnosed?

Once you notice the DISH symptoms, make an appointment with a vet. Gather as much information about your cat’s behavior as you can.

Keeping a diary will be helpful, and even consider filming videos on your smartphone. The more data you can provide your vet upon arrival, the more helpful they’ll find it.

Once you are within a veterinary surgery, several tests will need to be run. These will include blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds. Your vet may even need to get a second opinion, or call in additional advice. This is important, because dementia has similar symptoms to many other conditions.

how to treat dementia in cats

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your vet will discuss the next steps with you. This will usually involve medication, and whatever can be done to make your cat comfortable.

Feline cognitive dysfunction does not automatically equal euthanasia. Some cats continue to live for many years after their diagnosis. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the better your cat’s chances of prolonging their life.

How to Treat Dementia in Cats

There is no cure for feline cognitive disorder. If your cat has developed the condition, they will never be free of it. Medications, however, can slow down the progress of the disease.

There are no official medicines for dementia in cats. However, some treatments for canine dementia have been used on felines, with positive results. These include Selgian and Anipryl.

In addition to these medications, however, much of your pet’s treatment will be down to you. The more mental stimulation you provide, the sharper your cat’s brain will become. Discuss your cat’s general health with a vet before applying any dietary supplements.

These treatments can be costly. Check with your pet insurance provider to see if they will contribute to the expenses. Just keep them informed of your cat’s health from the moment of diagnosis.

The earlier your cat’s senility is diagnosed, the better their chances of living a full life. This is why it is important to take a senior cat for regular veterinary check-ups. Once your cat reaches the age of 7, take them for a nose-to-tail once-over twice annually.

What is the Prognosis for Feline Dementia?

Feline senility treatment is a long and arduous road – with no cure in sight. Never approach a vet with the expectation of a miracle recovery. Such things do not exist.

On the other hand, feline cognitive disorder in and of itself is not a fatal condition. It only impacts cats that are approaching the end of their life, this much is certain.

A cat with dementia may also be more prone to accidents, or other sicknesses. Dementia itself, however, does not place a ticking clock on your cat’s lifespan.

If you introduce lifestyle changes to boost your pet’s brainpower, they are likely to live longer. Some cats deteriorate to the point that their quality of life is seriously impacted, however.

If this applies to your pet, tough decisions must be made.

Caring for a Cat with Dementia

If your cat has been diagnosed with feline cognitive disorder, they’ll need particular care and attention. If your pet is living with this condition, follow these rules:

  • Do not change your cat’s routine in any way.
  • Never move furniture around the house.
  • Have litter trays in as many locations as possible. Your cat will likely still have accidents, but this may minimize them.
  • Never scold your cat for unwelcome behavior.
  • Provide an interesting environment, with plenty of sound, smell and sight-based stimulation.
  • Ensure your cat has its own quiet area, or ‘safe space,’ to hide in.
  • Monitor your cat’s mental and physical health carefully, consulting vets where necessary.
  • Keep your cat at home. Outdoors can be dangerous for a senile cat.

Living with a senile cat can have a big impact on your life. It can also be rewarding, however, if you can keep your pet comfortable. You’ll need patience, and to tap into the reservoirs of affection your hold for your companion.

By the time your cat develops a feline cognitive disorder, their time will be short. During this period, they’ll need you more than ever.

Putting Down a Senile Cat

Eventually, a very difficult decision needs to be made surrounding cats with dementia. When is the appropriate time to have your cat put to sleep?

Make no mistake – a senile cat can seriously impact your life. They’ll wake you up at all hours. They’ll get lost, and require rescuing. They’ll have questionable hygiene, and need to be regularly cleaned up – and cleaned up after. They’ll require expensive medications.

On the other hand, this is still your cat. You will have enjoyed many happy years together. You need to stop and think about what your pet would want.

Were they previously proud and independent? Do they seem to be in distress? Are they showing other signs of ill health, such as restricted mobility?

If your cat’s quality of life is dramatically suffering, euthanasia may be merciful. Remember, however, a vet will rarely put down a healthy feline. If your cat has other health issues alongside their dementia, however, it’s different.

A senile cat may take a fall, for example. The risks associated with fixing a broken leg, alongside cognitive dysfunction, may be too severe. Your vet will advise you if this is the case. Likewise, if your cat is growing aggressive and placing people at risk, safety must come first.

If you don’t want to euthanize your cat, look into rehoming them through a shelter. Be warned, however; many shelters will not take a senior cat with dementia. Your pet may even end up being put to sleep there, unless it’s a no-kill shelter.

Do not think ill of the sanctuary for this. The simple truth is, many shelters are stretched beyond capacity already. They can only take cats that have a good chance of being rehomed.

Many people are looking to adopt kittens, or younger cats. It takes a very specific temperament and skill set to take care of a senile feline. A cat with dementia may require more personal attention than a busy sanctuary can offer.

Also, the shelter needs to take the safety of staff and other cats into consideration. If you are rehoming your cat due to aggression, the problem will not go away overnight.

Feline dementia is a debilitating condition. Just because it occurs toward the end of a cat’s life, it doesn’t make it pleasant. You’ll need to prepare yourself for difficult times, and accept that your cat will change.

Ultimately, it’s still your cat that’s suffering. Do not allow the onset of senility to color your memories and relationship with your pet. You may need to make some tough choices – that’s unavoidable.

Try to take solace from the fact that only cats that live long lives experience dementia. You have done something right to reach this stage. All you can do is make your cat as comfortable as possible during this trying time.