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Senility, dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome

17th August 2018

Senility, dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome

Thanks to advancements in nutrition and veterinary medicine, our cats are living longer lives.

Cats aged between 11 and 14 years are known as ‘senior’, while cats aged 15 years and over are termed ‘super senior’.

It is wonderful if your cat lives to enjoy old age; however, unfortunately these life stages are associated with health issues. One such issue is a decline in cognitive abilities (eg, learning, memory, attention, spatial abilities) as a result of ageing changes in the brain. This is sometimes referred to as senility (being senile), or dementia, as in humans, but is more correctly termed cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

CDS is characterised by behavioural changes. However, the behavioural changes associated with CDS can also result from other diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, chronic renal failure, diabetes mellitus and more. Therefore, if you notice any changes in behaviour in your senior or geriatric cat, it is very important to take it to the vet to get a proper diagnosis and rule out any of these other diseases. CDS can only be diagnosed once all other illnesses have been ruled out.

Signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome

The most common signs of CDS are the following behavioural changes in cats:

  • Spatial disorientation (confusion about where they are) eg, becoming trapped in corners, forgetting the location of the litter tray
  • Temporal disorientation (confusion about what time it is) eg, forgetting that feeding time has just occurred
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles eg, the cat is awake when normally sleeping and vice versa
  • House soiling ie, inappropriate urination and/or defecation
  • Inappropriate vocalisation eg, loud crying at night
  • Altered interaction/relationships with owners and/or other pets in the household eg, increased attention seeking, increased aggression
  • Altered interest in food eg, increased or (more commonly) decreased appetite
  • Decreased grooming
  • Changes in general behaviour eg, increased irritability, increased anxiety, decreased responsiveness
  • Changes in learning and memory eg, forgetting commands, forgetting previous litter tray training
  • Changes in activity eg, reduced activity, aimless wandering or pacing

What to do if you notice any of these behavioural changes in your cat

As mentioned above, if you notice any of these behavioural changes in your cat, is very important to take it to the vet to determine whether any other diseases are the cause of these changes, and so to get your cat the treatment it needs. CDS will only be diagnosed once all other illnesses have been ruled out.

Can cognitive dysfunction be treated?

Although sadly CDS cannot be cured, the signs of it can be reduced with suitable management, including making changes to the cat’s environment, changing or supplementing their diet, and there are also some drug therapies available. Your vet will be able to discuss these options with you.

Environmental management

Changing environmental factors can help a cat with CDS. Try enhancing the cat’s environment with extra toys, increasing the amount of time you spend with the cat (if the cat enjoys human company), increasing your interaction with the cat eg, through play, providing hiding places, elevated sites (which are easily accessible eg, using ramps), and providing puzzle feeders. Puzzle feeders are objects which hold food and must be manipulated to release this food, which provide a fun ‘brain-teaser’ for your cat. All the factors mentioned above are known as ‘environmental enrichment’, which can lead to increased mental stimulation, an increase in the growth and survival of nerve cells in the brain, and an increase in cognitive function.
Introduce changes to your cat’s environment gradually, so as not to confuse them. If your cat has never used puzzle feeders, introduce them gradually and start with easy ones. For ideas on puzzle feeders, visit our puzzle feeder page here.

Other adjustments to the environment can be made to make life easier for the elderly cat and reduce potential frustration and stress. These include:

  • Avoiding placing food and water on high surfaces that elderly cats might find difficult to access, or provide a ramp up to the surface if you do.
  • Raising food and water bowls up slightly from the floor, to make it easier for the cat to reach them, especially arthritic cats. Ensure that food and water bowls are separated.
  • Provide several comfortable beds in easily accessible areas; consider providing heated beds for added comfort.
  • Provide large, low-sided litter trays for easy access and place them in easily accessible locations.
  • Provide soft litter eg, sandy-types which are softer on the paws.
    Elderly cats may find it more difficult to use cat flaps – consider letting them in and out via a door.
  • Allow elderly cats to have peace and quiet, away from other pets and members of the household, when they want it.
  • Introducing a new cat or dog can be very stressful for elderly cats, so this should be avoided.
  • Finally, another environmental factor which could be introduced to help a cat with CDS is a synthetic version of a feline facial pheromone, known as ‘Feliway Classic’; this can help to reduce anxiety.

Severe cognitive dysfunction

Unfortunately, when cats develop many signs of CDS, indicating that their cognitive abilities have declined severely, changes to their environment can actually make things worse. Cats with severe CDS will not be able to cope with such changes and so become stressed, which could exacerbate the signs of CDS. Therefore, for cats with severe CDS, any changes should be kept to a minimum or avoided altogether. Some of these cats may even benefit from having their area of access reduced eg, providing them with a single room with all their key resources, where they can feel safe and secure.

Dietary management

A diet rich in antioxidants is believed to improve cognitive function; therefore, switching to such a diet may help to reduce the signs of CDS. There are also dietary supplements available. The combination of environmental stimulation and a diet enriched with antioxidants is believed to have a combined positive effect in improving cognitive function, so both of these strategies should be employed together.

Drug therapies

Drugs that have been used to treat particular signs of CDS include anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs, and antidepressants. There may be other drugs treatments available, but no drug has been licensed for the treatment of CDS in cats as of yet. Speak to your vet for more information about potential drug therapies.

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