Forgetful Feline? Your Cat May Have Cognitive Dysfunction

Does your geriatric cat prowl the house late at night, yowling mournfully or “get lost” behind the toilet tank? Instead of giving a happy mrrrp when you return home from work, does she look confused, as if she doesn’t recognize you?

Although your cat may still be in good physical condition, she may have developed age-related cognitive dysfunction syndrome, sort of like feline Alzheimer’s disease or senility. Cats with CDS may seem increasingly forgetful, have less interest in eating, wander aimlessly, miss the litter box, fail to recognize family members or be uninterested in getting petted, or change their sleeping habits. The acronym DISH is an easy way to remember the signs:

  • Disorientation
  • Interactions with people change
  • Sleep habits change
  • Housetraining is forgotten

Because cats are living longer, thanks to great veterinary care, better knowledge of their nutritional needs, and enriched home environments, old-age problems such as CDS are being seen more often by veterinarians and cat lovers.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome doesn’t have to be the end of the road for your cat, though. Diet and medication, as well as control of underlying conditions that may contribute to the behaviors, can sometimes slow the condition’s progress and improve your cat’s quality of life, reducing the fear, anxiety or stress that may accompany the changes he’s experiencing.

First, schedule a workup with your veterinarian to rule out health problems that can cause similar signs. Some of these behaviors can be chalked up to cognitive misfires, but others often have causes that are treatable with medication or environmental changes.

For instance, arthritic cats may have trouble getting in or out of the litter box, or it may be painful for them to crouch. Medication for pain relief can improve their ability to move and increase their quality of life.

Cats with kidney disease or diabetes often have urine that looks sterile under a microscope but may actually be brimming with bacteria. Your veterinarian can take a sterile sample of urine with a fine needle and culture it to discover if your cat has a hidden urinary tract infection. A culture to determine the type of bacteria is important. Treatment with the right antibiotics can make all the difference.

Senior cats frequently develop hypertension, or high blood pressure, especially if they also have kidney disease. Hypertension is hard on the brain’s blood vessels, which can cause signs similar to those of CDS. Fortunately, it’s treatable with medication.

Hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid gland—is another disease that can cause signs similar to those of CDS. Treatment can return your cat to her normal self.

If your cat gets a clean bill of health, you can take other steps to help reduce signs of CDS. Your veterinarian may recommend supplements or a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which have been shown to improve brain function.

Environmental changes that can help include adding more litter boxes to make it easy for your cat to get to one in time; or providing steps, a ramp, or a cutout she can walk thorugh to make it easier for her to get in and out of the litter box. Maintain a routine so your cat eats and plays at the same time every day. If you see your cat sleeping during the day, gently wake her for some brief attention and play. That may help to increase the amount of time she sleeps at night.

A drug called selegiline, or Anipryl, can affect attentiveness and the sleep-wake cycle. It is not approved for use in cats, but it can be prescribed off label and has shown benefits in some cats. It can take up to six weeks before you see any change in your cat’s behavior.

The best thing you can do for your aging cat is to be alert to changes in behavior. If you notice signs of CDS and make changes early enough, your cat is more likely to respond well to medication and other interventions.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT