Signs of Dementia in Cats & How to Manage

Can cats get dementia?

Unfortunately, yes they can. Just as aging humans can develop dementia, your beloved pets can also decline mentally as they age. In fact, cat dementia has many similarities to human Alzheimer’s disease, with the causes and symptoms just as puzzling.

Health complications and disorders are inevitable in aging cats, and cat dementia is actually one of the most common conditions you might encounter. A study found that 28 percent of cats ages 11 to 14 exhibited at least one symptom of dementia, with the number jumping to 50 percent for cats 15 and older.

Despite the common nature of the disease, there are actually a few things you can do to help improve their brain function as they get older, so it isn’t necessarily the end of your cat as you know it!

What is cat dementia?

Cat dementia refers to a decline in your cat’s brain-related abilities, including its response to stimuli, memory retention and general awareness. Cats with dementia will also see their immune system grow weaker.

Cats that live longer commonly develop diseases associated with aging. If a cat develops dementia, they might seem forgetful, or meow loudly and seem anxious for no reason. They may also seem to get lost in the house. These could all be signs of feline dementia.

Causes of Dementia in Cats

Unfortunately, just like with Alzheimer’s in humans, the underlying cause of dementia in cats isn’t known, although there does appear that genetics play a role in the onset of the disease. But what is known is how the disease works physically.

Like with Alzheimer’s in humans, cat dementia is caused at least in part by decreased blood flow to the brain, and an increase in molecules called “free radicals.” The older a cat gets, the more free radicals his body produces. When you combine this with the decreased blood (and oxygen) flow, the molecules wreak havoc on sensitive cells in the cat’s brain. This will cause protein plaques to appear around the nerve cells, which makes it harder for signals to get from the brain to the rest of the cat’s body. This disrupts communication and causes disorientation in your cat.

The longer this goes on, the more your cat will have difficulty doing the simple things that used to come naturally. For example, they may stop using their litter box or exhibit poor eating habits.

Their behavior in general and behavior toward you, their owner, may change. It can be easy to dismiss these signs as just a cat getting older and do nothing, but cat dementia should not be taken lightly. Start looking for the signs of cat dementia, and you can improve the life of your older cat, and decrease stress for yourself as the owner.

Signs of Dementia in Cats

So how do you know if your cat has feline dementia or showing symptoms of something else?

First, it’s easy to confuse signs of cat dementia with a multitude of other health conditions, so if you notice a sudden change in your cat’s behavior, you should always bring him in to see your veterinarian to rule out another medical issue.

As well as often mimicking symptoms of other diseases, signs of cat dementia can be vague and confusing. But in general, a cat that is losing cognitive function may seem disoriented or confused, anxious or irritable.

Your cat may no longer want to play and give up on household rules or tricks he has known for years. Your cat might lose his appetite, have odd sleep patterns, either excessively groom himself, or cease grooming altogether.

When it comes to the symptoms of feline dementia, veterinarians often use the acronym “DISHA” to categorize a cat’s symptoms. Cat dementia symptoms include:

  • Disorientation: A cat with dementia may appear confused and unable to navigate around familiar settings, even seeming to get lost in your house. They might wander around aimlessly and have a general loss of spatial awareness. Your cat could have difficulty locating their food and water bowls and litter box. They might even be unable to recognize familiar faces, even their owner, and meow loudly or cry for no apparent reason.
  • Interaction Changes: A cat with feline dementia may change his normal behavior. He may no longer greet you and other family members at your door or show a general disinterest in social interaction with people and other pets alike. He may no longer want to sit in your lap and could avoid being petted, or cease any other social behaviors that were once common.
  • Sleep Changes: Dementia can also affect your cat’s sleep cycle. Cats do sleep a lot, so this can be difficult to notice, but it may be a sign of dementia if it is a notable change in your cat’s normal routine. Dementia could cause your cat’s sleep cycle to reverse to the point where he is restless at night and sleeps more during the day. Your cat may also be anxious at night, and meow all night long.
  • House Soiling: Your cat may seem to “forget” his years of using a litter box and start urinating or defecating elsewhere in your house. He may even seem to forget where the litter box is located or not know what to do once he is inside. This can be a sign of many other conditions, so other conditions will need to be ruled out first. Incontinence and constipation can also occur.
  • Activity Changes: Changes in your cat’s level of activity can be all over the place, so again, it’s important to notice what is abnormal for your cat. A cat with dementia may seem to become uninterested in normal activities such as eating, grooming and even just walking around the house. They might become irritable or cranky and even anxious.

How is dementia in cats diagnosed?

Proper diagnosis takes help from the cat owner. If your cat starts displaying any of the behaviors listed above, it can be helpful to make note of them before you go to the vet, including the frequency. This will help your vet rule out other possible medical causes first. It’s also important to note these symptoms versus your cat’s health history. How was your cat before you started noticing these symptoms?

Cat dementia is actually a diagnosis of exclusion, which means it isn’t diagnosed directly, rather through ruling out other conditions. Your veterinarian will perform a physical to analyze your cat’s overall health. From there, your vet will conduct some tests, including ultrasounds, X-Rays and blood tests. This is to make sure there are no other medical issues that could be causing your cat’s symptoms.

Although dementia affects a cat’s brain, its symptoms most closely resembles arthritis. There are many similarities between them, including their underlying causes and treatments. Beyond arthritis, other conditions that may display some of the same symptoms include kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, deafness, blindness, or brain tumors.  Some of these are treatable, while others are more serious conditions, so a you will definitely want to make a proper diagnosis before starting any home treatment.

How to Manage Dementia in Cats

Although there is no cure for cat dementia and the disease is progressive (meaning it gets worse over time), it doesn’t mean it’s the end. There are several things you can do to delay the progression of your cat’s dementia and help your cat cope with their illness. Together with your vet, you will create a specific management plan for your cat, but here are some things you can do to make your cat’s (and your) life a bit easier.

Diet

Your cat’s diet will be very important if he develops dementia. You’ll want a diet that is high in antioxidants to help kill off those free radicals. Vitamin C and E, beta carotene, and essential fatty acids (Omega-3’s) are all great brain food for your cat.

Your vet may add vitamins and additional supplements to your cat’s diet to ensure they get more of these nutrients to promote brain health. Along with your cat’s diet, you want to make sure you feed your cat on a routine schedule so they don’t get confused.

Medication

Your vet may also prescribe a psychoactive drug to improve your cat’s brain function. One such drug, Anipryl, is most often used to treat dogs with dementia (and is FDA-approved for dogs), but The American Association of Feline Practitioners also supports its use on cats who have been diagnosed with dementia by a veterinarian.

About a third of cats have shown modest improvement from the drug, while another third don’t benefit from it. However, the final third has shown drastic improvement, and the drug actually dramatically reverses the cat’s symptoms.

Environment

While drastic changes in your cat’s environment won’t be good because it will only stress them out and add to their confusion, there are also several things you can do at home to help your cat with dementia.

As mentioned above, you should feed them on a routine schedule so they know when to expect food. You could provide them with litter boxes or trays with shallow rims that allow them to get in and out more easily. In addition, consider adding more comfortable resting areas for your cat throughout the house that are easily accessible.

Can you prevent cat dementia?

As the old saying goes: “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!” This is true for cats as well. You can certainly decrease your cat’s chance of developing dementia by keeping his brain active through mental stimulation.

Researchers agree that mental stimulation can drastically improve your cat’s cognitive function. Keep your cat physically and mentally engaged throughout his life to keep their brain active and young, which can slow or even prevent the progression of dementia.

There are several activities you can engage your cat in to keep them physically and mentally fit. Some cats will enjoy problem-solving activities and puzzle toys. You can even bribe them with treats to learn new tricks.

There are some other lifestyle changes you can make for your cat that will support a healthy brain. Take your cat for a walk on a leash to open them up to a new world. You can add cat trees to your home to give them new areas to climb and lounge. Provide them with a brain-stimulating entertainment by placing bird feeders and bird baths outside windows where they often sit in the warmth of the sun.

Your cat’s diet can also promote healthy brain function throughout his life, not just after diagnosis. Start adding those antioxidants and Omega-3 heavy foods into your cat’s diet early in their life, and keep feeding it to them as they age. These foods support the brain and improve a cat’s cognitive functions such as memory and learning ability.

There are natural pet cod liver oils and other supplements that can give your cat those beneficial fatty acids. There are even whole food supplements and multivitamins for an extra healthy boost.

Cat dementia is certainly cause for concern for any pet owner, but through careful monitoring and care, you can easily manage your cat’s symptoms and extend your time together.

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