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Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats


Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats

Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats

By: Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed
As seen in: AWM Vol. 16 Issue 4 


If you have an older kitty, you may have noticed a few changes in his behavior. Maybe he's a bit more vocal than he used to be, occasionally acts as if he’s confused or lost, or seems to have forgotten how to use the litter box. Once physical health issues have been ruled out, the diagnosis may be cognitive dysfunction (CD).

People experience mental changes as they age, and so do cats and dogs. We and our animals experience actual neurological changes in our brains as we get older. “The brain loses some mass just as muscles do,” says veterinarian Dr. Nancy Scanlan, adding that CD in senior animals is akin to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
“Certainly with aging there is a loss of brain cells,” says veterinarian Dr. Vicki Thayer. “Cats are less studied than dogs, but researchers have seen increased amyloid (protein) deposits in the brain that are associated with cognitive dysfunction and probably effects on memory.”


There is currently no diagnostic test for CD. Diagnosis relies on anecdotal reports of behavioral changes and the exclusion of other possible causes for the changes. These behavioral signs often include loss of litter box training, a general sense of seeming “lost” at home, an inability to find the food bowl, an increase or decrease in appetite, an avoidance of once favorite foods, and increased nighttime vocalization.


Cognitive dysfunction is progressive and has no cure. After it has been diagnosed, treatment usually involves learning how to positively manage it so the cat will have a higher quality of life. From a conventional medical perspective, there is no drug treatment approved for cats, although canine medications have been cautiously used in some cases.
Research in humans and dogs has shown that diets enriched with antioxidants and essential fatty acids reduced amyloid production and improved cognitive function. These benefits are presumed to carry over in cats.
“Nutrition is the basis for many of our tissue biochemical pathways and cycles,” says Dr. Thayer. Nutrients necessary for increased cognitive function include potassium, vitamin D, B1 and B6 and manganese. “SAM-e has also been studied to help treat cognitive dysfunction in dogs and cats,” adds Dr. Thayer. “Give supplements that increase circulation and decrease inflammation, such as antioxidants, and support mitochondria with CoQ10,” says Dr. Scanlan. “Avoid artificial flavors, colors and preservatives in food.”
Be sure to work with a holistic or integrative veterinarian before giving your cat any supplements, so you can ensure he receives the right products and dosages for his individual requirements.


For a cat experiencing accidents because he cannot find the litterbox, the simple act of relocating it near where the cat spends most of his time will help. Sometimes, a senior cat may just forget “to go”, so periodically taking him to the litterbox may act as a reminder. Since CD affects older cats, increasing the number of litterboxes in the home is helpful; this way, they don’t have to remember the way to the only box.

Remember to use positive reinforcement and not punishment during the retraining period. The cat may not learn everything you expect him to, but at least the time you spend together is loving and rewarding, and that helps strengthen your bond and improve the cat’s quality of life.
Refrain from making a lot of environmental changes in the home, such as rearranging the furniture.

A calm, regular everyday routine helps reinforce the cat’s sense of place and reduces that “lost” feeling.

It’s expected that older cats, including those with CD, will slow down and sleep more, but it is important to provide at least a moderate level of exercise and mental stimulation. “To slow CD, enrich your kitty’s environment with toys and games like chase the light, or hiding treats in boxes,” says Dr. Scanlan. “Cats with active minds have more nerve connections. This gives them some extra brain function that can serve as a ‘backup’ system.”

Thanks to improved nutrition, veterinary medicine and lifestyle management, cats are living longer. We therefore see age-related cognitive dysfunction more often than we used to. Though it can’t be cured, it can be successfully managed, delayed and perhaps even prevented with a nutrient-rich diet, antioxidant supplements, an enriched environment, and regular exercise and mental stimulation. Implementing these factors as early as possible in your cat’s life will help ensure he stays mentally sharp well into his golden years.


Disorientation. The cat appears lost, disoriented or confused in his own home and may no longer recognize family members.

Interactions. Affected cats may prefer to stay by themselves. There is a decline in social interactions with people or other family animals.

Sleep changes. The cat may sleep longer during the day and elicit “lost” behaviors at night, often with increased vocalization.

House soiling. Affected cats often forget their litter box training or where the litterbox is located. They also tend to groom themselves less.


The Adoption Process: Questions to Ask the Shelter Staff


The Adoption Process: Questions to Ask the Shelter Staff

Adopting a new pet is exciting and stressful. You're about to add another member to your family and your life will be changing.

The adoption process has many variables and requires patience. For example, there may be family members who need to meet the animal, consultations with shelter staff about behavior or medical issues, paperwork to be reviewed and signed, and other steps. But you can navigate the sometimes confusing adoption process by knowing the right questions to ask.

Animal's history

Ask about the animal's background if it's not clear from the cage card. Did the pet arrive as a stray or was she given up by her previous owner? If so, why? How long has the animal been at the shelter?

Medical and/or behavioral assessments

Shelters continue to raise the bar in terms of their testing and vaccination protocols, as well as their behavior modification programs to make animals more adoptable. Inquire about any medical or behavioral evaluations and make sure you understand what type of treatment is required for any problems that have been identified. In addition, you may want to ask about the animal's behavior at the shelter and how it may be similar to or different from what you can expect at home.

Timeline of adoption process

Some shelters are eager to send animals home the same day adopters visit them. This turnaround enables shelters to make room for new arrivals and is helpful for people who have traveled a long distance to meet an animal. Other facilities take a slower approach (e.g. ensuring that children and/or a spouse have met the animal). Familiarize yourself with the adoption timeline at the beginning of the process so you'll know what to expect before emotions are running high and patience is low.


Virtually all animal shelters have policies to ensure that their animals are spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted litters. A number of facilities have animals sterilized before they're available for adoption. In other cases, this procedure is scheduled when an animal goes home, and then the adoption is finalized once the surgery is performed. And some shelters rely on spay/neuter deposits that are refunded when proof of spaying or neutering is provided.

Whatever your concern, don't be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved. 

What if my animal gets sick shortly after adoption?

Despite robust cleaning routines, animal shelters inevitably harbor germs. Unfortunately, infectious diseases can spread quickly through populations of animals that are housed in close proximity. The good news is that common conditions such as upper respiratory infections in cats and kennel cough in dogs are very treatable.

If your new companion becomes ill, check your adoption agreement to see if it addresses this issue and notify the shelter promptly about changes in your pet's health. Sometimes a little encouragement and reassurance are all that's needed as you nurse your kitten through a bad case of the sniffles; other times a visit to the vet may be in order. Some shelters have a vet on staff and others may refer you to a local clinic.

It's common for adopters to bear some or all of the cost of veterinary treatment because shelters have such limited medical budgets. Exceptions may include animals with pre-existing medical conditions that are already being treated by the shelter or other special cases. Some facilities may also provide a short-term pet health insurance policy or cover specific conditions that arise within a certain period of time after adoption.

What if I have questions about my new pet's behavior?

Whether you're a first-time pet owner or a seasoned pro, there's no question that the transition period can be bumpy. New surroundings, new people, other animals, and an unfamiliar routine can be stressful for your adoptee.

Whatever your concern, don't be embarrassed to contact the shelter and ask for help. Too often, adopters struggle with behavior issues on their own and decide to return a pet because of an issue that could have been resolved. Housetraining, chewing, barking, separation anxiety, litterbox issues ... these issues and more will be familiar to the shelter's staff.

Ask about resources to resolve behavior problems at the time of adoption. Some facilities offer behavior help lines and training classes, and most organizations can provide basic troubleshooting.

The adoption process can be filled with opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding. After all, animals inspire strong emotions in people on both sides of the counter. Most adoption stories have happy endings, but occasionally customers will find themselves being denied an opportunity to adopt an animal, either because of an issue with their adoption application or because more than one potential adopter is interested in the same animal.

Keep in mind that animal shelters can be busy, chaotic places without much opportunity for privacy. It may be helpful to follow up with the adoption counselor or shelter manager by phone when both of you can speak without distractions.