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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.


10 Great Reasons to Open Your Heart to a Senior Pet


10 Great Reasons to Open Your Heart to a Senior Pet

Imagine a pet that loves sharing quiet moments with you… one that doesn’t chew or scratch everything in sight… one that’s calm and more focused on only you.

That’s a senior pet.

Senior pets still have a lot of love to give.  They can and do bond very strongly with their humans.  Many seem to understand that they’ve been given another chance at a happy life… and they’re grateful for the opportunity to love someone and be loved back.

So if you’re considering a new addition to your family, why not give some thought to giving a deserving senior a second chance?  Instead of passing by the older pets, stop and spend some time with them- you might must end up finding a new best friend.

Wouldn’t it be nice to give a deserving senior a place to live out their golden years?

Benefits for the senior human:

Research has shown that companion animals can help improve physical and mental health.  By adopting a new furry friend, seniors can experience the benefits of decreased heart rate and blood pressure that so many people feel when they are relaxing with their pet.
Cats provide friendship for lonely individuals, offering an opportunity for care taking and interaction that an older person may miss if family is not nearby.
The company of a pet has been proven to reduce depression in the elderly, often delaying the onset of confusion and reducing the length of the average hospital stay.

  1. Older dogs have manners. Unlike puppies, many grown-up dogs have spent years living with a family and being socialized to life with humans.
    They may have received obedience training and respond to commands like Sit, Stay, and Down. 
    Many are house trained and it takes a matter of hours or a day or two to help them learn the potty rules in their new home.
  2. Senior pets are less destructive. Most older adoptive pets are well past the search-and-destroy phase. 
    You don't need to worry so much about finding your favorite pair of shoes or a table leg chewed beyond recognition. Chances are your senior kitty has no urge to overturn your potted plant or shred the handmade quilt your grandma gave you.
  3. What you see is what you get. A senior pet holds no surprises as to how big he might get, what color his adult coat will be, or whether his hips will be healthy. A senior pet comes to you with his own history, which makes his future much more predictable than that of an 8-week old puppy or kitten.
  4. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Adult dogs can focus on the task at hand (unlike many of their much younger counterparts). If your adopted older pet needs to learn a few things in her new life with you, not to worry. Enroll her in an obedience class, contact a trainer, or go the do-it-yourself route. Older dogs are more attentive than puppies, and more eager to please their humans.
  5. You can custom order your senior pet. If you're looking for a short-haired cat, for example, or a kitty with no history of dental disease, you can search until you find an older pet with exactly those attributes. If you already have a cat and need your adoptive dog to get along with cats, again, you'll have a much better chance of finding an older adoptive dog who is a perfect companion for your family.
  6. You can adopt a purebred pet if you want. If you really love a certain breed of dog or cat, chances are there's a breed rescue club that can point you in the direction of older purebred pets in need of homes.
  7. Senior pets are great company for senior citizens. Many elderly people find the calm presence of an older pet very comforting. They appreciate having a companion who is also 'getting up there' in age, doesn't mind hearing the same stories again and again, and is content to move through life at a slower speed.
  8. Older pets are relaxing to hang out with. Senior dogs and cats have all the basics down and aren't full of wild energy to burn. Because you're not constantly chasing around or cleaning up after your older pet, you have a lot more time to spend finding fun things to do or just relaxing together.
  9. Adopted senior pets are grateful for your kindness. Somehow, older pets seem to know you gave them a home when no one else would. Many new owners form a close bond very quickly with their senior dog or cat, because the pet shows them a level of attention and devotion that is unique to older adopted animals.
  10. You can be a hero to a deserving dog or cat. Almost without exception, people who adopt older animals feel a special sense of pride and purpose in opening their heart to a hard-to-place pet. Doing a good thing really does make you feel good!