Updated May 3, 2023 – Cat owners can tell you it doesn’t get much better than hearing the satisfied purr of a cat curled up in a lap or having your feline friend rub against your leg to greet you when you come home. Nearly 60 million cats share our lives in the U.S., and we want to give them the best life possible, especially as they age.
Keeping cats mentally fit has become a top concern for many older cat owners, and veterinarians and cat owners are working together to learn more about how to help elderly cats stay healthy.
Dementia and a loss of mental sharpness affects millions of American adults each year. What many people don't know is that cats can face similar declines as they age. In fact, evidence suggests that many cats suffer from cognitive decline syndrome, a disease characterized by loss of normal mentation. A whopping 28% of cats aged 11 to 14 years show signs of cognitive decline – a number which jumps above 50% in cats aged 15 years or older. Some experts even believe the actual number is even higher – that’s a lot of cats and their people affected by this problem!
Feline pet parents need to know how to recognize the signs of CDS and learn what they can do to prevent or slow cognitive declines to keep their feline friends mentally sharp.
When normal aging isn’t normal
It’s not unusual to experience slight declines in memory over time. In people, it’s estimated that 40% of people over the age of 65 years old will experience mild memory loss. However, other than the frustration that comes from grasping for a word or trying to remember where you put your car keys, mild memory loss doesn’t affect day-to-day functioning. Most people retain strong memories and are able to learn new information and tasks even into advanced age.
As it turns out, the same pattern of age-related mental changes occurs in older cats as they do in people. Slight lapses in attention and memory are normal and not cause for concern.
However, it’s important for cat owners and veterinary professionals to recognize changes that signal something isn’t quite right.
Three of the most common misperceptions people have about cognitive decline in both cats and dogs are:
- Serious cognitive decline in cats is rare.
- Cognitive impairment reflects normal aging and is inevitable.
- There are no effective preventives or treatments.
These misconceptions can keep owners from seeking care, and veterinarians from recommending treatments that can help cats suffering from cognitive decline. In addition, simply chalking up behavior changes to old age can prevent the diagnosis of treatable illnesses.
The aging brain in cats
There are changes that happen in the brain as our cats age that are the normal consequence of aging. A recent study looking at brain changes in aged cats (using MRI) that did not have signs of cognitive changes revealed brain atrophy (shrinking) which is similar to studies in people and dogs.
Another large study of the brains of aged cats that had died for a variety of reasons showed that elderly cats had similar changes in their brains to those of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, this study did not have data available to compare the tissue findings with behavior. The study's findings did suggest that cats might be a good model for AD in people and that cats likely suffer from some of the same cognitive changes as people with AD.
Signs of cognitive decline in cats
At first glance, it might seem that it would be tough for owners to recognize the signs of CDS in cats, but it's straightforward. The acronym VISHAAL is a handy way to assess your cat for CDS:
- V – Vocalization: This is the most common sign in cats.
- I – Interaction: Any change from normal - some cats become "clingy" and others might withdraw.
- S - Sleep/Wake cycle: Cats become more active at night and sleep more during the day.
- H - House soiling: A well-trained cat begins urinating and defecating out of the litter box.
- A – Activity: Any change from normal, increased or decreased.
- A – Anxiety: New fears, anxious behavior, restlessness and/or agitation.
- L - Learning and memory: Decreased ability to perform familiar tasks
It's easy for owners to ignore the signs of cognitive decline or chalk any changes up to "old age." While CDS is clearly associated with the aging brain, it is still classified as a disease and is not "normal." If you notice any of these signs, even if infrequent, consult with your veterinarian.
Luckily, there are things cat owners can take to either slow cognitive decline or improve function in pets already diagnosed with CDS.
Steps cat owners can take to improve cognitive function
Although cognitive decline was once thought to be an untreatable condition, there’s excellent evidence that early intervention can improve long-term prognosis. Better news is that even if a cat has suffered cognitive decline, it's still possible to improve their mental well-being and slow further progression. We can't give cats sudokus, or get them to take up the guitar, but there are some simple steps pet parents can take to help keep their feline friends mentally sharp:
· Address any underlying health problems
o Other brain issues
· Environmental and behavior enrichment
o Work to get treats and/or food (food puzzles)
o Toys - replace and rotate (remove toys for a few weeks and then reintroduce)
o Interaction - brushing, petting, playing (they're never too old)!
o Promote playing, exploring, climbing
o Address underlying disease
o Consider a diet formulated for senior cats
o Antioxidants/free radical scavengers
o Omega 3 fatty acids
o Vitamin E, C, B12
It's important to tailor these suggestions to individual cats. An elderly cat may become more anxious when presented with a food puzzle, and a cat with arthritis might not appreciate trying to climb a cat tree!
As always, check with your veterinarian before using any medications or supplements. And NEVER give your cat any human or dog medications or supplements – many are toxic to cats!
Morris Animal Foundation steps in to help
Most veterinary research on cognitive decline has focused on dogs, but the Foundation is funding more cat studies to correct this imbalance.
In 2021, the Foundation granted the prestigious Mark L. Morris Jr. Investigator Award to Dr. Carlo Siracusa, animal behavior expert and Associate Professor of Clinical Behavior Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Siracusa is looking at how chronic inflammation influences behavior and cognition in older cats. He hopes to identify factors owners can modify to keep cats mentally fit as they age.
Another exciting new study hopes to look for blood biomarkers of cognitive decline in cats. Researchers hope that their findings could become a diagnostic test to screen cats for the disease before clinical signs are present.
Aging doesn’t mean having to accept mental declines as normal. By watching for the early signs of decline, and making sure the environment stimulates mental function, cat owners can help cats live their best "nine" lives!
(Insert link to TEDx talk here)
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Fresh Scoop podcast - Understanding Canine Cognitive Dysfunction - focused on dog brain health but worth a listen