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January 14, 2021 – Cat owners can tell you that it doesn’t get much better than hearing the satisfied purr of a cat curled up in a lap or getting a rub against a leg to greet you when you come home. Nearly 60 million cats share our lives in the United States alone, and cat owners want to give them the best quality of life possible, especially as they age. Veterinarians and cat owners together are learning more about helping elderly cats stay healthy.

A top concern reported by cat pet parents is behavior and personality changes affecting their aging four-legged friends.

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.

It turns out, the same pattern of age-related mental changes occurs in older cats. Slight lapses in attention and memory are normal and not cause for concern.

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.  

What we know about cognitive decline in cats

Studies report that roughly 28% of cats aged 11 to 14 years and 50% of cats over 15 years of age suffer from serious cognitive decline. Some experts believe these numbers might actually underestimate the true number of cats suffering from significant mental decline.

Scientific research on mental decline in cats lags behind that in dogs, but there is growing interest in learning more through behavior assessments specific to cats, and new studies focused on brain tissue changes associated with cognitive change.

Making the diagnosis

Diagnosis begins with a complete physical examination to look for other conditions that can either mimic cognitive decline or impact the diagnosis. Examples of diseases that can have behavior signs include diabetes, hyperthyroidism, urinary tract problems and even skin disease!

Cats are notoriously good at hiding signs of illness so it can be tough to know when cats aren’t feeling well. However, some signs can help owners when it comes to cognitive decline – the acronym VISHDAAL often is used to describe the signs:

  • Vocalization - increased/ unusual vocalization (especially at night)
  • Interaction - altered interaction with owners and other household pets
  • Sleep - altered sleep/wake cycle disturbances
  • House soiling
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Activity changes, such as aimless wandering
  • Learning and memory lapses

If an owner notices any of these signs, even if infrequent, they should consult with their veterinarian. Many concurrent diseases can be ruled in or out with a complete physical examination and routine bloodwork.

Prevention and treatment

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, there are still things an owner can do to improve their cat’s mental well-being and slow further progression.

Because most cats spend all their time indoors, optimizing the environment to fill cats’ needs is important. Not only is this crucial to ward off undesirable behavior in younger cats, but it’s also important for older cats, too. Strategies for improving the indoor environment for cats include cat trees, new toys and a “catio” for cats to safely enjoy the outdoors.

Although still under investigation, increasing evidence suggests that dietary supplements may slow progression of cognitive declines in cats. These include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • SAM-e
  • B vitamins

Be sure to check with your veterinarian before considering supplements as some can have negative interactions with medications. Proper dosage is essential, too.

Exercise and human interaction are important as cats age. Introducing new toys and new tricks (yup, you can teach cats tricks!) can help keep an older cat’s mental function sharp. Food puzzles also help stimulate a cat’s problem-solving skills as well as keep them engaged and challenged.

Aging doesn’t mean having to accept mental declines as normal. Cat owners can help keep their pets healthy and active for years to come with some simple preventive measures and environmental enrichment!