As your cat gets older, she could be changing in more ways than just growing gray hair; you may also start to notice behavior changes. But are these changes just a sign of kitty’s brain getting dull, or are they linked to an underlying problem? If other feline diseases are ruled out, she might be suffering from cognitive dysfunction.
What is cognitive dysfunction?
Cognitive dysfunction is the term we use for behavioral changes as cats (and dogs) age. The two changes that cat parents report most are going outside the litter box and increased vocalization (usually at night). Other common signs include:
- wandering or pacing
- changes in the sleep/wake cycle
- changes in the way pets interact with family members
A third of cats aged 11 to 14 will develop at least one of these changes, and that number jumps to over 50% in cats older than 15.
Is kitty really losing her mind?
Before diagnosing true cognitive dysfunction, we first have to rule out other medical problems that might be causing these signs. Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that there is no one test to confirm its presence. Instead, we look for other common geriatric conditions, and only when we’ve ruled those out can we feel confident that we’re treating the correct problem.
The most common geriatric conditions that cause similar behavior changes include:
- separation anxiety
- decreased vision
- hearing loss
- chronic renal disease
- overactive thyroid
- increased blood pressure
To rule out most of these conditions, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam and will want to run a few diagnostic tests. She’ll check your pet’s thyroid level and kidneys, as well as her blood pressure. She may want to take some X-rays to rule out degenerative joint disease, which is present in 70% to 90% of cats over 10 years old.
Don’t be shy about giving your vet a really detailed history of your cat’s behavior changes. What may be small tidbits to you could be huge clues to your veterinarian, so don’t leave anything out. Once your vet has ruled out other medical conditions, it’ll be time to discuss how best to treat your cat if her cognition is declining.
Give her brain a boost
A healthy diet rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids helps combat feline cognitive dysfunction, and it’s also important to provide a stimulating environment for your cat. Just as crossword puzzles keep your brain healthy, toys and food hunting activities keep kitty’s brain sharp, too. However, if significant cognitive dysfunction is already present, keep changes in the home to a minimum. For these cats, changes cause undue stress and add to their confusion. Prescription medications may be prescribed to help your cat feel more at ease.
Just because mental and physical aging changes are “normal” doesn’t mean that we should ignore them or accept them without treatment. There are many options to make your pet comfortable and free from pain and anxiety. If your older cat is showing signs of cognitive dysfunction, talk to your veterinarian about ways you can help her adapt.