Guest Post by Lorie Huston, DVM
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Cognitive dysfunction is a disorder most commonly seen in geriatric cats. It is, essentially, the feline version of Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive dysfunction can be seen in cats as young as ten years of age. It is estimated that roughly ¼ of cats aged 11-14 years of age will show at least one symptom of cognitive dysfunction. The number increases in cats over 15 years of age, with ½ estimated to show symptoms.
While we don’t fully understand why cognitive dysfunction occurs, compromised blood flow to the brain and damage by free radicals are both theorized to play a role.
Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats
Cats with cognitive dysfunction may exhibit one or more types of altered behavior. Symptoms most commonly seen in cats with cognitive dysfunction include:
- spatial or temporal disorientation, manifested by behaviors such as getting trapped in corners or forgetting they have been fed
- altered learning and memory
- house-soiling with inappropriate urination/defecation
- altered interaction with the family, including increased attention seeking, aggression, irritability or anxiety, or decreased responsiveness
- changes in sleep-wake cycles
- changes in activity, such as aimless wandering or pacing, or reduced activity
- altered interest in food, typically decreased
- decreased grooming
- inappropriate vocalization, often resulting in loud crying during the night
Diagnosing Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
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Cognitive dysfunction may be mistaken for many other disease processes. Diagnosis is made by ruling out other potential causes of the symptoms seen. Your veterinarian will rely on your cat’s history and examination findings as well as results from blood and urine testing and radiographs. In addition, measurement of blood pressure and special imaging studies (MRI or CT scan) may be necessary to help find the cause of the symptoms as well.
Treating and Living with a Cat with Cognitive Dysfunction
Diets containing antioxidants and other compounds that support brain function (such as vitamin E, β-carotene, and essential fatty acids) are often used to reduce oxidative damage and improve cognitive function.
Environmental enrichment, in the form of toys, increased interaction, food puzzles and food hunting games, can help increase cognitive function early in the disease, when your cat is only minimally affected. Environmental enrichment and dietary management together at this stage may be more effective than one or the other alone.
Unfortunately, once significant behavioral changes are evident, environmental changes may actually make your cat’s situation worse. Cats with cognitive dysfunction have an especially difficult time dealing with change. If changes in your cat’s environmental are inevitable, they should be made as slowly as possible. In some cases, restricting your cat to a smaller area, such as a single room, may be beneficial.
Selegiline is a medication that is sometimes used in an attempt to improve cognitive dysfunction. Feline behavior guidelines offered by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) support the use of selegiline in cats with cognitive dysfunction. Other medications sometimes used are anxiolytic drugs, such as buspirone and benzodiazepines (such as diazepam), or antidepressants such as fluoxetine.