Living with a Cat with Cognitive Dysfunction

Guest Post by Lorie Huston, DVM

Please join Lorie on her website – Pet Health Care Gazette

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

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.

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Hi, I’m Jenny Dean, creator of Floppycats! Ever since my Aunt got the first Ragdoll cat in our family, I have loved the breed. Inspired by my childhood Ragdoll cat, Rags, I created Floppycats to connect, share and inspire other Ragdoll cat lovers around the world,

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  1. Dementia Boy says:

    William had fun last night!!

    We received two packages, different sizes, and I did what I now call “the Jenny thing”–I waited for all three cats to gather around before opening them and talked to the cats as though I were videotaping them for a product review.

    They went absolutely wild. I haven’t seen William that engaged in a long time. There wasn’t anything exciting in the boxes–seven cases of cat food–but I made a big deal about everything and William rushed off with the paper from the boxes, wrapping himself in it and bunny kicking, shredding the paper with his perfect teeth. Even surly Evil Kitty joined in the fun instead of smirking from her perch.

    This reminded me how oral William is, that he’s a mouth kitty, not a paw kitty. So I have to think of more games that don’t require much vision to keep him occupied and entertained. My sprawling on the floor rather than the couch helps, too. If I can just get the biting and aggression under control…I woke up to the pain of four incisors dug into my cheek =(

    1. oh that makes me grin from ear to ear – love when the old guys feel that good to be so kitten-ish.

      glad to hear that our videos inspired you to wait for all three – how fun for them and you!

      sorry about the biting – no fun.

  2. Jo Singer says:

    This is an excellent article and I will be sure to be sharing it with my kitty guardian friends. I can’t thak you enough for gifting us with this excellent information.

    Purrs and bonks,


  3. What a wonderful article with great info, Jenny! Thank you. It’s truly heartbreaking to see your loved kitty suffer through any of these issues.

    Big hugs and kudos to all the readers sharing their stories in relation to this information. <3

  4. It’s so heartbreaking to hear your kitty cry at night. My Chloe used to get lost in the house at night and I’d have to go find her and bring her back to her basket in my bedroom. Night time was always the worse in the last stages of her CRF.
    This article is very informative – Thanks!

  5. Dementia Boy says:

    Thank you is not enough, but there are no other words. Thank you, Jenny and Dr. Huston. With everything you have to do, you asked this question, Jenny. (((Purr)))

    Because William Blake Yeats, aka Dementia Boy, was not an intellectual giant to begin with–and I mean no disrespect by this; I wouldn’t trade one I.Q. point for his kindness, gentle disposition, trust,and love of all creatures–and because he tended to wander aimlessly from the beginning, I was slow to pick up on the cognitive dysfunction. I attributed some of it to his blindness.

    Like Lynn Running’s cat, William seemed to have ADD (not ADHD, nothing “H” about my boy)most of his life He was very easily distracted. Concentration and focus were not his forte. So when he began engaging in what I now recognize as obsessive-compulsive behavior, I thought it was an improvement, that he was finally *getting* it. His weight has yo-yo’d between 17 and 23 pounds over four years, finally settling back to his normal 19. He would forget to eat, or he would forget that he had eaten.

    Only when he started screaming–he is a quiet cat, given to silent meows–and attacking the other cats did I realize something was wrong. He had all the signs and symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, except for improper elimination. An MRI confirmed substantial atrophy, as well as a previously undiagnosed TIA.

    He has a “helper” cat, but she is now afraid of him. Still, last night, when he climbed to the top of the steps surrounding a window, approx. 14′ high, she helped him get back down. William’s screams woke up Izzy before they woke up me. I have night lights and Feliway plug-ins everywhere.

    We’ve added Buspar to his protocol. (He’s on Deprenyl and heart meds, too.) I’m glad that I’ve added fatty acids, B vitamins and probiotics to his diet most of his life–probably 20 of his 24 years.

    He is strong. He has perfect teeth. And he is dangerous.

    Again, thank you both so very much.

  6. Nikki Lamothe says:

    I have had many cats GI through this…currently my 12 year old Ocicat rescue is exhibiting some if these signs and symptoms. We recently completed blood work to rule out renal problems or other chemical imbalances… we still need to complete a dental on him, as he has rather foul breath and has been quite irritable. He also has started this strange lip-smacking behaviour, so there may be something wrong in his mouth that he won’t let us see…another reason for the dental.

    Once that health is confirmed, I will discuss the benefits of selegiline, anxiolytics, or antidepressants. Great article!

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