Changing Behavior in the Aging Cat

Thanks to advances in nutrition and medicine, we are often fortunate to keep our cats healthy well beyond what was once considered “old age.” It is not uncommon for veterinarians to have the pleasure of performing wellness exams on 12-, 14- and even 18-year-old cats. As a cat ages, we are taught to be alert for changes that may indicate that her health is failing. Changes in eating patterns or water consumption may signal conditions such as diabetes mellitus or kidney failure. A check-up is always warranted for the cat that begins to vomit. Even a change in activity level can be significant.

Of course, these changes are all behavioral changes. At the same time, they are changes that are suggestive of an underlying medical problem. We immediately worry that we could lose our faithful companion. Compassion is our first emotion.

Other behavior changes, rather than triggering compassion, can trigger anger or frustration. For example, as cats age, they may sleep more than they have in the past, or spend more time on their own. In fact, they may not even get up to greet us. Family members often feel rejected.

Some older cats may vocalize more than ever, particularly at night (especially workday nights, or so it seems!). This is not an endearing trait and often results in cats losing the privilege of sleeping in bed. Both parties lose, of course; cuddling has surely been a source of great contentment to both the cat and her special person.

The behavior change deemed least acceptable of all is a cats failure to use her litter box. Somehow, people find it difficult to be compassionate while cleaning furniture or carpet soaked with cat urine. Instead, a common emotion seems to be anger.

Could these behaviors – the sleeping, vocalizing and eliminating around the house – have a medical basis? Senior cats always deserve extensive medical work-ups when they begin to change their ways.

Neurological conditions that affect the brain can affect sleeping patterns, cause lethargy and even cause a cat to be unable to recognize (and therefore fail to greet) her favorite human friends. An overactive thyroid gland can cause a cat to vocalize at inopportune times.

Painful Conditions

Arthritis, as well as other painful conditions, can also be responsible for any of the age-related behavior changes we have discussed. A cat in pain will not easily settle down for the night. Once she finally settles, a painful cat will be less eager to rise, and may choose not to meet us at the door. And a cat with painful joints may be reluctant to hop into her litter box, or to climb the stairs leading to the area where the litter box is kept. The result, of course, is house soiling.

Obviously, a medical problem would be treated with appropriate medication. Should all medical screening tests be normal, then a primary behavioral diagnosis would be pursued and managed.

For the senior cat, there is one further condition to consider: cognitive dysfunction (see related article in CatWatch, September 2006). In fact, an aging cat may experience physical and behavioral changes similar to those exhibited by people. Affected cats may be disoriented. Therefore, they may not always find their litter boxes. Previously learned behaviors may be affected in conjunction with a cognitive decline. An affected cat may actually forget the purpose of the litter box. In short, when an older cat soils inappropriately, and there is no primary medical or behavioral diagnosis, then cognitive dysfunction should be considered.

Excessive vocalization is another behavior change consistent with cognitive dysfunction. As mentioned earlier, the behavior is most noticeable at night. This pattern may be secondary to a change in sleeping habits – more sleeping during the day, less at night, leading to the familys getting less sleep at night.

Finally, cats affected by cognitive dysfunction may change the way they interact with the family. They may become withdrawn, and may decline to greet family members at the door. Instead of involving themselves in household activity, they may retreat to a quiet room.

Although cognitive dysfunction may not be cured, the impact of the behavior changes can certainly be reduced. Appropriate intervention might include a change in management as well as behavior modification. Your veterinarian or behaviorist can make suggestions based the behaviors that you find problematic. There are also some medications being tested for their ability to improve cognitive function, or at least slow the rate of decline.

Remember: This is not about your cats just being too old to care. It is a real syndrome that can be treated. v