One study suggests that 80% of all cats from 16 to 20 years of age will show cognitive changes of some type. Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (fCDS) is being seen more often as our feline friends are living longer lives. Cats can suffer from sundowning, a period of confusion that begins in late afternoon and lasts into the night, just like humans and dogs.
In fCDS, older cats may show spatial disorientation, stop playing, and sleep more than the usual cat-napping routine. Often this means periods of wandering the house at night meowing loudly. Some cats will stare blankly at a wall. Others may seem to forget to eat or drink. Litterbox problems are common. Cats that go outdoors may wander off and get lost, unable to find their way back home.
Metabolically, these signs of aging are related to changes in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine. When normal levels and metabolism of these compounds are compromised, a cat will show changes in movement, attitude, memory, and sleep patterns. Decreased blood flow to the brain and free radical oxidative injuries may contribute. She may forget to eat or where her normal sleeping spot is located.
It’s important to realize that these signs could indicate other health issues as well, including serious problems like kidney disease or hyperthyroidism, making it important to involve your veterinarian if your cat seems to be acting odd. Get your cat a full workup, which will usually include a thorough physical examination, thyroid hormone levels, complete blood chemistry panel, and a urinalysis. Once any medical conditions are ruled out, you can consider treating for cognitive dysfunction.
No FDA-approved medications are available for fCDS. Selegiline is approved for dogs, and some veterinarians have used it off label in cats with good results. A small open trial using selegiline for cats with fCDS demonstrated some positive effects. The American Association of Feline Practitioners supports the use of this drug for geriatric cats.
Other options include:
- Novifit-S (Virbac), which contains S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM-e), may combat free radicals and improve overall cell membrane function. It has shown some beneficial effects for mild-to-moderate fCDS. It appears to work best if started early in the course of the disease.
- Senilife (CEVA Animal Health) is loaded with antioxidants such as phosphatidylserine, ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, and vitamin B6, which are believed by many to help slow the progression of fCDS.
- Anxitane (Virbac) contains L-theanine, a green-tea extract that increases serotonin and dopamine levels.
- Semintra (Boehringer Ingelheim) is the brand name for telmisartan, an FDA-approved drug to treat hypertension in cats. Trials are underway using this drug in cats with fCDS.
- Pheromones, such as Feliway, are believed by some cat owners to improve the quality of life for these senior cats.
Of course, getting medications into any cat is challenging, and providing daily treatments for an older, slightly curmudgeonly cat can double the work.
For cats in early stages of cognitive dysfunction, behaviorists recommend enrichment activities. Establish routine play times for your cat. Offer food puzzles. Do your best to keep your cat alert and active during daytime hours so she will sleep at night.
Limit her living space, if necessary. For example, if your cat seems disoriented, can’t find her litterbox, and finally just urinates on the floor, she may need a limited living space. For these cats, a single room set up just for them may be the answer.
In the limited space, it is easier for her to find her food and water bowls as well as her litterbox. Extra beds, ramps to windows, and places to safely “hide” can make this a deluxe mini apartment for a senior cat. Baby gates at the door will allow her to still hear and interact with the household, but from a safer space.
Some music is believed to soothe cats, so playing some might help, especially at nighttime (search for “music that soothes cats”). Some cats will settle down at night in a body wrap. Remember that this is generally not the best time to add a new pet to your household.
Finally, try to maintain a set routine. Meals at the same time every day and standard play or grooming times. Set aside time to simply sit with your cat and pet her. A senior cat with cognitive dysfunction can be a challenge, but with some effort, you can make her golden years a positive time for both of you.
What You Should Know
Recognizing feline dementia can be difficult, especially at first. Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM, a behaviorist who is a member of the Fear Free initiative executive committee, developed an acronym he shared on DVM 360 to help us recognize this problem. The acronym DISHA can help you remember the main changes noted in senior cats with cognitive difficulties:
Disorientation: Getting lost in well-known areas.
Interaction: Cat may become more affectionate or rather unfriendly.
Sleep: Mixing up days and nights, sleeping at odd times.
House soiling: No longer seeks out litterbox.
Activity: May increase or decrease, and obessive compulsive tendencies may appear, like obsessively licking her paw.