It can break your heart when your senior cat wanders the house, meowing pitifully and clearly lost. We know cats can suffer from senile dementia, and it’s up to us to help them continue with a good quality of life.
The first step is to work with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems that may mimic dementia, such as vision loss, deafness, and arthritis. Once you have isolated any medical problems and instituted treatment for those, then you need to consider cognitive health issues.
If your cat has been an indoor and outdoor cat, she needs to be kept strictly indoors now for her own safety, with outdoor ventures only with harness and leash. This is not the time to teach your cat to walk with you on a leash, but you can follow her as she wanders.
Adding a catio may help with your cat’s desire to be outdoors while keeping her safe. Hopefully, she is microchipped in case she does get out and wander off. Some owners have tried feline GPS trackers for use in the house in case their elderly cat is hiding.
Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, professor emeritus, section of behavior medicine at the Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, recommends not changing things in the cat’s environment. Changes are stressful to cats at any life stage. This is not the time to rearrange the furniture.
- Make the litterbox easier. Be sure the litterbox is easily accessible, with a short side for your cat to step in. Don’t put the litterbox in a place that requires your cat to go up or down stairs to use it.
- Give her a lift. Consider adding a step stool, pet staircase, or ramp to help your cat reach her favorite windowsill or spot on the couch. She may need to be enticed to try this the first couple of times with a tasty treat.
- Light the way. Put night lights around the house to help your cat see at night.
- Block the stairs. Block off stairwells.
- Confine her. Some cats do best confined to a single room, especially at night. Be sure there is a litterbox available and plenty of fresh water if you do so. Consider using pheromones such as Feliway in that room to help her settle.
- Stick to a schedule. That means meals on a standard time frame and normal play times.
- No new pets. This is not the time to add a new pet. There are rare cats who seem rejuvenated by a kitten’s antics, but most are not. Be sure she’s not being bullied or run over by other pets or being kept from the food, water, or litterbox.
- Keep her brain active. While your cat can’t work on crosswords to keep her mind sharp, she can enjoy some food puzzles. Ask her to do tricks you may have already taught her. Encourage her to stay active with gentle play.
It’s important to be sure your cat is eating and drinking. Just 24 to 48 hours without food can make her sick. If you think her appetite is decreased, entice her with some “smelly” things like juice from a can of tuna on her regular diet.
Talk to your veterinarian about possibly supplementing vitamin B12 or vitamin E. Adding antioxidants like omega 3 fatty acids to your cat’s diet may help, although controlled studies verifying these supplements are lacking.
While we wish there was a magic substance to turn the clock of aging around, one hasn’t been found yet. For dogs with cognitive dysfunction, the medication selegilene (Anipryl) has shown some benefit. Dr. Houpt has used this drug off-label (off-label use is when your veterinarian chooses to use an approved drug for an unapproved use) and says she has found that close to 50% of the cats treated show some subjective improvement in their mental status.
The herb gingko is sometimes used to help with memory problems in people and is believed to help some cats with the excessive vocalization that is often seen with dementia. You should discuss this with your veterinarian before giving it to your cat.
We know that managing a senior cat with dementia can be challenging, but it’s important to stay positive and patient. The changes your senior cat is facing are confusing and frustrating to her, too. Sometimes just quietly holding her on your lap will settle you both down.