Dementia in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure – Catmart
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Dementia in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure

Because of better veterinary care, and better care at home, cats are living longer than ever before. Unfortunately, the flip-side of this positive is that more and more cats are displaying signs of dementia. But can cats get dementia, and if so, what is it like?

Can cats get dementia? They can, but cat feline senile dementia is known as CDS (cognitive dysfunction syndrome). The symptoms of CDS are disorientation, interaction changes, sleep/wake cycle changes, house-soiling, and activity level changes. These symptoms are similar to those seen in people. They are grouped under the acronym DISHA. CDS is caused by gradual damage to the brain as a result of aging, although it doesn’t affect all cats. There is no way to cure it, but you can make your cat more comfortable with treats, toys and high-quality food.

The guide below entirely explains cognitive dysfunction in cats, from its causes to its initial and late-stage symptoms, and what you can do to cure it (if anything).

Can Cats Get Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease?

cat brain damage
Older cats like this wise soul are more at risk of developing neurological conditions. Image from Wikimedia

Cats can develop dementia. In cats, dementia is called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and occurs in the normal course of old age. It’s thought that 28% of pet cats between 11 and 14 years old develop at least one sign of CDS. This number increases to over 50% in cats 15 years or older.

The symptoms of dementia in elderly cats/Alzheimer’s disease revolve around memory loss and function loss. So, your cat will forget the things it knew: things like how to get from the bedroom to the kitchen, or how to groom itself properly.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a general medical term. The best-known kind of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association:

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. … Disorders grouped under the general term “dementia” are caused by abnormal brain changes. These changes trigger a decline in thinking skills, also known as cognitive abilities, severe enough to impair daily life and independent function. They also affect behavior, feelings and relationships. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of cases.

What makes diagnosing dementia difficult is that some of these changes occur in old age whether or not the disease is present. A decline in memory, for example—one of the key symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease—happens to an extent in anybody who reaches old age. The symptoms of late-stage dementia are much worse, of course, but the normal signs of old age can be confused with early-stage dementia, and vice versa.

The actual mechanism by which dementia affects a person or a cat is through damage to the brain. There are a few ways in which this occurs. One is that the brain shrinks in size. This is something that happens to the whole body during aging, and it happens to the brain too. In particular, the cortex—the most important ‘thinking part’ of the brain—becomes thinner. In certain kinds of dementia, damage is also caused to the brain by the formation of plaques. Plaques are like tiny scars that form in the brain, and while one or two won’t have a large effect, Alzheimer’s disease causes them to form continually.

What you may not know is that it’s not just people that can experience dementia. Animals can too, cats included.

Can Cats Get Alzheimer’s Disease?

Cats can develop Alzheimer’s disease, just like we can.

Alzheimer’s occurs because of certain proteins building up in the brain’s nerve cells. These were discovered long ago in peoples’ brains when they experience Alzheimer’s, but until recently, had not been seen in cats’ brains. According to scientists at the University of Edinburgh:

In humans with Alzheimer’s disease, this protein creates ‘tangles’ inside the nerve cells which inhibit messages being processed by the brain. The team says that the presence of this protein in cats is proof that they too can develop this type of disease.

By carrying out post-mortem examination of cats which have succumbed naturally to the disease, scientists may now be able to uncover vital clues about how the condition develops. This may eventually help scientists to come up with possible treatments.

Scientists already thought cats were susceptible to dementia because previous research had identified thick, gritty plaques on the outside of elderly cats’ brain cells which are similar to those found in humans. But, by pinpointing this second key marker, the Edinburgh-led team says we can be sure that cats can suffer from a feline form of Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is not the only form of dementia that can occur in cats. But the effects of all kinds of dementia are similar, and there is no way to reverse any of them, so there’s little point from the owner’s point of view in distinguishing between them.

What Causes Dementia in Cats?

Unfortunately, while we know a lot about the effects of senior cat dementia, we don’t know much about what causes it. Dementia is largely related to old age, but not exclusively. It is also more likely when other diseases are present, but it can occur without them. But as for specific causes—specific in the way that water, for example, causes drowning—there are none.

Old Age

Dementia in cats is related to old age. It’s practically unheard of for younger cats to develop the symptoms of CDS.

The reason why dementia and old age go hand in hand is that old age can cause the symptoms of dementia on its own. Slight memory loss and slight shrinking of the brain occur whether or not dementia is present. It’s therefore likely that old age exacerbates, or in some way causes, certain forms of dementia.

Something that may play a part in the development of dementia is that cats are living longer as pets than ever before. Veterinary care has improved, and the lifespan of cats has been lengthened. It seems that the effects of old age can therefore get worse and worse as time goes on, causing further deterioration in brain health than you would see in cats that die younger, to the point where the issue could be classified as dementia.

Diseases That Influence Dementia

What we do know is that there are certain diseases that make dementia more likely in older cats. These aren’t necessary or sufficient causes for dementia, but they are relevant. These problems can sometimes be confused with dementia in cats, which was only properly recognized in cats recently.

  • Hyperthyroidism. The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. When this gland becomes overactive, the surfeit of hormones it produces can have unintended effects, particularly on the organs, the brain included.
  • Hypertension. Hypertension, better known as high blood pressure, can cause damage to the brain.
  • Blindness and deafness. A decline in sensory function can exacerbate the symptoms of dementia, e.g. not remembering where things are.

Bear in mind, though, that CDS can occur in your cat even if these conditions have never been present.

What Are the Symptoms of Dementia in Cats?

The key symptom of dementia is cognitive decline. As physical damage is caused to the brain, this can have unusual and unpredictable effects. As such, your cat may begin to display behaviors that you’ve never seen it display before; or, it may display relatively normal behaviors, but in the wrong ways, or at the wrong time. From a purely objective point of view, these changes of behavior are fascinating, because they’re similar to the changes that people with dementia experience.

Vets look for five specific symptoms to make a diagnosis of CDS. These are disorientation, interaction changes, sleep/wake cycle changes, house-soiling, and activity level changes. They are grouped under the acronym DISHA. These symptoms can be a sign of other health issues, so the vet will eliminate other possibilities before making a CDS diagnosis. Besides these, there are a few more that may indicate to the owner that there’s a problem.

Disorientation

Getting lost is one of the most noticeable symptoms of dementia in people, and the same is true for cats. Your cat may seem like it’s lost and confused even in its own home.

There are several root causes of this behavior. One is that your cat can forget how to get from one place to another, even if these places should be familiar, or are close together. So for example, your cat might forget how to get from your bedroom to the kitchen. It may wander around the bedroom; or, it may leave the bedroom, but not know to go down the stairs to get to where it wants to go. This behavior is particularly common at night, which is the same as dementia in people (a phenomenon known as ‘sundowning’).

This disorientation manifests in several ways. One is that your cat appears nervous or frightened, as if it’s somewhere that it’s unfamiliar with. While the reality is that your cat is still at home, it doesn’t recognize that, and consequently feels nervous. Your cat may also wander in a seemingly aimless manner, either thinking that it’s getting somewhere, or not knowing what it’s doing. If you let it outside, it could get lost and not return.

In addition to problems finding its way around, your cat may also have trouble with its spatial awareness. This means it will have trouble telling how far away from things it is. This can make it difficult for your cat to leap from one place to another, or mean that your cat walks into things. It’s for this reason that CDS can be confused with declining vision.

Interaction Changes (Cat Dementia Meowing)

Cats with dementia change how they interact with other cats, and how they interact with their owners.

Your cat may display a decreased interest in social interactions, meaning it doesn’t want to spend time with you or other cats, even if it did before. This may mean it doesn’t greet you when you come home, or pester you to pet it any more. If it displayed any other behaviors intended to elicit affection, then it may stop, e.g. not hopping onto your lap any more or meowing to get your attention. Your cat may also meow much more than it did before; this condition can affect cats in unexpected ways.

Your cat may also respond differently to things than it did before. So whereas it may have previously responded well to you tickling its tummy, now it may not want you to. It may react badly to any attempt at interaction.

If you have other cats in the house, then your cat may also begin interacting with them differently. It may be more concerned about having its own space than it was previously. It may play less with the other cats, and fight with them more than it used to. Or, it may ignore them entirely.

This may seem vague, but that’s the nature of dementia: its effects are many and varied.

Sleeping Cycle Changes

Cats have strange sleep cycles at the best of times. But changes to this sleep cycle are one of the many effects dementia may have.

Scientists don’t understand why sleep issues occur because of dementia, but they do. In fact, the symptoms of dementia seem to get worse at night/when the cat is supposed to get asleep. Your cat may be active at night when it didn’t used to be, and sleep during the day even though its feeding schedule demands it be awake at certain times.

What happens is that your cat forgets when things are supposed to occur. Whereas before it knew that you would let it out when you got home, for example, now it doesn’t.

House-Soiling (Cat Dementia Litter Box Accidents)

This is often one of the first signs that owners notice, and it’s obvious why! Cats with dementia will begin to go to the toilet where they shouldn’t, even if they’ve been litter trained for years.

Again, this is caused by the damage being caused to your cat’s brain. This damage causes the loss of memories; this means both memories of people, places and things, but also ‘memories’ of correct and incorrect behaviors. Your cat quite literally forgets that it’s supposed to go to the toilet in its litter box, and reverts back to doing so wherever it thinks is best.

In practise, your cat may start by going to the toilet occasionally in unusual places. Over time, it will stop using its litter box altogether. Or, your cat may immediately stop using its litter box as if a switch has flipped. There is no ‘right or wrong’ answer when it comes to dementia, as its effects are varied and unpredictable in nature.

Activity Level Changes

Your cat’s level of activity may also change, and in unpredictable ways.

One way in which it might change is that your cat is more active than usual. This is related to the issue of wandering, which is common in the middle stages of cognitive decline. This occurs partly because the cat feels lost, and partly because it feels it has to get somewhere, but may not be able to define where that ‘somewhere’ is. This is very similar to the issue of wandering seen in people with dementia, who can wander off and get lost easily. This wandering can occur either in the day or at night.

All that being said, your cat can also become less active than usual. This can happen after the wandering stage is over, in the final stages of the condition. Your cat may not want to move from where it’s sat—even more so than a normal lazy cat! This can occur because your cat doesn’t know how to get from one room to another; but it can also coincide with your cat losing its senses of sight and hearing as it grows older.

Other Symptoms: Anxiety & Fear

Because your cat doesn’t recognize that it’s at home, it will display behaviors that indicate its anxiety/fear. This can be confusing and distressing for the owner as well as the cat.

One way in which your cat may express its fear is through cat dementia howling. Your cat may meow or yowl loudly in situations where it seems like an inappropriate response, i.e. when your cat is perfectly safe but seems afraid of something. Because your cat’s sleeping cycle can change—a point addressed below—these vocalizations may be heard at night.

Another way in which it may express its fear is through hiding. Since your cat doesn’t know where it is, and can’t find its way around, it may pick one place and stay there. This is related to the lower activity levels detailed above.

Other Symptoms: Changes in Grooming Behavior

Your cat may begin grooming more than usual, or stop grooming as much as it did before. It may even stop grooming entirely, or only remember to groom in one place, as if it’s stuck on a loop.

This is again related to your cat’s memories, one of which is how to groom itself. This is something that it learns from its mother during the earliest months of its life. As dementia gets worse, it may forget how much it’s supposed to groom, why it needs to groom/what should trigger its grooming, or that it should groom at all.

This results in obvious signs. You may see that your cat’s coat is entirely unkempt, indicating that it doesn’t remember to groom itself. If your cat only seems to want to groom one place, then this part of its body may be damp and sticky from being continually licked. Or, you may see your cat grooming itself far more often than normal; this would result in your cat producing more hairballs than it used to.

Are Cats With Dementia in Pain?

Dementia doesn’t seem to cause cats any pain. But because it occurs in old age, it’s likely that any cat with dementia has other health issues to contend with, too. These could include CKD (chronic kidney disease), arthritis and muscle pain, pain when chewing because of gum disease, and more. These commonly affect older cats whether they have feline dementia or not.

What makes matter even more complicated is that cats love to hide symptoms of their pain anyway. This is a relic of the cat’s evolutionary history. Wild cats try not to show their pain, as otherwise, they would be more vulnerable—both to other cats, and to predators. Say for example that a wild cat has just hunted, and is sitting over its kill. Other cats and scavengers will, of course, keep their eyes peeled for situations like these. If they notice that the cat is severely injured and unable to defend its meal, then they’ll steal it. Unfortunately, this can also mean that when your pet cat is in pain, it won’t tell you.

End Stage Dementia in Cats

End stage dementia is characterized by both a worsening of some symptoms, and the disappearance of others.

Wandering, for example, becomes less of an issue in end stage dementia. That’s because your cat’s memory has deteriorated to the point where it doesn’t think of anything it wants to do. Even if it does, it has entirely lost its mental map, so it wouldn’t know where it needs to go. On top of that, the sensory decline that occurs in cats in old age will have gotten worse and made movement more difficult, as will arthritis.

Can You Cure Dementia in Cats?

You cannot reverse the effects of dementia. As such, there isn’t much that your vet can do to help you and your cat. What they will likely recommend is either finding a way to make your cat more comfortable (in the early stages), or euthanizing your cat.

Talk To Your Vet

Any time your cat has a health issue, no matter what it is, you should talk to your vet. That’s because:

  • You can easily misdiagnose a health problem in your cat. If you do, then you could spend your time treating the wrong issue, thereby allowing the original issue to fester. Your cat, for example, could be having difficulty with its vision rather than its memory (as this results in similar symptoms).
  • The vet has access to the best medications. That includes both medications to treat specific conditions, and medications for pain. They can also tell you exactly how much to use and how to administer them.
  • The vet can give you tailored, professional advice. While the point of sites like ours is to help cat owners look after their pets, there is no replacement for a vet’s assistance.

Even though there’s little your vet can do for your cat if it has dementia, their advice is still invaluable. They can use their expertise to tell you whether it’s likely your cat has the condition or not, whether your cat’s case is particularly serious or not, how long your cat likely has left, and how you can make your cat more comfortable in the meantime.

Make Your Cat Comfortable

cat coughing

If cat dementia is anything like the dementia that people experience, then your cat is likely feeling uncomfortable and unhappy at the moment. That’s because things that used to make it feel safe or comfortable aren’t as obvious from your cat’s perspective. But there are a few ways to make your cat feel better, even at this difficult time:

  • Keep your cat as happy as possible. Extra-comfy cat beds and extra treats that you know your cat loves can improve your cat’s mood, even if it has dementia.
  • Buy better quality cat food. Again, this will increase your cat’s quality of life. But it will also provide your cat with the nutrients it needs for brain health. Fat, in particular, is good for the brain; as are vitamins and minerals like selenium. Food with lots of antioxidants may also help.
  • Avoid changes to your or your cat’s lifestyle. Your cat is already confused, and changing things around—like moving house or introducing a new cat—will only make that worse.
  • Ensure that there are lots of things around your home that smell like your cat. Cats mark their territory with scent. If your cat has dementia, it may not find these things or may not notice them. But if you have lots of toys, cat beds and scratching posts, your cat will never be too far from something that makes it feel at home.
  • Place food sources around the home. Cats with dementia struggle to find their way around, and your cat likely doesn’t remember that it’s ‘supposed’ to eat in the kitchen (or wherever you normally feed it). Placing more food and water bowls around the home makes it easy for your cat to find them when it needs to.
  • Be kind. Try not to lose your temper with your cat, even if it reacts angrily when it shouldn’t, or if it goes to the toilet in the wrong place. Your cat doesn’t understand what it’s done wrong.
  • Don’t rely too much on schedule. Your cat’s dementia means it can no longer follow schedules as it used to. If there used to be a time your cat would eat and a time you would let it out, don’t expect it to follow these schedules any more. Instead, feed it or let it out as and when you can.

In doing just these few things, you may dramatically improve your cat’s quality of life. They won’t slow the course of the disease, but they make its effects less serious.

Cat Dementia Life Expectancy

If your cat developed dementia, it likely doesn’t have long left in its life anyway. Feline dementia occurs alongside old age; it’s uncommon in people for it to occur before then, and it’s even less common for that to happen in cats.

You may notice your cat’s cognitive abilities begin to decline once it reaches 11 or 12 years of age. If it has dementia, then this decline will continue to a deeper point than seen in other cats. It is typically around 15 years of age by which you will see your cat experience the full range of symptoms associated with dementia. At fifteen years of age, it’s rare for any cat to have long left, not just those with dementia.

As such, the answer differs depending on what stage your cat is in. An early-stage dementia cat may have three or four years left of relatively normal function. A late-stage dementia cat may have one year, or two, unless you choose to act and put your cat to sleep.

Feline Dementia: When to Euthanize

This is a personal question that there’s no right or wrong answer to.

On the one hand, cats with dementia can still be happy. You can still interact with your cat and treat it kindly, and it may still respond positively. Dementia doesn’t cause any pain, although your cat may have other conditions that do. And it can, of course, be very difficult to let go of an older cat because of how long you’ve had them.

At the same time, dementia unquestionably lowers the quality of your cat’s life. While it’s not clear exactly how cats experience dementia—it’s a highly personal condition that affects the mind rather than the body—if it’s anything like what a person experiences, then it’s not pleasant. As such, putting down a senile cat may be the least cruel option.

If you’re unsure of what to do, talk to your vet. They can tell you what to expect from the next few months or years, and whether your cat is likely in pain. This can help inform your decision. But don’t feel pressured either way to do something you don’t want to do.

Preventing Dementia in Cats

There is no way to ensure with 100% certainty that your cat will not develop dementia. But there are two key steps you can take to make it less likely.

One is to feed your cat a high-quality diet, like the one described above. It should contain all the nutrients that your cat needs, plus lots of antioxidants. This will directly assist with the maintenance of good brain health, but it will also help prevent issues like hypertension.

What may surprise you, however, is that mental stimulation can help ward off dementia, too. According to Dr. Frank Gunn-Moore, “If humans and their cats live in a poor environment with little company and stimulation, they are both at higher risk of dementia. However, if the owner plays with the cat, it is good for both human and cat.”

Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run Catmart, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I'm not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I'm either spending time with my cats or my other half... Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!

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