Understanding dementia in cats

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Did you know that most cats over the age of 11 are at risk for feline dementia? It’s one of the most common conditions in elderly cats, and can be difficult to deal with if you don’t understand what’s going on.

Feline dementia is caused by lesions that appear on your cat’s brain as she ages. The symptoms vary between felines, but in general, they include:

– Disorientation
– Abnormal social behavior
– Loss of appetite
– Anxiety
– Inability to recognize people
– Alterations in sleep patterns
– Increased vocalization
– Loss of litter box training or other learned activities

These ten steps can help make living with feline dementia easier and more comfortable for your kitty.

1. Prevent dementia

The best method for coping with dementia is to prevent it before it starts. Begin early by keeping your cat’s brain healthy as she gets older. Dr. Lore Haug, a Board Certified Behaviorist with Texas Veterinary Behavior Services, encourages people to implement an environmental enrichment program as early as possible. This includes regularly but carefully introducing new stimuli into your cat’s environment. Try different kinds of toys and encourage your cat to play every day. Don’t let her get lazy.

2. Use reward training

Even if your cat already has signs of dementia, try teaching her to do something new, even if it’s just a simple trick. It will help her mind stay active. Dr. Gary Landsberg, a Board Certified Behaviorist and diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, has done extensive research studies on feline dementia. He suggests training your cat to come for food or to jump up on a particular furniture on command. Use some healthy training treats to help her learn. You might even want to try a clicker (yes, many cats respond to clicker training!). Your cat may or not be able to learn the new behavior you’re aiming for, but it’s worth a try because, if nothing else, it will challenge her mind.

3. Reduce stress

Cats with dementia have high anxiety. Find out what’s contributing to your cat’s stress and find ways to remove or lessen it. It may be that she has arthritis and is having trouble getting up on the furniture. In that case, try installing ramps to make moving around easier. Similarly, if your cat is having trouble finding or getting to the litter box, move it to a more accessible location. Cats with dementia frequently get disoriented. You may be able to lessen this disorientation by confining her to one area of the house, where there is less space to get lost in. Make absolutely sure, though, that she isn’t isolated from you, and that the confinement isn’t actually generating more stress.

4. Evaluate nutrition and supplements

It’s important to re-evaluate your cat’s diet as she gets older. The nutritional needs
of a kitten and a 12-year-old cat may not be the same. Many older cats need food they can easily digest. Both Dr. Haug and Dr. Landsberg also recommend supplements to improve your cat’s brain function. B vitamins and good quality fish oil, which contains Omega-3 essential fatty acids, can help keep her brain sharp.

5. Observe her behavior

Closely observe your elderly cat and let your vet know of any changes in her behavior, even if it seems small. It’s important to catch feline dementia as early as possible so you can begin steps to slow it down.

6. Use a harness

If your cat already experiences disorientation and can’t be trusted outside, don’t give up on outings altogether. It’s vitally important for your cat to have changes in her environment to stimulate her mind. That includes new scenery. Try training her to use a harness and leash, and take her outside on an excursion every so often. If she won’t accept wearing a harness, consider investing in an outdoor cat enclosure.

7. Stimulate her sense of smell

Scent is a huge part of how a cat experiences life. As she gets older, her senses will start to dull. Introduce new scents into her routine environment to shake things up a bit. It will keep her on her toes and her sense of smell sharp. Just be careful what you use. Synthetic perfumes, air fresheners and essential oils are not good for cats. Items offering safe, cat-friendly scents include fresh catnip or cat mint, canned fish, cat grass, etc.

8. Give her regular checkups

Even if your cat appears healthy, you should still take her for regular visits to the vet. Dr. Haug stresses that older cats should have a thorough physical exam at least once a year, perhaps even twice. This is because there are many physical problems that can cause dementia-like symptoms. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your cat has feline dementia until you have ruled out all other health problems common to older cats, such as kidney failure, arthritis, diabetes and hyperthyroidism.

9. Make big changes slowly

If your cat’s environment is going to shift in any major way (new home, furniture rearrangement, new family members, etc.), make sure you introduce the changes slowly and cautiously. Sudden dramatic changes in your cat’s environment will cause her additional anxiety and will only propel the dementia forward.

10. Keep her socialized

Don’t leave your cat alone for long periods. It will only increase her anxiety and lead to antisocial behavior. If you have to be away for long stretches, get a kitty sitter if necessary.

You can make living with feline dementia easier, and even help prevent it if you start early. Remember to keep your kitty’s mind stimulated. Encourage anything that will make her concentrate and think. Focus on reducing stress, and don’t let her become a couch potato!