Is Your Kitty Confused? 4 Signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Senior cat

Have you noticed your super-senior cat going through some personality and behavior changes? It’s not uncommon for me to hear from clients that their aging feline has begun prowling the house late at night, yowling desolately, or that he gets “lost” in corners, standing and staring as if he’s wondering why he’s there. Even more distressing: Sometimes he forgets to use the litterbox, even if he’s standing right next to it.

When cats get old, we see more than physiological changes. Researchers haven’t formally defined cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) — senility to you and me — in cats, but the condition clearly exists. Cats with CDS are usually more than 12 years old and commonly exhibit certain signs.


The acronym DISH helps us to recognize the signs of CDS in cats.

D is for disorientation. Cats with CDS often walk aimlessly, stare at walls, get “stuck” in corners, seem to be lost in their own home or lose their balance and fall.

I is for interactions. If your cat used to greet you at the door with a happy mrrrp but now looks confused when you walk in, that’s a change worth noting. Another sign to watch for: a cat who in the past was a lap lover but who now shows less interest in seeking out a snuggle.

S is for sleep. Cats who once slept through the night may prowl and vocalize, keeping everyone else awake with them.

H is for housetraining, which often goes by the wayside, not for medical reasons or because the litterbox hasn’t been cleaned to the cat’s satisfaction, but because, well, he just forgot.

Diagnosing and Managing CDS

Before you assume that your cat has lost his mind, take him in for a veterinary visit to rule out medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), hypertension (high blood pressure), brain tumors, urinary tract infections and liver or kidney disease. Any of those can cause signs that mimic CDS. Some are treatable with medication, which will be a relief for you and your cat.

If your cat is diagnosed with CDS, there are things you can do to help him. You can put in place new routines and limitations that will help him adjust. In addition, some supplements and medications may also be effective.

Making Changes

If your cat is disoriented, try limiting his access to stairs or to certain parts of the house. Keep doors closed so he doesn’t go into the closet or behind the toilet or any place where he might be unable to get himself out.

Create interactive routines to help keep your cat’s mind active. Start feeding him on a schedule so he will look forward to the time with you. Even if you typically leave food out for him, you can start a new routine that involves giving him a special treat at specific times of day. You could also schedule a couple of minutes of petting or play with a favorite toy.


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