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Cats are living longer than ever before — it’s not unusual for felines to reach their mid-to-late teens or even early twenties. A longer lifespan, however, can leave felines frazzled if their once-spry brains aren’t properly stimulated. In fact, cats over the age of 15 can develop feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD), a cat version of Alzheimer’s disease in which a starchlike, waxy protein (beta amyloid) collects in the brain.
The symptoms of FCD can frustrate owners because they often mimic other behavior problems. In addition to acting disoriented, cats with the condition may cry and pace, get lost in the house or even stuck in corners. They can also act scared and have trouble sleeping. Most felines with FCD develop hit-or-miss litterbox tendencies — yuck! — and even when they do find the box, they may not know what to do with it. Perhaps most heartbreaking: Some senile kitties tend to shun petting, ignore people and other companion animals, and stop recognizing a beloved owner.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for FCD, but your vet may prescribe medication that may help. But even with treatment, afflicted cats can develop senility behavior signs again, which is why it's important to focus on feline brain health long before FCD has a chance to strike. Brain function studies in dogs proved that problem-solving activities kept canines sharp, connected to the world around them and even extended their lifespan. The old saying “use it or lose it” also applies to cats, so here are some simple tips for keeping your feline mentally fit well into her golden years.
1. Train the Brain Early. To slow the progression of aging in the brain, make sure your cat is physically active and mentally engaged throughout her life — starting when she's a kitten.
2. Play Daily. Cats thrive on routine, and building play into everyday life increases the chances that she’ll stay active in later years. Homemade cat toys like wads of paper, socks stuffed with catnip and ribbons that you can drag on the floor cost little but bring huge rewards.
3. Keep Her Physique in Check. Overweight cats avoid physical exertion and prefer sleep and lap time to brainteasers. To encourage exercise and problem solving, place food bowls at the top of stairs or cat trees.
4. Create Some Kitty TV. Place bird feeders and birdbaths outside windows for your cat's viewing pleasure and brain-stimulating enrichment.
5. Build Obstacle Courses. Set up cat trees, empty boxes, paper bags and other hiding spots, so your feline can lounge, climb and explore.
6. Adopt a Younger Pet. A playful cat or dog, when introduced safely and correctly, can turn back the clock and inspire an old-timer to move her tail — and jump-start her sluggish brain.
7. Offer a New Leash on Life. Teach your cat to walk on a leash, so she can safely explore the yard — or simply use her brain to troubleshoot how to get out of the darn thing.
8. Teach With Treats. Call out “Fluffy, come!” Then turn on the can opener, and when the cat runs to you, reward her with a snack.
9. Pick Up a Puzzle. Toys that dispense treats mimic feline hunting behaviors, keeping cats entertained and mentally sharp.
10. Make Treasure Hunts Out of Meals. Hide saucers full of small amounts of food all over the house — and place them at different levels, so your cat must seek out the morsels.
Once cats reach their senior years, their companionship becomes even more precious. If you pay attention to your kitty's mental health, you'll keep her connected with life — and you — as long as possible.
Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 23 pet care books, including Complete Care for Your Aging Cat. Shojai also appears on Animal Planet's "Cats 101" and "Dogs 101," as well as writes for puppies.About.com and cats.About.com. She lives in Texas with a senior citizen Siamese and a smart-aleck German Shepherd.
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