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.

DISH It Up

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.

Manage sleep-wake cycles. This can be as simple as gently waking him up when you see him sleeping during the day. Carry him, talk to him or play with him to keep him awake so there’s less potential for nighttime meownderings.

Although there are no medications approved for CDS in cats, you may also ask your veterinarian if there are any medications that can help reduce some of the signs, such as nighttime prowling and yowling.

Sometimes cats yowl because they’ve suffered hearing loss and they’re telling you they don’t like the change. They may also simply not realize just how loudly they’re vocalizing. Until a hearing aid for cats is developed, your best bet for sleeping through the night with a yowly cat is a good set of earplugs or a cat room at the other end of the house.

To deal with loss of litterbox use, try adding more boxes throughout the house, especially if you have a multilevel house. Something else to consider is that your cat is missing the box not because he’s senile, but because his joints are too achy to climb into it — or to climb the stairs to get to it. See if you can make it easier for him to get into the box by cutting an opening into it that he can walk through or providing a ramp he can walk up to get in and out of the box.

Supplements and Medication

A possible treatment, extrapolated from research in dogs, has shown that high levels of antioxidants appear to help dogs with cognitive dysfunction. There’s no science to support that the same would be true in cats, but you can ask your veterinarian about adding high levels of omega-3 fatty acids to your cat’s diet to see if they make a difference.

Can a cat with CDS have good quality of life? In most cases, yes, but it’s important to recognize that your cat’s needs have changed. Once you understand the changes that accompany aging and work with your veterinarian to manage them, your cat’s senior years can be rewarding for both of you.