Dementia is a distressing disease affecting older cats. Symptoms include increased meowing, attention-seeking and disturbed sleep patterns. Around 55% of cats between 11 and 15 years old have symptoms of dementia and more than 80% of cats aged 16 or over. It can affect cats of any breed, sex or size.
Dementia is a progressive disease in older cats, similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The symptoms can be just as distressing for everyone affected. There’s no cure for dementia, but medication sometimes helps to slow down the progression of the disease. Cats might live with dementia for years, but this will depend on the age when symptoms start and how quickly the condition progresses.
Patience and supportive care help cats with dementia enjoy a good quality of life for as long as possible.
What is dementia in cats?
Dementia is also called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FCD) or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS),
- It’s a progressive disease affecting the brain
- It’s more than simply ‘old age’.
- The cause is not fully understood.
- There are abnormal proteins called “beta amyloid” and “Tau” in the brains of older cats with dementia.
- Other factors are likely to influence how the disease develops and progresses.
Dementia – causes and development of symptoms
- Abnormal proteins build up on nerves in the brain
- Parts of the brain controlling memory, sleep and anxiety begin to decay
- Behaviour and habits controlled by damaged nerves fail as the disease progresses
The survival time for cats diagnosed with dementia is variable but could be anything up to 10 years. This depends on:
- Age of onset, as most cats develop dementia later in life
- Severity of symptoms
- Rate the disease progresses
- Having another long-term illness
Symptoms of dementia in cats
- Meowing more, day or night, for no apparent reason
- Changing behaviour towards you and other pets or family members: more affectionate towards you or maybe more irritable
- Altering their sleeping and waking patterns
- Forgetting house training or forgetting the way to the litter tray
- Getting lost or disorientated, even indoors
- Becoming less active, less willing to play or go outside
- Becoming more anxious, maybe suffering from separation anxiety
- Forgetting familiar people and places
Dementia itself isn’t usually painful. But many cats with dementia also suffer from long-term illnesses, such as arthritis.
Cats at higher risk of dementia
- Older cats (risk increases by 50% with each year of age)
- Cats with poor hearing
- Cats with poor vision
- Cats with other long-term illnesses, like arthritis, liver disease, kidney disease, overactive thyroid gland
- Bored, overweight, under-stimulated cats
Is my family at risk of catching Dementia?
Dementia affects individual cats or people. You and your other pets are not at any risk of catching dementia from your cat.
Diagnosis of dementia in cats
There isn’t a single test for dementia. The symptoms of dementia in cats resemble those of other common diseases of elderly cats. This can make diagnosis more difficult.
Vets diagnose dementia in cats based on the following:
- Changes in your cat’s behaviour
- Changes in habits
- Ruling out other illnesses using appropriate testing, such as blood tests, urine tests or MRI scan
How do vets treat dementia in cats?
There isn’t a cure for dementia. The condition progressively worsens with time.
The treatment goal is to improve symptoms and slow down progression of the disease.
Treatment options include:
Medicines from a vet to treat dementia in cats
- Selegiline (Selgian, Ceva Animal Life) improves the symptoms of dementia, especially housetraining, sleeping patterns and activity levels
- Propentofylline (Vivitonin, MSD Animal Health) may help your older cat’s energy levels by improving blood supply to their muscles, heart and brain.
- Antidepressant medicines: treat the anxiety symptoms associated with dementia. These medicines are used “off licence”. This means they are human medicines which vets use for cats under special circumstances.
Special or prescription diets
These may contain:
- Antioxidants to protect nerves and other tissues from damage
- Special types of fat (medium chain triglycerides) to give the brain extra energy (Purina One Vibrant Maturity 7+ Senior Formula, Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diet NC NeuroCare; purina.com)
These may contain natural chemicals to help with:
- Supporting liver and brain function
- Helping nerve cells to communicate with one another and improving your dog’s memory, learning and willingness to interact
- Vitamins, especially Folic Acid, vitamin B complex and antioxidants like Vitamins A, C and E
- Essential fatty acids present in fish oils
How to look after a cat with dementia at home
Although we can’t cure dementia, we can do a lot at home to support an older cat with this problem.
Complementary therapies. Anything which helps to relieve anxiety or stress in your older cat with dementia will help.
- Diffusers that promote a calming effect
- Herbal remedies
Be patient. It’s very hard to live with constant meowing, sleep/wake disturbances, house soiling and attention seeking. But negative responses like frustration or annoyance will increase your cat’s stress and make things worse.
Provide reassurance and affection. Cuddling a cat who is anxious or attention-seeking, and making them feel secure, helps reduce vocalisation and restlessness at night. Measures like shutting them out of the bedroom will only add to the problems.
Make litter trays easier to find and easier to get into. Provide extra litter trays and make sure they have a low lip so it’s easier for an arthritic cat to get in.
Adapt household cues. Put on the radio in a room to help your disoriented cat find their way there.
Provide protected rest areas. Give your cat with dementia a quiet area where they can sleep undisturbed by children or other pets.
Make allowance for other illnesses. Make it easier for an older cat with arthritis to reach favourite spots and feeding areas.
Living with a cat with dementia
Be patient and calm
Make practical allowances for your cat being slower, confused, forgetful and clumsy
- plug in night lights
- provide additional litter trays around the house
- give cuddles and reassurance if your cat wants these
- Try not to redecorate or move furniture around
Avoid change or prepare well in advance if it’s unavoidable
Travelling, for example.
- Use stress relief measures (pheromone sprays or diffusers, prescription medicine from a vet)
- Take along a familiar bed or blanket
Give your cat space when they don’t want to interact
- Eventually, your cat may stop wanting to interact with you and even stop wanting cuddles.
- Let them choose and be there for them if they’re looking for attention
Quality of life in cats with dementia
Dementia is a progressive illness. It can’t be cured. It worsens over time and eventually will end in death. Death may be due to dementia itself, or to another illness. And one illness may make the other worse.
Common illnesses seen in older cats include:
It’s very hard to see a loved one decline and seem to be in distress. You start to wonder if they have any quality of life. If your cat doesn’t have quality of life any more, it may be kindest to bring their life to an end through euthanasia. Vets do this by giving them an overdose of anaesthetic, so it is peaceful and pain free.
When to say goodbye
You may worry how you’ll know when it is time to say goodbye as your cat’s illness advances.
It’s a decision that’s very hard to make and distressing for everyone involved. The best any of us can do is focus on what’s best for our beloved companion. We can start by thinking about their quality of life.
- Do good things outweigh the bad?
- Is your cat still interested and responsive?
- Is pain or distress controlled?
- Is giving medication straightforward or is it a fight that’s worsening quality of life for both you and your cat?
There are guides available online to help you assess your cat’s quality of life.
Talk things through with a vet if you are concerned about your cat’s quality of life.
Tips on how to delay dementia in cats
Dementia is a disease of ageing. We don’t fully understand why it happens and we can’t prevent it from happening.
Tips for reducing the risks of earlier onset dementia
Keep your cat as active and fit as possible with activity toys, like tunnels, towers and laser toys, especially for indoor cats.
Keep your cat mentally active with games, toys, food puzzles.
Keep on top of your cat’s preventive care, including vaccinations and regular worming and flea treatments.
Feed your cat the best diet for their age, health and lifestyle to ensure they get all their essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Identify and treat other illnesses, with regular vet checks and giving prescribed medicines as directed.
When to worry
When to worry about your cat with dementia
Signs that dementia is worsening
- Stopping eating
- No longer interacting with you
- Becoming irritable or even aggressive
- Being unable to settle or rest
- Suffering episodes of collapse or seizures
Your cat may also deteriorate rapidly, either due to advanced dementia itself or when dementia happens with another illness.
Find your nearest vet if
- Your cat has collapsed
- Is unresponsive
- Has become dangerous to themself or others
Joii can help with:
- Recognising and treating common illnesses which increase the risk of dementia
- Choosing a diet to make sure your cat gets the nutrition they need to stay healthy
- Supplements to help cats with dementia
- Supporting a cat with poor memory and confusion
- Caring for an anxious cat
- Making the most of your cat’s quality of life
- Talking through end of life care
- Understanding euthanasia (being ‘put to sleep’), and what happens afterwards
- Bereavement support