by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Dementia, called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, is not a specific disease; it is an overall term that describes a group of symptoms associated with the gradual loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioural abilities to such an extent that it interferes with daily life and activities. These functions include memory, communication skills, visual perception, problem solving, self-management, emotional control, motivation, and the ability to focus and pay attention. The causes of dementia can vary, depending on the types of brain changes that may be taking place.
Better nutrition and veterinary care means cats are living longer; more old cats means a higher incidence of age-related issues. While dementia is not a normal part of aging, and not all cats will suffer, it is typically found, in some degree, in up to 50% of cats of 15 years and older, and has even been identified in cats as young as 10 years.
Decreased blood flow to the brain and an increase in free radicals cause damage to the cells in the brain. This also causes protein build-up around the nerve cells, making the transmission of messages less effective. In some cats, genetics may also play a role.
A good way to monitor the level of behavioural change is to keep a diary or log of behaviour, severity and frequency. This will help your vet in making a diagnosis. Modern technology allows for photographs or videos to illustrate behaviour that will not be evident at the consultation.
All cats are different, and have different degrees of dementia so it is unlikely that all these symptoms will apply at once. All of these are also symptoms of other issues, including arthritis, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, deafness, blindness, and dental diseases. Behaviour changes not related to brain damage can occur in cats of any age. Old cats can be set in their ways and resistant to any change, however small.
- Changes in relationship with family include becoming unsocial, not wanting to be touched, wary of handling, increased irritability or moodiness, becoming more needy of contact, increased aggression towards previously-accepted pets – either cats or other species, not recognising family members.
- Inappropriate litter tray behaviour.
- Increased or excessive vocalising, especially at night.
- Change in sleeping patterns cause stress in the brain. Note that changes in weather influence sleeping patterns in all cats.
- Change in activity levels, either decreased or increased.
- Lack of grooming, excessive licking.
- Decreased appetite, forgetting to eat, or forgetting that she has just eaten, excessive appetite.
- Disorientation & confusion, forgetting where they are and how to get back to a known safe place. Staring at walls.
- Anxiety, restlessness, aimless wandering.
- Less inclined to venture out, remaining in known territory.
- Forgetting where the cat flap, door or bed is.
- Decreased interest in play, or marked increase in play.
- Forgetting commands and training.
- Inability to learn or accept change.
- Reduced vision and hearing leads to insecurity and reduced activity.
Can dementia be reversed? Probably not, but there are ways to support your cat and help her make the most of her days.