Can Cats Get Dementia?

Whether you call it cat dementia or cat cognitive dysfunction syndrome, it’s something up to half of all old cats can develop.

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A cat with cognitive dysfunction syndrome could experience a change in wake/sleep cycle. MonthiraYodtiwong/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Brian Roberts

Today, more than I can ever remember, there are numerous stories and concerns for a person’s mental well-being. Whether it’s the effects of chronic concussive injury to football players or ads for new Alzheimer’s treatments, everyone is becoming informed about mental health issues. Well, what about the mental health of our furry friends, specifically cats? When I lecture my students regarding feline health, one common theme is that cats are not “furry little dogs.” They are “wired” differently and become stressed very easily.

In this article I’d like to discuss senior cats (cats in the last quarter of a typical life span, generally aged 10 years and older). Cats are surviving longer today than ever before with a 15 percent increase in the number of cats living over the age of 10. So, here’s an interesting question we will tackle: Can cats get dementia?

Cat Dementia Vs. Cat Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

One problem facing veterinarians is terminology. Terms used by human psychologists and psychiatrists may or may not relate to cats with aging or abnormal behavior. Dementia is not synonymous with cognitive dysfunction syndrome of (CDS), which is most likely the cause of “senility” or behavior changes associated with advancing age. CDS is an age-related process where there are abnormalities in cognitive processes. Dementia is a term used to describe brain compromise beyond what is expected with age. In order to make a diagnosis of dementia, a person must exhibit not only lapsing memory but additional impairment, such as slurring speech or inability to recognize objects. So, technically, we could not truly make a diagnosis of dementia if we stuck to the traditional human-medicine definition. However, in order to relate to our clients, the term may be used instead of CDS.

The physiology of cognitive dysfunction syndrome as it relates to aging is that neurons, cells making up the brain, undergo change. The nerve cells degenerate, meaning they no longer perform as well as previously. A major cause of degeneration is the build up of metabolic wastes, such as free radicals which are oxidants. As cells age, their ability to rid themselves of oxidants diminishes. Oxidants damage the cell membrane, DNA and internal machinery that make proteins.

Other changes affecting blood supply, programmed cell death and accumulation of cellular proteins like beta-amyloid have been found with CDS. Neurotransmitters, chemicals that can stimulate and regulate neurons such as dopamine and serotonin, decrease in quantity in older cat brains.

So, as you see, many aging changes naturally occur in senior cats that can affect their brain’s capability! Studies have found that approximately a third of cats aged 11 to 14 years develop at least one symptom of CDS and by the age of 15, 50 percent of senior cats have symptoms of cognitive dysfunction.

Symptoms Of Cat Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

The primary signs of CDS in cats are behavioral changes. Some of the most reported behaviors are inappropriate urination (house soiling), aggression, new fears or phobias, and vocalization at night. Other signs include changes in eating habits, changes in activity, and altered sleep-awake cycles. How your senior cats interacts with you can also be affected. They may not tolerate as much attention and petting as they used to. Behavior changes of CDS include:

  • Spatial confusion: forgetting where the litter box is
  • Increased irritability
  • Changes in relationship with housemates
  • Altered sleep/wake patterns
  • Pacing and wandering aimlessly
  • Not grooming as often
  • Howling at night

Diagnosing Cat CDS

There is no definitive, easy test that will tell a veterinarian or pet owner that a cat has CDS. It’s what we call “a diagnosis of exclusion.” Remember all of those aging changes that affect the brain I mentioned? Well those were found from brain tissue of senior cats with CDS symptoms prior to death. Their brain tissue was then examined and those changes were found. So, unless you take a senior cat with symptoms of CDS to brain surgery, there’s no way to definitively diagnose them.

To get a working diagnosis of CDS, all other physical and behavioral abnormalities must be eliminated. And that means ruling out numerous illnesses that can cause the same behavior changes as CDS. These include:


Say your senior cat is having some of the symptoms of CDS and you seek advice from your family veterinarian. To determine the cause of the problem(s), a number of tests will need to be performed to eliminate other possible ailments. It’s likely that blood tests, blood pressure measurement, urinalysis, orthopedic examination, X-rays and even a consult with a neurologist will be recommended. Once other diseases and behavior disorders are ruled out, then a clinical diagnosis of CDS can be made.

When I worked in a multi-specialty hospital years ago, the radiology department had a resident cat named Timone. He wasn’t a very nice cat, but the radiology people loved him and gave him the run of their department. I’ll never forget when he started acting “nice.” He wouldn’t hiss or swat at you when you approached or pet him. He even came over and wanted affection! Completely unlike him, and we thought: “Well, he’s gotta be 15 years old by now, it’s probably just old age.” Boy were we wrong. One day he had a grand mal seizure, which led us to perform a bunch of tests including a cat-scan (CT) of his brain. Unfortunately, we found a brain tumor on the CT scan. So, don’t just think that a weird, new behavior is CDS, it could be something very serious — or something very treatable, like a urinary tract infection.

Treatment For Cat Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Let’s say you have a senior cat exhibiting some symptoms of CDS and your veterinarian made a diagnosis of CDS by eliminating other diseases like liver problems and arthritis. What is the next step? How can we help your “senile” cat?

Therapy for CDS involves a multimodal approach to address diet, addition of dietary supplements, interaction with the environment and drug therapy.

Diet To Slow Cat CDS

Because aging leads to the build up of oxidative stress, diets with antioxidants, such as beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and vitamin E, may be of benefit. In people with dementia, supplementation of their meals with omega-3 fatty acids, additional green vegetables and fruit were beneficial. It is recognized that a combination of supplements work best, and they must be in proper balance. Too much of a particular supplement can be harmful.

The lucky thing for pet owners is that you control your pet’s diet. How many times have you told Grandpa to stop eating fried food and more vegetables? I bet you were met with the same response I got: “Look, I’m 80 and I’ll eat whatever I want!”

Food manufacturers have used research to develop senior diets that are formulated to have ideal quantities of beta-carotene, omega-3s, vitamins and amino acids like coenzyme Q10. These foods have been found to increase longevity and decrease behaviors noted in CDS.

Supplements such as Aktivait, which contain a combinations of anti-oxidants, fish oil, vitamin E and such, have shown to improve symptoms of disorientation and inappropriate urination.

Environmental Adjustments As A Preventive

Living in a stimulating habitat promotes cognition. Basically, let’s exercise the brains of senior cats with different activities. Playing, interaction, use of toys, and even walks outside improve cognitive function. These activities are best started before signs of CDS occur. Once symptoms of abnormal behavior are evident, changing your cat’s lifestyle may backfire. The stress of now forcing your senior cat to play with a ball or chase a string may worsen her symptoms to the point of hiding and worsening housebreaking accidents.

Drug Therapies For Cat CDS

One of the most popular and studied drugs used for CDS is selegiline. This drug is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which basically means it stops degradation of neurotransmission, specifically dopamine. Additionally, it assists with blood flow by dilating blood vessels in the brain and it may also decrease the amount of free radical build up. This drug is FDA approved for use in dogs with CDS, not in cats. However, there are no alternatives. Research is currently underway to see if it can help senior cats the way it can help dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Another drug that may be of benefit is Novifit. This medication contains S-adenosyl-l-methionine (SAMe) which is an important protein used by anti-oxidant enzymes, namely glucuronide. Cats have more diminished glucuronide levels than other animals, particularly dogs. Studies in which cats were supplemented with SAMe found cognitive improvement in less affected cats. It’s best to start this medication early on, because cats with worse symptoms did not experience the same benefit.

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Cats · Health and Care