Pet Connections

Can Cats Develop Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?

With the experience of watching both of my parents and a few older relatives slip into what we used to call “senility,” I’ve often wondered if I saw the same sort of cognitive issue in my elder cats. 

Today we use the term “dementia,” but “cognitive dysfunction” is a more specific term. Symptoms of both can range from barely discernible, like occasionally forgetting something familiar, to effects on even physical activity. Symptoms can result from a list of sources such as acute or chronic physical conditions or diseases, certain medications or treatments, organ malfunctions or imbalances in the body, even lack of sleep. 

But unlike those treatable conditions, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, and our pets can develop it just as humans can.

Symptoms of dementia

Dogs, cats and other pets and domestic animals who we see on a daily basis can show symptoms of confusion or physical debility, but it’s not a good idea to just chalk it up to senility without looking into the cause—as it is for any time your pet starts acting out of character. We can’t really perform cognitive testing on our pets as we do with humans to find out for certain, but even with people sometimes a diagnosis of CDS is a process of ruling out other causes. Cats are masters at hiding symptoms, so diagnosis is even more challenging with our felines.

For instance, dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance can put those affected into a stupor that has both cognitive and physical effects. Urinary tract infections are common in older bodies and cause pain while a related fever causes lethargy. Many more cats than we realized develop osteoarthritis at some point in their lives, which can cause physical and behavioral changes over time. All are relatively easily diagnosed and treated, usually with a positive results.

The fist inklings of dementia in humans are often bound up in our speech. People confuse or forget names of those they know well, or words they’ve used all their lives, and eventually lose other information, get lost, forget people they love, not just their names. 

This can be difficult to discern at first with animals, who don’t communicate with the specificity of human language, but eventually change seems clear in vocalizations that are out of the ordinary for them, or lack of their habitual vocalizations.

Like changes in language, changes in sense perceptions can also produce symptoms that resemble general dementia, and in these instances as well animals can’t tell us what’s wrong and our first guess may be “old age.” Pets losing their eyesight to cataracts, or their hearing to infections, even sense of smell or taste to oral conditions, react differently to their environment. The change may happen imperceptibly as one sense degrades and they adjust until they can’t anymore, or a catastrophic incident like a stroke or cardiac issue may cause the change. Because animals can’t tell us they can’t see or hear or smell, they just appear to be wandering around confused, or hunching in a corner afraid to move. 

Diagnosing CDS

Many of the above symptoms of dementia have a basis in another part of the body other than the brain. Though CDS may also be present, diagnosis, treatment and care would be different, and guessing your pet was senile might have them suffering, possibly leading to death, without visiting your veterinarian.

Diagnostic tools include basics and specific methods: blood and urine panels for general levels and organ function, tests for infectious diseases that may cause cognitive changes, blood pressure and cardiac function, and brain and spinal fluid testing. 

My cat Stanley was my longest-lived, to the age of 25, and while he was sharp and clear for most of those years there were occasions in his last year when he stood and meowed in some random spot until he saw me and his expression changed from round frightened or confused eyes to a clear focus as he recognized me. But the process repeated again another day. 

Another geriatric cat, Moses, had similar symptoms along with some physical debility a few times in her last two years, but they seemed to clear up completely between incidences. 

My veterinarian and I didn’t have the opportunity to get Stanley or Moses an MRI or perform spinal fluid testing because of their fragile condition at their ages, but we did the other tests. Surprisingly, they were in the normal range in just about everything, with no evidence of any infections or diseases. Judging by Stanley’s slow decline my veterinarian gave a suspected diagnosis of CDS, but suspected Moses had a series of small strokes that she recovered from. 

Treatment options

Today I would have some dietary and medication options for Stanley. If you see symptoms of mental decline in your cat start taking notes on your observations, what you see, when it happens, how long it extends, any details that you can tell your veterinarian. This is a good practice at any time, but especially when you have some vague symptoms and the diagnosis may be a long and expensive process. You can always discuss with your veterinarian what your budget is and narrow down to what will find the most information. 

As with humans, the condition can be treated to slow the decline and improve cognitive ability. Adding antioxidants to your cat’s diet may help, and medications are available as well. In addition, environmental enrichment can help them deal with their symptoms, keeping things familiar and engaging them in play or physical activity helps to keep their cognitive function active.

Sources and resources:

Critical Care DVM, “Cognitive Dysfunction – When Your Pet Becomes Senile” (criticalcaredvm.com/cognitive-dysfunction-pet-senile/)

PetMD, “Is Your Cat Suffering from Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?” (www.petmd.com/blogs/thedailyvet/lorieahuston/2014/march/your-cat-suffering-cognitive-dysfunction-31434)

PetMD, “Cat Dementia: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment” (www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/neurological/c_ct_cognitive_dysfunction_syndrome)

Cornell Feline Health Center, “Cognitive Dysfunction” (www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cognitive-dysfunction)

British Veterinary Association Journals, “Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats: Update on Neuropathological and Behavioural Changes Plus Clinical Management (study)” (bvajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/vetr.3)

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