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Behavior of the Senior Cat

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Staying young isn't an option for any of us. And although aging may not be something that we want to happen, the alternative is worse. But getting old isn't all bad: It comes accompanied by a wealth of learning and understanding that just isn't there in the early years. With age comes knowledge, acceptance, inner peace, and serenity, even for cats. But there are some cats for which aging presents some real problems. While some elderly are clear-minded and physically active, others become confused, disorientated, and generally infirm.

If a healthy cat's life span is 18 years, by definition, geriatric status is attained when 75 percent of that life span has elapsed, that is, after 13 years of age. Some early geriatric cats are still doing very well at the age of 13 or 14 years whereas others are already beginning to show pronounced aging changes. In time, all slow down but some slip into a noticeable cognitive decline, now dubbed the "Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome" or Feline Alzheimer's Disease, all too early.

Normal Aging Changes (Age-related Cognitive Decline)

Like people, older cats become less active mentally and physically. Part of the reason for this is aging changes that take place in the brain, but physical factors, such as joint stiffness, may also play a role. Normal aging changes include:

  • Being less active
  • Playing less
  • Sleeping more
  • Reacting less to surrounding events
  • Grooming less
  • Eating less heartily

    All these signs are a result of progressive mental slowing that results from a decreased number of functioning central nerve cells and actual physical shrinkage of the brain.

    Cognitive Dysfunction (Unsuccessful Agers)

    Some cats, like some people and some dogs, age poorly. In affected individuals, slowing of their mental processes causes them significant impairment in their everyday lives. Although some of the signs of age-related cognitive decline are similar to those of "normal aging," it is the extent and nature of the deficits that distinguish true cognitive dysfunction from simple age-related slowing down. Typical signs of feline cognitive dysfunction are described by the acronym DISH.

    D = disorientation. This means that the cat may wander aimlessly and appear lost or confused at times. He may also fail to recognize family members.

    I = reduced social interactions. Affected cats may no longer greet people warmly or seek their attention as often.

    S = changes in sleep-wake cycle. The cat may sleep more during the daytime but wander aimlessly at night, perhaps crying out.

    H = loss of housetraining. Breakdown of housetraining appears to occur because your kitty forgets where the litter box is or is no longer concerned about personal hygiene.

    The prevalence of cognitive dysfunction increases with age so, for example, if at 13 years of age 10 percent of cats may be affected, 50 percent by age 16, and 90 percent (plus) at age 20.

    The Mechanism

    No one really knows what causes this problem in cats, but extrapolating from what is known about human and canine cognitive dysfunction, the condition probably results from either Alzheimer-like changes in the brain (such as accumulations of beta-amyloid and its formation into plaques) or cerebrovascular disease. In dogs with cognitive dysfunction, the degree of pathological change in the brain correlates closely with the severity of the clinical signs and the same may well hold true in cats.

    The condition is progressive but clinical signs may be reversed for a while by treatment with the monoamine oxidase B inhibitor, selegiline hydrochloride (Anipryl®). This drug is not yet approved for feline use but can legitimately be prescribed extra–label, if indicated. This drug prevents the breakdown of a deficient neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the cat's brain, helping to restore normal function. Although the exact extent of selegiline's efficacy has not been determined in cats, again by extrapolation from the situation in dogs, about one third of cats should exhibit a dramatic turnaround, to the point of cure, another third should make significant improvements, and about one third will not respond to the treatment.

    Cats, like dogs, are now living longer than ever before because of improvements in their management, healthcare, and nutrition. It is because of this changing demographic that age-related cognitive decline and cognitive dysfunction have been recognized and have recently come to the forefront. Owners expect their cats to slow down a bit in old age, and this progression may not constitute a major problem for them or their pet. However, when true cognitive dysfunction (also known as dementia) rears its ugly head, owners know that something really needs to be done if the cat is to continue to have anything like a quality existence. It is good to know that, these days, when cognitive decline threatens a cat's existence, there is something that can be done to offset the problem, and the likelihood of success is good. If we can extend quality existence for a cat by one year through the use of medication, that's equivalent to a 5-year extension for a person – well worth having for either the cat or person concerned.

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