Aging cats may have behavior changes like forgetting where you put their litter box, being less active, or acting more aggressive. If your older cat starts acting differently, it might be a sign of an aging problem such as feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD).
FCD affects over half of cats between the ages of 11 and 15, and as many as 85% of cats over age 16. It can cause problems with your cat's memory, awareness, and ability to learn new things. It can also affect their hearing and sight. This can cause them issues with sleeping, anxiety, and depression. Their relationship with you and with other pets in your household may change.
You should talk to your veterinarian if you think your cat has FCD. While you can't prevent them from getting older, you may find treatments and therapies to make them feel better as they age.
Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats
These can happen in several different areas of your cat's behavior, including:
Confusion or spatial disorientation
- Unable to move around obstacles
- Wandering around without a purpose
- Gets lost easily, even at home
- Stares blankly
- May wander away from home
Memory and learning
- Doesn't recognize people or pets they used to know
- Quits using the litter box
- Starts using the bathroom near where they sleep or eat
- Acts restless or upset
- Seems generally more irritable
- Vocalizations sound different or seem more urgent
- Loss of appetite
- Doesn't groom as often
- Not interested in surroundings
- Less interested in being petted or interacting with people or other pets
- May become overly clingy and dependent
Sleep and routines
- More vocal at night
- Wakes up during the night
- Sleeps more during the day
Other Causes of Behavior Changes in Cats
Even if your cat has some of these symptoms, they might not have feline cognitive dysfunction. It's important to rule out other causes of their behavior changes.
For example, any condition that causes your cat pain may cause these symptoms. Arthritis can make them less active. It can also create difficulty getting into and out of the litter box. Cats with arthritis may urinate and defecate in inappropriate places. This may also happen with kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and other conditions. Nighttime vocalizations may be caused by hyperthyroidism or hypertension (high blood pressure). If your cat is eating less, they may have gum disease or other dental issues.
If your older cat twitches with their eyes wide open and suddenly starts scratching themselves repeatedly, it may signal a condition called hyperesthesia syndrome. The symptoms, which also include uncontrolled urination and frequent vocalization, are the same as some symptoms of FCD. Certain ocular (eye) diseases, especially those that cause acute blindness, may also cause symptoms similar to FCD.
Talk to your vet if you think your cat might have one of these conditions.
How to Treat Cognitive Dysfunction
While no cure for FCD exists, you can take steps to ease its symptoms and help your cat feel better. Certain medications may help with anxiety and depression. You can also adjust your cat's environment so their symptoms are easier to manage. Cats with FCD need a consistent daily routine with few changes.
Here are some areas and ways you can treat cognitive dysfunction in your cat:
Mobility problems. Provide your cat with several litter boxes. These should have low sides to make it easier for your cat to get in and out of them. If your cat has trouble getting around, place litter boxes on every floor of your home. It also may help to use sandy litter, which is softer on your cat's paws. Provide your cat with ramps and other mobility aids as needed.
Confusion and disorientation. Your cat will benefit from a predictable routine and environment if they're confused. Make sure you keep their food and water bowls and litter boxes in a consistent location. Keep their routine, including feeding times, the same every day. You may need to keep your cat in a smaller space to make it easier for them to find what they need.
Disrupted sleep/wake schedule. There are several reasons that FCD can cause disrupted sleep for your cat. They may be in pain from another issue, or anxiety may make it difficult to sleep. While you work with your vet to treat any underlying issues, try to set up routines that encourage play during the day and sleep at night.
Increased vocalization. Helping your cat sleep at night will decrease their nighttime vocalizations. Try blocking noises that may wake them. A heated bed may help. You might also try music and body wraps. Give your cat extra love and attention to help reassure them. If anxiety or depression seems to cause your cat's vocalizations, your vet may decide to prescribe meds to help them.
Dietary changes. Make sure your cat is fed a diet rich in vitamin E and antioxidants. These are believed to slow the effects of aging in cats.
Lifestyle changes. Reduce any stressors in the house. Don’t bring any new pets into the home or make other changes that may stress your cat.
Pheromone or drug therapy. This may help your cat feel less anxious. You can use feline pheromone sprays or diffusers in areas where they spend time. Anti-anxiety meds may help reduce their vocalizations. You can also seek advice from a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), your veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist (diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, Dip ACVB).
Helping Your Senior Cat Stay Healthy
Factors that help cats live longer include advances in veterinary medicine, better food options, and living indoors. While this is welcome news for cat lovers, older cats can have special needs. But there are steps you can take to make sure they’re healthy for as long as possible.
Not all cats will have age-related problems, but most will need some lifestyle adjustments to make them comfortable as they get older. Here are some practical tips:
- Take your cat to the vet for routine checks twice a year, or as often as needed to treat any health conditions they have.
- Block out drafts. Cats like to be warm, so put their beds somewhere sheltered from cold air.
- Make sure they can easily reach their food, water, and litter box. A litter box with low sides is easier to use.
- Provide ramps and steps to help them get to their favorite spots.
- Brush your cat if they're having problems with grooming themselves.
- Plug in a night-light if your cat has trouble seeing at night.
- Give your cat the emotional support they need. If your cat wants to be left alone, respect that.
- Reduce stress and any potential stressors in your household.
- Make sure your cat is fed a diet that’s healthy for them.