Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in cats: what you should know

Can cats develop dementia – and what can you expect if they do? Petplan’s veterinary expert Brian Faulkner answers the key questions about dementia in cats.

Modern advances in veterinary care and pet nutrition mean that our cats are generally leading longer and healthier lives than ever before. But with more cats living to a ripe old age, they are also more likely to develop age-related health conditions over time – including declines in their awareness, responsiveness, memory and learning abilities.

In cats and dogs, these changes are known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), and they closely resemble dementia in humans. Here, we look at how to recognise CDS in cats, and how to make life as easy as possible for a pet with the condition.

The symptoms of CDS in cats tend to develop gradually over time, and are often mistaken for other health problems. Read on for our checklist of the most common clues.

Confusion and disorientation

Your cat may appear to be lost and wandering aimlessly in places they know well, or confused about where to find their food bowl or litter tray. They may seem forgetful of previous learned behaviour or routines (such as grooming themselves), or spend time staring blankly into space.

Anxiety and social changes

You might notice that your cat’s interactions with other family members and pets are changing, and they seem more withdrawn and less interested in play than they used to be. Your cat may also seem more anxious or irritable than usual.

Noisier vocalisations

Your cat’s usual vocalisations may change with the onset of CDS. You may find that they start loudly meowing or yowling for no apparent reason, or in the middle of the night.

Appetite loss/increase

A cat with CDS may go off their food, although this can also be a sign of other issues such as illness or dental problems. Less commonly, they may forget when they’ve eaten and keep returning to their bowl, expecting to be fed.

Toileting accidents

Feline dementia is one of several health issues that can result in older cats pooing or peeing in inappropriate places.

Sleep alterations

It’s not unusual for older cats to sleep for longer periods of the day. But if your cat is sleeping when they’re usually awake, and vice versa, this may be another sign of CDS.

Bear in mind that all of these signs of dementia in elderly cats can also result from other health problems – for example, yowling or irritability could be signs that your cat is in pain. As always, if you’re concerned about any physical changes or unusual behaviour in your cat, do seek advice from your vet.

Signs of CDS in cats are most likely to become noticeable in older animals aged 10 or above. Research suggests that nearly a third of cats aged 11 to 14 years have developed at least one behavioural problem associated with CDS, and this increases to half of all cats aged 15 and above. 

Your vet is likely to diagnose CDS in cats by ruling out any other underlying health conditions that could be causing their symptoms. In addition to a physical examination, they may carry out further diagnostic tests such as blood tests, ultrasounds or X-rays. It may be helpful to keep a record of all the changes you’ve noticed in your cat, and take these with you to the vet.

Unfortunately, there’s no magical feline dementia medication that can cure CDS in cats, and their symptoms are likely to progress over time. However, there is plenty you can do as an owner to help manage the condition and keep your ageing cat as healthy and happy as possible.

Your vet will be able to recommend a management plan and lifestyle adjustments that can help. If appropriate, they may suggest an anti-anxiety treatment for your cat. Regular veterinary check-ups are important to help monitor CDS and any other age-related issues in more senior cats. Meanwhile, you can follow the advice below to help ensure their quality of life.

  • Keep their home environment as stable and cat-friendly as possible. Make sure familiar objects like bowls and litter trays are always in the same place (unless your elderly cat is finding them harder to access), and provide quiet places to retreat to. Any change can be confusing and distressing for a cat with CDS, so wherever possible, try to avoid big upheavals, such as introducing a new cat to the family.
  • Provide your cat with mental stimulation that’s appropriate for their age and abilities – simple puzzle feeders, brain games and other entertaining activities can all help to keep their minds active.
  • Your vet may also suggest supplements or dietary changes to ensure that your cat is getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants like vitamin E. These nutrients are known to help to support healthy cognitive function.
  • If your cat’s sleeping habits are changing or they’re howling at night, adapt your routine to help them cope.
  • Try not to show frustration with an elderly cat that is getting confused or having little accidents – it’s not their fault, and you will only increase their anxiety. Your older cat deserves plenty of love, extra care and consideration in their golden years.

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