Dementia in cats

We are all familiar with the words 'Alzheimer's disease'. But did you ever think that your cat may also suffer from it? New research has shown that as many as one in every ten cats suffers from a condition which is very much like the human version of Alzheimer's. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh were the first, a few years ago, to show physical changes in the brains of cats with suspected dementia. These included the presence of the same amyloid proteins found in the brains of human patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The main signs of dementia in cats are:

  • As with humans, dementia leaves cats confused and distressed. Your cat may become disorientated, and find it difficult to locate her litter tray or food bowl. The cat may even forget she has just eaten and will keep asking for more food (even more than usually happens!)
  • Night terrors may mean that a cat becomes especially demanding at night and may keep you awake by loud crying.
  • Alternatively, cats with dementia may become more aggressive or attention-seeking.
  • They will be much less eager to play games and will choose to doze instead. They may also be found wandering aimlessly.
  • Grooming much less frequently is also another sign of problems.

Of course all these signs do not only point to dementia. For example, reduced grooming, eating changes, or loud crying can also signal pain, due either to infection or a degenerative disease such as arthritis. Older cats do slow down and prefer to spend time snoozing on the sofa rather than running after a ping pong ball. Remember that cats are masters of disguise, and are able to hide signs of illness or disability even from those who know them well. So a diagnosis of dementia is not easy.

But according to the latest research by Dr Danielle Gunn-Moore, Professor of Feline Medicine, University of Edinburgh, feline dementia is on the rise. And there are probably several reasons for this. Due to better health care and better diet, cats are living longer and longer. Indeed, it is now not uncommon for cats to reach the ripe age of 20 or more. Secondly, many cats are nowadays exclusively indoor cats, where the amount of daily stimulus may be less than for cats which spend most of the the day exploring the outdoor environment.

So, what can humans do to help their cats? As with humans, good diet and mental stimulation can reduce the risk of dementia. So, as vets point out, engaging cats in daily play is very important. This will keep their impulses sharp, but remember, this is a preventative measure. Once animals develop dementia, too much stimulation, or changes in the environment can be very frighting, so keep these to the minimum. A new furniture arrangement, or the arrival of visitors are new developments which can be very distressing for a cat that is having trouble coping with the world even as it is. If you have guests your cat may feel safer in another room, even if she was highly sociable before. A cat with dementia may be used to going outdoors, but visits to this more hazardous environment should be supervised, and remember that the cat may easily get lost if she wanders off.

As for Dr Danielle Gunn-Moore and her Edinburgh team of researchers, they are embarking on a major new study which attempts to uncover the dementia risk factors in elderly cats, and how best to reduce them. The research will examine whether particular breeds of cat are more at risk, and the impact of different lifestyles and other diseases and how dementia is affected by treatment with different vitamins and drugs. It is hoped the work could even help in developing treatments for the 700,000 people in Britain suffering from some form of dementia.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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