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Behavior Changes in Aging Cats

ASPCA logoAs they age, cats often suffer a decline in functioning, including their cognitive functioning. It’s estimated that cognitive decline-referred to as feline cognitive dysfunction, or FCD-affects more than 55% of cats aged 11 to 15 years and more than 80% of cats aged 16 to 20 years.  Memory, ability to learn, awareness, and sight and hearing perception can all deteriorate in cats affected with FCD. This deterioration can cause disturbances in sleeping patterns, disorientation or reduced activity. It can make cats forget previously learned habits they once knew well, such as the location of the litter box or their food bowls. It can increase their anxiety and tendency to react aggressively. It can also change their social relationships with you and with other pets in your home. Understanding the changes your cat is undergoing can help you compassionately and effectively deal with behavior problems that may arise in her senior years.  

Some effects of aging aren’t related to cognitive dysfunction. Often these effects can contribute to behavior changes that only look like cognitive decline. Be sure to report all changes you see to your cat’s veterinarian. Don’t assume that your cat is “just getting old” and nothing can be done to help her. Many changes in behavior are signs of treatable medical disorders, and there are a variety of therapies that can comfort your cat and ease her symptoms, including any pain she might be experiencing.

Cognitive Dysfunction Checklist

The following behaviors may indicate cognitive dysfunction in your senior cat:

Learning and Memory

  • Eliminates outside the litter box
  • Eliminates in sleeping areas or by eating areas
  • Sometimes seems unable to recognize familiar people and pets

Confusion / Spatial Disorientation

  • Gets lost in familiar locations
  • Stares or fixates on objects or simply stares into space
  • Wanders about aimlessly
  • Gets stuck and can’t navigate around or over obstacles

Relationships / Social Behavior

  • Less interested in petting, interactions, greeting people or familiar pets, etc.
  • Needs constant contact, becomes overdependent and clingy

Activity-Decreased, Apathetic

  • Explores less and responds less to things going on around her
  • Grooms herself less
  • Eats less

Anxiety / Increased Irritability

  • Seems restless or agitated
  • Vocalizes more and/or in a more urgent tone
  • Behaves more irritably in general

Sleep-Wake Cycles / Reversed Day-Night Schedule

  • Sleeps restlessly, wakes up during the night
  • Sleeps more during the day
  • Vocalizes more at night

Ruling Out Other Causes for Your Cat's Behavior

If your cat shows any of the symptoms or changes listed above, your first step is to take her to the veterinarian to determine whether there is a specific medical cause for her behavior. Any medical or degenerative illness that causes pain, discomfort or decreased mobility-such as arthritis, dental disease, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, impaired sight or hearing, or urinary tract disease-can lead to increased sensitivity and irritability, increased anxiety about being touched or approached, increased aggression (because your cat may choose to threaten and bite rather than move away), decreased responsiveness to your voice, reduced ability to adapt to change, and reduced ability to get to usual elimination areas.

If medical problems are ruled out, and if primary behavior problems unrelated to aging are ruled out (for example, problems that started years before your cat began aging), your cat’s behavior may be attributed to the effects of aging on the brain.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from the ASPCA

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