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Behavior Changes in Aging Cats

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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.

Treating Cognitive Dysfunction

If cognitive dysfunction is the only logical explanation for changes in your cat’s behavior, the next step is to seek therapy. Treatment mainly consists of making helpful changes to your cat’s environment and keeping her daily schedule consistent. There are also some medicines that may help cats with FCD, such as selegiline hydrochloride (brand name Anipryl®). This drug is currently only licensed for use in dogs with cognitive dysfunction, but some behaviorists and veterinarians have reported improvement in cats as well.

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