Aging Cats: Behavior Changes, Problems, and Treatments

Aging cats sometimes experience behavior changes such as forgetting where you put their litter box, being less active, and being more aggressive. If your older cat starts acting differently, it might be a sign of aging problems such as feline cognitive decline (FCD). 

Feline cognitive decline affects over half of cats between the ages of 11 and 15, and as many as 85% of cats over age 16. FCD can cause problems with your cat's memory, awareness, and ability to learn new things. It can also affect your cat's hearing and sight. This can lead to your cat having issues with sleeping, anxiety, and depression. Your senior cat's relationship with you and with other pets in your household may change. 

You should talk to your vet if you think your cat has FCD. While you can't prevent your cat from getting older, you can guide them to treatments and therapies to make them feel better as they age. 

Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction in Cats

Cognitive dysfunction symptoms 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 to eliminate waste
  • Starts using the bathroom near where they sleep or eat

General Anxiety

  • Acts restless or upset
  • Seems generally more irritable
  • Vocalizations sound different or seem more urgent

Activity

Relationships

Sleep and Routines

  • More vocal at night
  • Wakes up during the night
  • Sleeps more during the day

Other Causes of Behavior Changes in Cats

Your cat may show some of these symptoms but not have feline cognitive dysfunction. It's important to rule out other causes of behavior changes in your senior cat. In older cats, any condition that causes pain may also cause these symptoms. Arthritis may make your pet less active. It can also cause 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. 

If your elderly 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. 

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How to Treat Cognitive Dysfunction

While no cure for FCD exists, you can take steps to ease the symptoms and help your cat feel better. Certain medications help with anxiety and depression. You can also make adjustments to your cat's environment so that the symptoms are easier to manage. Cats with FCD need a consistent daily routine with few changes.  

Here are some ways you can treat cognitive dysfunction in your cat: 

Mobility problems. Provide your cat with several litter boxes. Litter boxes should have low sides to make it easier for your cat to get in and out of them. Since your cat may have trouble getting around, make sure to 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 your cat. A heated bed may help. You might also try music, body wraps, and aromatherapy. 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 medication 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.

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Helping Your Senior Cat Stay Healthy

Several factors lead to cats living longer lives, including advances in veterinary medicine, better food options, and living indoors. While this is welcome news for cat lovers, older cats can have special needs. There are many steps you can take to make sure your senior cat stays 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 age. Here are some practical suggestions for ensuring your older cat's health and comfort: 

  • Take your cat to the vet twice a year to ensure their well-being or as often as needed to treat any underlying conditions. 
  • 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 proper diet.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Vanessa Farner, DVM on February 12, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Animal Humane Society: "Why does my cat meow so much?"

ASPCA: "Older Cats with Behavior Problems."

Cornell Feline Health Center: "Cognitive Dysfunction," "Hyperesthesia Syndrome," "Loving Care for Older Cats." 

DVM360: "Unpacking feline dementia: A veterinary guide."

International Cat Care: "Senility, dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome." 

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