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Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome: What to look for, and how to handle it

Senior cats can suffer from something called feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. The biggest signs are changes in personality and behavior.
Senior cats can suffer from something called feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. The biggest signs are changes in personality and behavior.
Patrick Mitchell

If you have a senior cat, you're probably aware of some of the more common health problems he might experience. Those include arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, dental disease, and more. However, one of the things you might not be aware of is something called feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. It can affect your cat's behavior and personality in ways that are difficult to understand.

According to an article by Dr. Karen Becker of "Healthy Pets," about half of all cats over the age of 15 have feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. About a third of cats between 11 and 14 have it. The disorder isn't as recognized in cats as it is in dogs; however, veterinarians are beginning to understand the importance of watching for changes in your cat's behavior.

Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome isn't formally defined yet, but it does have standard symptoms. One way you can recognize whether your senior cat might have feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome is by the DISH method:

  • D – Disorientation
  • I – Interaction
  • S – Sleep
  • H – Housetraining

Does your cat seem to get stuck in corners, or wander aimlessly around when he used to move with purpose? He could be getting disoriented, even if you've lived in the same place with very few changes for years.

You might be used to him running into the kitchen and rubbing on your legs while you fix dinner, but now he doesn't. Maybe he doesn't spend the night with you, or curl up in your lap anymore. When the way your cat interacts with you changes drastically, it could be a sign of feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

If your cat used to sleep through the night, or slept all day, but now he prowls and cries, there's a definite problem. It's also a problem for you, since he's now keeping you up all night.

Finally, a cat with feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome might start peeing and pooping outside the litter box. While this particular problem is indicative of a whole slew of things, in a cat with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, he likely just forgot to use the litter box.

It's extremely important to talk to your vet as soon as possible if you notice any of these symptoms. It's also important to keep in mind that these may not be feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome; there are other things that can cause some of these symptoms as well.

There are things you can do to help keep your cat mentally sharp. One thing you can do is feed him a species-appropriate diet. These diets are better for his whole body, because they're tailored to your cat's actual needs. They also contain the amino acids and fatty acids he needs for good mental function.

Other things you can do include playing with him every day and finding ways to enrich his environment, make sure his teeth stay in good condition, and keeping him at a healthy weight.

If you have noticed a decline in his mental function, Dr. Becker says there are things you can give him that can help to slow down, or even stop, that decline. Coconut oil is a good source of medium-chain triglycerides, which improve his brain's metabolism and helps decrease the protein buildup that's causing his problems. Other supplements can help with the buildup, also. But avoid trying to give any of this to your cat until you've spoken to your vet. Your vet can give you advice on how much he needs, and how much is too much.

Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome is scary, and many pet owners likely think it's the beginning of the end for their cat. But know that there are ways you can help him, and help maintain his quality of life.

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