Behavior Changes in Geriatric Cats

Older cats are susceptible to a variety of diseases including chronic renal failure, diabetes mellitus, hypertension and hyperthyroidism.  Often the first sign of trouble is a change in the cat’s behavior.  Cats with arthritis may stop jumping or using their litter box.  As their hearing or vision diminish, some become fearful and avoid interaction.  Others become aggressive.  In cats with excessive thyroid production, their activity increases.  Owners report that the cat is running around again like it is a kitten.

Cats may also suffer from cognitive dysfunction.  I think of it as senility for felines.  Signs of cognitive dysfunction include:

1) Disorientation
2) Anxiety
3) Aggression
4) Change sleep cycles
5) Change in interactions with people and other pets
6) Failure to use the litter box for urine, feces or both
7) Cat withdraws to new, unusual resting places

LIke dogs, diagnosis of this condition is based on ruling out other disease processes.  I always recommend a full work-up including a complete blood count, blood chemistries, urinalysis, thyroid level, viral panel for FELV, FIV and FIP and x-rays.  In addition, I encourage owners to keep a diary of their pet’s life.  It is only through a comprehensive understanding and exploration of the animal’s health that the true cause of the patient’s abnormal behavior may be determined.  I would like to stress that many of these conditions are treatable.  It would be tragic to miss that for lack of having a complete work-up. 

Since there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction as of yet, the goal of treatment is to minimize the signs.  Here are some actions I recommend: 

1) Stimulate the cat with behavioral enrichment.  Schedule play times to get the cat going.  Rotate toys so the cat has new ones to play with.  Consider moving perches to new locations.
2) Establish a routine and stick to it.  If the cat knows what to expect it will decrease their anxiety.  Also, it will help them maintain normal sleep patterns.
3) Reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior.  For example, some older cats demand attention at night.  Shower the cat with attention and exercise before bed time.  Once you are in bed, ignore the behavior.  If you ignore for a few minutes and then give in and pet the cat, you are teaching the cat that persistence pays off!  You rewarded the bad behavior with attention.
4) Use Feliway in the cat’s rest areas. 
5) Supplement the cat’s diet with antioxidants.
6) Consider drug therapy in moderate to severe cases. 

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.