Cats are the most delightful and surprising creatures. They can be exasperating and captivating, all within minutes. I have lived with cats almost all my life. When I have had cats, I have wished that I didn’t and when I was without a cat, I could hardly wait until I adopted another one.
I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about cats, their peculiarities and their antics, but one thing I was not prepared for was the diagnosis of my cat’s problem by the vet. She had already been diagnosed with early stage kidney disease, but I had expected that, since she was somewhere between 12 and 16 years old. The diagnosis for her crazy behavior was -what? Senility.
That was a surprise to me. I had never considered that cats, and dogs too, could live long enough to become senile. It seems that our pets are susceptible to the same diseases and conditions as we are.
Better food, living conditions and treatments for diseases have allowed our pets to live longer and healthier lives. As they grow older, their brainpower can slip.
Signs of senility in Cats
Does your cat have senile dementia? Here are some symptoms to look for: loud vocalizing, not using her litter box, not grooming herself, acting disoriented, staring at nothing, sleeping more and more, does not want to be petted or picked up, not eating food, but eating non-food such as: litter, paper, plastic, sand. (eating non-food is a condition known as pica).
Some of these symptoms also indicate arthritis or kidney disease and deafness or blindness. Cats may suddenly refuse food they have always eaten before. Cats depend upon smell to find their food, and if they have lost a sense of smell, it may be difficult to persuade them to eat what you have put down.
With kidney disease, cats will sometimes suffer from nausea, which drives them to eat non-foods, which, in turn causes them to vomit. After these episodes, they are frantic for food and you are right back to where you were again. By the way, if she has emptied her stomach and is through heaving up, she will beg for food. Go ahead and feed her.
All of these activities will leave your cat full of anxiety.
A Tale of Two Cats: How We Arrived at Feline Dementia
I adopted two female cats through Pet Smart’s adoption program in the fall of 2007. They were litter mates and had been together since birth. One was a tortoise shell and the other was a tuxedo cat. Janie was a cat of all colors, and her sister, Julie, was black with white markings. The story was that they were about two years old and their elderly owner could no longer care for them. Julie, the black and white one, jumped all over the cage and ran her feet up and down the glass to get my attention.
She was successful. I took them home. I soon found out that Janie had stomach problems. There were days when she could not eat at all. The vet was puzzled, and so was I. I finally allowed the pet hospital to do an endoscopy. The only thing we could find after the procedure was that she had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
I should mention something about the girl’s sizes. Julie, the black one was a small boned cat with a normal weight of about 6 to 7 pounds. Janie was a larger boned cat with a normal weight of 8 to 10 pounds. The Veterinary Hospital I was using didn’t have much to offer on how to treat Janie.
I found a Veterinarian who practiced a blend of holistic and modern medicine. We found that Janie was allergic to almost every kind of food normal cats will eat. We put her on a diet of the foods she wasn’t allergic to and The vet also put her on a low dosage of prednisone. I soon had a brand new happy cat. She gained weight and no more constant vomiting.
I also noticed Julie’s attitude toward Janie. It was one of custodial care. Julie groomed Janie every day from head to toe. She also left some food in her dish, which Janie obligingly ate. Julie slept almost on Janie every day and night as if she was keeping Janie warm and safe.
I started calling Julie, “nurse Julie.” So it continued through the years until finally, last year Janie lost her eyesight and was no longer able to get around the house. She was completely lost. I had no choice but to put her to rest.
I’m not sure what was going through Julie’s mind. We were in the middle of covid and it was difficult getting to the vet’s office. She had a brief bout with a urinary tract infection. She has gained weight, since she isn’t saving food for Janie.
However, she is exhibiting almost all the signs of feline senile dementia, pica included.
Ways to Treat Feline Senile Dementia
There is no one way to treat senility in your cat. It is all trial and error. The first thing I had to do was stop Julie from eating litter. I think she was just licking the litter, but if she got some in her mouth, she swallowed it. She immediately vomited it up, along with anything else in her stomach.
My fear was that with clumping litter she could develop a mass in her stomach that she couldn’t pass. A blockage is serious stuff. I tried shredding newspaper for her box. She would not use it. I tried just plain paper to line her box. No way would she use it. So I lined her box with newspaper and put just a light covering of litter over the paper. She will use that.
The newspaper lining seems to be discouraging her from trying to lick the litter. Clean up? not too difficult, Lay one complete sheet of paper as your top sheet, then put a light topping of litter over it. After she uses it, I can carefully scoop two or three times before pulling out the soiled paper.
Maintenance is not a big problem. Carefully slide out the soiled paper from the litter. It will sift onto the next layer of paper in the box. When I’m down to the last layer of paper, I clean everything up and re-line the box.
For Julie the trick is to always have food down for her. She is a grazer by nature. That is, she will eat a few bites and leave. Later, she comes and eats a few bites more. I have dry food down all the time, and she will eat it, but that is not her favorite fare. She likes the canned food and the stuff with the gravy on it.
Foods high in antioxidants, vitamin E, Beta Carotene, and fatty acids are recommended for these cats. However, some cats will not eat what you want them to eat.
Whatever your cat’s preference is for food, keep it the same. If she gets picky about the food, just try different things until she settles on a favorite.
Julie has three places to sleep in the apartment and I always look for her in those three places. You will spend quite a bit of time going through the house making sure your cat is not into something that will harm her.
Right now Julie is on Gabapentin twice a day to help with her arthritis pain. She sleeps a lot during the day, but will be up and about in the evening. If your senile cat suffers from Arthritis, your vet can prescribe something to lessen the pain.
I also have bought a diffuser with an essential pet remedy oil that seems to calm her. In addition, I have a rescue remedy that can be sprayed into the air, or rubbed directly on the cat’s head (just a drop or two), or put into her water bowl (just 3 or 4 drops).These are available through your vet, or at any pet store, or online.
If your cat is 14 or older and is exhibiting strange behavior-yowling, missing the box, eating non-food items, not grooming– she may be exhibiting the beginnings of senility. Check with your vet to make sure there is nothing physically wrong, before you decide she is just getting old.
Remember, along with old age, cats will have arthritis and possibly kidney disease. The vet can treat other physical causes in older cats as well.
These things you can do to help your cat cope with old age: Feed them their favorite foods, keep litter boxes clean, use a diffuser with essential oils to calm your cat, or a topical rescue remedy. Don’t change the furniture around. Leave everything in exactly the same place. Your cat may be losing her sight, but if everything is in the same place, she should be able to maneuver around.
She may not be able to jump up to her favorite spots because of arthritis, –your bed, or the couch, or in the window. In that case, set out a stool or steps, so she can climb up to her favorite place. Pet her and hold her, if she wants and lightly groom her if she likes it. Above all, be patient. If you have had a good relationship with your cat, she will come to you, when things are not going well for her.
Pictures are old. They were taken when the cats were young.
I’m Barbara Nelson, and I hope you enjoyed this story of my two cats. Feline Senility was new to me and I wanted to let cat lovers know that it may happen to your older fur babies.
My thanks to Trupanion.com, CatVills.com, and Animal Health and Healing in St. Louis for information for this post.