Some years back, my friends and I rescued an old Maine Coon from a freezing barn in Iowa after a blizzard. We took him home, named him Grolsch (my friend was Dutch and liked beer, what could I say?), and he quickly adapted to indoor living. It was difficult to ascertain his age since years of barn-cat living took their toll on his teeth(which tends to be the best way to age a stray cat), but our best guess was around eight or nine.
About three years later, something strange began to happen: when the lights went off at night before bedtime, Grolsch would start bellowing like an injured seal… and we had no earthly idea why. After a little trial-and-error investigation, I deduced that it was the loss of light itself that was the issue; Grolsch had lost all sense of orientation in the dark, and this made him exceedingly anxious. He would calm considerably after following my voice to the bedroom, but between the moment of “lights out,” and finding my bed, he was… lost.
Way back then, we didn’t consider dementia (CDS: Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome) a viable diagnosis. Instead, it was suggested to me that Grolsch was losing vision. Sure, his visual acuity had declined through the years and his hearing wasn’t as sharp, but vet exams validated my suspicions about that theory. Besides, Grolsch lived in the same place with me for those years, and knew as well as I did where every stick of furniture was, how to get around them, and what the general layout of the house was. From my observation and just general emotional connection with him, I felt that his “seal bellow” was a reflection of primal fear bordering on mortification. It was his very connection with territory that was threatened. And that’s when I realized for sure it was more than just "loss of vision" going on. In any prey animal in general—and cats in particular—loss of that territorial mojo turns into panic in a heartbeat.
Today, age-related dementia in cats and dogs is a widely accepted reality. If you have suspicions about the state of your senior cat, there are things to be on the lookout for. Besides a general display of disorientation or anxiety, other symptoms of dementia may include:
If any of these symptoms sound like something your elderly cat might be experiencing, here is a plan of action:
1. Take Your Cat to the Vet: Your first order of business will be to rule out any other medical issues that may be contributing to these symptoms, and see if a CDS diagnosis is likely. If so, proceed with the following suggestions:
2. Light it Up: Run a string of LED lights along the baseboards of your home.(We used X-mas lights because, hey, why not make it festive?) This way, when the house lights go out, your cat still has enough secondary light to get around.(Strategically placed night-lights can offer a similar effect.)
3. Spread it Around: Add extra water sources, food bowls, and litter boxes to the home territory. You’ll want to make "the basics" more accessible than ever, and provide a series of territorial “signposts” to remind your cat of their home-ownership.
4. Optimize the Nutrition: Now is the time to switch to the highest quality cat food you can find. Look for a brand that has generous amounts of those nutrients known to support cognitive function, such as: antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and E, beta carotene, flavonoids, and selenium.
5. Stabilize their Scent Sources: Speaking of territorial signposts, “Scent soakers" like beds, scratchers, litter boxes, and soft fabric toys are an important part of a cat’s home terrain because they retain your cat's scent, and the more a place smells like them, the more stable and secure your cat will feel in their territory. This is a notion that will now be even more important, given the decline in their other senses like sight and hearing. So in addition to having plenty of scent soakers around, take care not to wash bedding too often or throw away old scratchers. The more the merrier for your cat’s ongoing mojo.
As always, this is a very basic overview of a sometimes very complicated issue. For more cat tips and advice, and insight into cat behavior—check out my latest book, Total Cat Mojo.
Hint: for more on related topics, see