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Assessing brain aging in cats
Are we paying enough attention to cats—both young and old?


Pharmacologic options to help older cats

Several medications licensed for treating cognitive dysfunction, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome—a catch-all diagnosis for the behavioral manifestations of brain aging—in dogs are available. But none of these treatments has been licensed for use in cats. Controlled studies also are lacking.

The available medications focus on promoting more efficient neurochemical signaling (e.g., selegiline, an MAO-B inhibitor), improved blood flow (e.g., nicergoline and propentofylline) or some combination of these two modalities. Anecdotal extralabel use of selegiline, nicergoline and propentofylline has been recommended in cats, generally at reduced dosages from those recommended in dogs. Dosages (oral per day) in cats are as follows:

  • Selegiline: 0.25 to 1.0 mg/kg
  • Nicergoline: 0.25 to 0.5 mg/kg
  • Propentofylline: 12.5 mg/cat.

Once started, if a beneficial effect is noted, treatment is likely to be necessary for life.

For age-related anxiety and distress, treatment with commonly used behavioral medications (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants) may not only help but may be essential. When used correctly, these medications help maintain neuron integrity through second messenger stimulation of neurotrophic factors.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids may play a role in cats as they do in dogs, and there is slight but growing evidence that supplementation with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may prevent some damage by reactive oxygen species. Certainly, there is evidence that they help maintain neuron integrity across species. Phosphatidylserine has been shown to have some beneficial effect in aging dogs, but data are sparse and even sparser in cats. Phosphatidylserine is one of the components of a version of Aktivait (Vet Plus, United Kingdom; available only online in the United States) now being marketed for cats. A number of companies are currently developing foods that may enhance brain health in cats and dogs.

Environmental intervention

What we lack in products for aging cats can be redressed by creativity in behavioral and environmental intervention. To be maximally effective, we must retrain ourselves to stimulate cats at young ages and to keep them stimulated throughout their lives. Kittens don't actually age out of their charming, active and clownish selves. These behaviors become more complex and less obvious to us, so we cease to interact in the same way. We need to change this.

Cats, like all other aging mammals, have improved cognitive function if they are stimulated. Meal feeding for cats may be mandatory for those with certain health conditions, but if the animal is healthy, we should consider feeding them with puzzle balls or boards, mazes or anything that encourages cats to hunt, move around and use their brains. Remember the colony cat experiments from the 1980s: Older cats were happy to problem-solve, and, once rewarded, they learned how to do so every day for each test.

Conditioning for cats is important. Indeed, old cats that can walk planks and mazes have good muscle tone. Range-of-motion exercises, massage, aquatic treadmills (for cats that will tolerate them) and water beds (which can help with balance and epaxial muscle stimulation) are underexploited in feline stimulation.

Additionally, cats have an exquisite sense of smell. The health of olfactory neurons may be improved by encouraging cats to use their sense of smell. For example, routinely dragging a sardine on a string through the grass for the cat to track may help maintain neuron health and interest. There are creative adaptations of this paradigm for even the smallest apartment.

Cats that enjoy the outdoors as youngsters do not have to give that up as oldsters. Several buggies, carriages and bicycle accoutrements are available that allow people to transport pets. And even if older pets no longer can see the beach or hear the surf, they surely can feel and smell the air. The tactile and olfactory stimulation of other pets also likely plays an underestimated role for aging cats. Providing cats with soft surfaces to rub against and bedding of varying textures and temperatures (through judicious placement of warm gel inserts) can encourage cats to move and explore. If stimulation is important, we need to exploit all aspects of it, providing no distress is involved.

Final thoughts

If we want cats to age successfully, we must plan for it when they are kittens. All of the interventions that will render healthier cognitive abilities as a cat ages will, in turn, improve the animal's welfare and the quality of its intellectual life, regardless of age.

Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, has given hundreds of national and international presentations on behavioral medicine. She is diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is board certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.


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Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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