Many disorders—some sudden, some progressive—can cause behavior that appears to be mental confusion. However, in the case of an affected cat, it can be tough to sort out actual mental issues from physical symptoms that look—to human eyes—like confusion or dementia.
Low Blood Sugar
Diabetes is, sadly, very common among our feline friends. Diabetic kitties are prone to hypoglycemia—episodes of low blood sugar. In fact, these may be the first noticeable sign that your furry friend is suffering from the disease. Unfortunately, these attacks can be fatal. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include disorientation, weakness, circling, apparent confusion, head tilting and seizures. Hypoglycemic cats must receive immediate first aid (usually a dosage of honey or sugary syrup) and veterinary attention. If your kitty has diabetes, she'll be prescribed a special diet and your vet will teach you how to give her insulin shots.
We usually associate the word "seizure" with very a dramatic total loss of body control, but they can be much more subtle, especially when someone first begins having them. Kitty seizures can include head tilting, jerky movements, walking in circles and repeated yowling. If your friend is having seizures, you'll want to consult your vet to determine the cause—it could be diabetes, a hormone disorder like hypothyroidism, an infection, poisoning, or a tumor. If your kitty has none of these problems, but continues to have periodic seizures, she'll receive a diagnosis of epilepsy and may or may not be prescribed medication to control it.
We tend to write off mental problems in our aging pets (and people too, for that matter) as senility when a better answer isn't immediately obvious. This can be a mistake. On one hand, cats sometimes do have age-related degenerative brain conditions that cause confusion, disorientation and just downright bizarre behavior. On the other, your feline pal's "senile dementia" can actually be a symptom of other age-related diseases and disorders, like diabetes, tumors and thyroid disease. If your kitty's mental state appears to be deteriorating, have your vet check for physical disorders so you can treat them before chalking it up to "just old age."
Ear infections are possibly the most common physical ailment mistaken for a mental one (often misdiagnosed as a stroke) in pets. Infections of the middle or inner ear, also called vestibular disease, can make your cat lose her balance and engage in confused-looking behavior, like head tilting, circling, repetitive motion and mewing or yowling. On top of this, these infections can move into the brain, causing additional neurological symptoms. Ear and even brain infections are almost always treatable with antibiotics.
Deafness can also cause your kitty to display apparent mental confusion. A cat can completely lose her hearing before she shows any sign of having an issue, but these signs may include a confused-looking, disoriented, loudly and repetitively yowling, easy-to-startle cat. Deafness isn't dangerous in itself, but your special-needs kitty will need her environment altered to keep her safe.
Some super-scary diseases can cause mental confusion symptoms in cats. These diseases are prevented by vaccination, and a good thing, too, since they're usually fatal and the scariest one—rabies—can spread to human beings and almost all other mammals.
Rabies is transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. Bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes are considered rabies vector species. Translation: worry a lot and go straight to the vet if your pet's been injured by one. By the time symptoms show up, it's too late to help your kitty and you'll have been exposed too. Most importantly, have your cat vaccinated—even your "indoor cat," because accidents can always happen (and some states require feline rabies vaccination by law).
Feline distemper (or panleukopenia) can also cause unfortunate infected kitties to show signs that look like mental confusion. It usually progresses very quickly from a sick-looking kitty to a deceased pet. This scary, infectious disease can sometimes be treated, but it's a much safer bet to prevent it with vaccination. You and other non-cats cannot catch distemper.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.