As cats age, their bodies become less and less functional and precise, just like with most people. People, however, can (and do) talk about their ailments, changes in mood or memory, and inability to enjoy physical activities. Cats can't communicate their confusion in words, so they use other methods.
What is Normal? What is Strange?
Since normal is so subjective, it stands to reason that strange is also subjective. What may be completely normal and routine to one person could appear to another as strange behavior. Any action, activity or behavior that is different from the cat's normal behavior is strange. If a cat who has been a big fan of catnip her entire life suddenly turns up her nose at it, that would qualify as strange behavior. In cats who never liked catnip to begin with, it wouldn't be strange at all. So any changes in your cat's routine or behavior is strange behavior.
As your cat ages you may notice changes in the way she walks, sleeps, eats and moves around. She may have a slower gait due to arthritic changes. Osteoarthritis is more common in canine buddies than in feline friends, but it does occur in the later stages of a cat's life. This would present itself as stiffness when walking, avoiding jumping up on furniture, lameness upon awakening and inability to leap over obstacles. Your cat may play less often than before, either as a result of disinterest or the pain of arthritis. A cat's appetite may decline and she may seem irritable at times, like she wants to be left alone. Your cat may lose her litter box instinct as she becomes incontinent. Naturally, if you noticed any of these symptoms in your young cat, you would take her to a vet. But in cases of elderly cats, this is not necessarily strange behavior. It's simply the body's way of aging.
Mental and Emotional Behavior
As your cat ages, he may become a little disoriented and seem to be "in a fog" much of the time. Some cats avoid interactions with humans, other cats and dogs in the household. Your cat may also seem to sleep a lot more and have less interest in toys or little prey animals as he did before. Some cats, particularly Siamese cats, will howl at night for no apparent reason, causing a great deal of trouble in a household of sleeping family members. Although it's hard to watch your friend deteriorate in this way, it's a normal aging process. Cats are living much longer than they ever have before and because of this, veterinary science is learning more about why a cat's body reacts the way it does.
Causes, Treatments and Outcomes
Although veterinarians are not absolutely sure what causes degeneration in a cat's brain which in turn causes emotional and mental changes, they suspect it is the same mechanism that causes trouble in humans. Plaque forms around the arteries supplying blood to the brain, causing the brain to get less blood, and therefore less oxygen. There are some treatments being tested for feline senility, but for now, veterinarians simply treat the symptoms. A howling cat may, for example, be given diazepam to help calm her down; there are herbal remedies for this as well. Your vet can prescribe medications to help with joint degeneration, or you can use herbal remedies to support joints. Not all cats age the same. As with people, some age beautifully and with no issues at all, while others seem to go downhill very fast. Stress plays a part in accelerating the aging process, so see to it that your kitty stays calm and has all her needs met so she has no stress in her life. It's the least you can do after all those years of companionship, friendship and love.
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.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.