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Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been…

Or, sadly, where have you gone. We are living with an elderly cat that appears to be in the early stages of dementia, or Feline Cognitive Dysfunction. My husband and I took Rocky in as a young cat of about 18 months or so. His original family split up, moved, and left Rocky to me—he was already a frequent visitor to our home in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was, and is, a cat that is happiest outside. We tried diligently to “reprogram” him and keep him keep him safely confined to our townhouse and walled patio, but it never worked. He could escape any barrier—locked doors, screened windows, fences—he is a dyed in the fluff outdoor/indoor cat (emphasis on the “outdoor”) and we have learned to live with it and the myriad worries and concerns that status entails. Neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, well fed, well groomed and well loved, he came and went with a jaunty insouciance that endeared him to everyone in the neighborhood while at the same time causing us sleepless nights and frequent trips to the vet to stitch up various cat fight wounds. I have never had a cat quite like him, and I have had many cats in my long and checkered cat loving life. When we relocated to our new home here in the Mitten, Rocky flew with us. He slept the whole flight while we made plans to never, ever, allow him to know that Michigan presented an outdoor playground unrivaled in his cattish imagination! That fantasy lasted about a week—one day he escaped through a window and disappeared. For several anxious hours we fretted and searched, sure he would be lost, eaten, drowned or carried off by the ever watchful coterie of resident owls. However, we certainly underestimated his wilderness skills—just as we had given up our search, up strolled Rocky and mewed loudly at our back door. As we scooped him up to search for bear bites, or owl claw marks, he gave us “the look” and went in search of his food. And so it remains—an uneasy compromise between cat and human…in at night is the only hard and fast rule. Living as we do with three other indoor only cats, it can be a challenge to keep them from following his lead (into the great amusement park that surrounds our home), but so far, so good. Until about three months ago when Rocky’s traditionally mercurial temperament began to deteriorate. His standoffishness became the norm rather than the odd moments of aloofly cranky behavior.

He took on a series off odd body movements—sleeping in the feral “meatloaf” position, madly tearing the nap of an old area rug, spending hours asleep on patio furniture only to be startled by a soft word or light touch, hissing and striking at my ankles when entering a room. In other words—a sea change in his response to us and to his world. Off we went to the vet. Blood tests revealed nothing amiss, but we remained concerned and so vet visits increased “just to make sure.” Finally one day, I heard the words “kitty dementia” for the first time. This phrase, used cautiously, was certainly not a diagnosis, rather, it was a hint that whatever was happening to Rocky was not physical in the typical sense, but psychological. After some discussion and a great deal of online reading, I am convinced that Rocky is, indeed, suffering from changes to his kitty brain. While he still enjoys the occasional petting session, a short flick or two with the brush or comb, and eating treats, we appear to be living with a different cat whose demeanor is increasingly befuddled and befuddling. We are struggling with the smaller issue of access to the garden, and the meta question of how best to make pleasurable the days or months left to him. It is a learning experience on several levels. There are several fine websites that go into great depth on the subject of feline cognitive dysfunction, generally posted by large veterinary schools. There are anecdotes and commentary by other cat lovers who are as confused as we were by the odd behavioral changes to their beloved companion. I have read and read and now, while knowing considerably more than I did at the start, I remain in a state of disquiet and sadness. I know that the disease is progressive--most studies comment that in an advanced state, cats “forget” to eat or (heartbreaking to imagine) how to eat.

Rocky currently prefers hand feeding—small chunks of canned seafood directly from the palm of my hand. He still loves his treats and would subsist on them entirely if allowed. As his antisocial behavior increases, we spend more time guarding our newest resident, 4 month old Harry (who my husband calls Poncho). Rocky’s weight is hovering around 10 ½ pounds, down considerably from his usual 12 or 13, but he throws a mean punch. Meanwhile we are saddened by his seemingly lonely lifestyle. His many hours spent quietly asleep on one of our outdoor porches rather than in his bedroom closet hideout leave us feeling guilty and sad. Most of his evenings are now spent uneasily pacing the bedroom or alone on our bed rather than cuddling in his corner of the couch. We know he wants to be outside, but we cannot chance leaving him to the dangers of the night. We watch and wait for some definitive sign. At the moment our goal is to make him comfortable if we can, keep him safe, and show him undiminished attention and affection. As I said, it’s a learning process and as with many lessons, the learning is hard. I’ll keep you posted. If any of this strikes a chord, please consult your vet. He or she can reassure you as to health issues and give comfort and council when needed. I am not sure if this issue affects dogs in the same way as cats, but you can be sure I will read and find out. Thanks for the shoulder, and see you at The Center.

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