SYDNEY: Ageing cats can develop a feline form of Alzheimer’s disease, a new international study has revealed.
A key protein that can build up in the nerve cells of a cat’s brain and cause mental deterioration has been identified by scientists at universities in the U.S. and Britain.
“We’ve known for a long time that cats develop dementia, but this study tells us that the cat’s neural system is being compromised in a similar fashion to [what] we see in human Alzheimer’s sufferers,” said co-author Danielle Gunn-Moore, of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
In humans with Alzheimer’s disease, this protein creates ‘tangles’ inside nerve cells which inhibit messages being processed by the brain. The team, reporting in the Journal of Feline Medicine, says that the presence of this protein in cats is proof that they too can develop this type of disease.
Scientists already thought cats were susceptible to dementia because previous research had identified thick, gritty plaques on the outside of elderly cats’ brain cells which are similar to those found in humans.
Pinpointing the second key marker, though, was vital to making sure it was really Alzheimer’s at work. “The gritty plaques had only hinted that might be the case – now we know,” said Gunn-Moore.
“The shorter life-span of a cat, compared to humans, allows researchers to more rapidly assess the effects of diet, high blood pressure, and prescribed drugs on the course of the disease. However, we also need to understand more about our geriatric cats for their own benefit, so we can slow down the degeneration the disease brings and keep them as happy cats for as long as possible.”
“As with humans, the life expectancy of cats is increasing and with this longer life runs the greater chance of developing dementia. Recent studies suggest that 28 per cent of pet cats aged 11 to 14 years develop at least one old-age related behaviour problem and this increases to more than 50 per cent for cats over the age of 15.”
Experts suggest that good diet, mental stimulation and companionship can reduce the risk of dementia in both humans and cats. Gunn-Moore explained: “If humans and their cats live in a poor environment with little company and stimulation, they are both at higher risk of dementia. However, if the owner plays with the cat, it is good for both human and cat. A good diet enriched with antioxidants is also helpful in warding off dementia, so a cat owner sharing healthy meals like chicken and fish with their pet will benefit them both.”
The new findings may eventually help scientists come up with novel treatments for Alzheimer’s by examining cats who suffer from, or have succumbed to, the disease.