Studying Brain Ageing in Cats
We already know how similar canine cognitive dysfunction, akin to “doggy dementia.” is to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Dogs are so close to humans that researchers routinely study geriatric dogs to discern how cognitive decline in humans occurs and also may be treated or even prevented. Cats, until now, were never considered. However, cats can suffer from feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. And definitely, there’s been more of it as our cats are living longer than ever before.
The Morris Animal Foundation has awarded its second Mark L. Morris Jr. Investigator Award to Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Associate Professor of Clinical Behavior Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), for a groundbreaking study on how chronic inflammation affects senior cat cognition, behavior and the overall health. Dr. Siracusa, who is a veterinary behaviorist, is also a co-editor of Decoding Your Cat, authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. The book includes an entire chapter on how to identify and then support cats with feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome, called “Growing Old with Grace,” by Dr. Julia Albright and Dr. Margaret Gruen.
They explain that one way to screen or for cat parents to think about feline cognitive dysfunction is to identify at least one to two of the following going on with your cat:
- Interaction Changes
- Sleep-Wake Cycle Changes
- Activity Changes including anxiety
Dr. Siracusa’s work follows what is known about aging dogs and humans is nearly identical in cats, regarding chronic inflammation. This work likely means that cats like dogs may serve as a model for human brain aging. Also, Dr. Siracusa’s work will (hopefully) lead to further studies to better understand how to identify and treat feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
Here’s the Morris Animal Foundation press release:
Morris Animal Foundation has awarded its second Mark L. Morris Jr. Investigator Award to Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Associate Professor of Clinical Behavior Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), for a groundbreaking study on how chronic inflammation affects cognition, behavior and the overall health of senior cats.
“Ideally, this study could lead to development of innovative tools for early detection and monitoring of chronic inflammation that affects the long-term, well-being of feline patients,” said Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer. “What we learn may also help cat owners understand the relationships between physical and cognitive health so they can support maintaining quality of life for their pets as they move through different life stages.”
The award, which funds up to $200,000 annually for three years, is designed to support impactful companion animal research for which there is a pressing need, with the potential to make rapid, meaningful progress.
Recent surveys of cat owners indicate approximately 28% of cats aged 11 to 14 years old develop signs of behavioral issues and cognitive decline, with prevalence increasing to over 50% in cats aged 15 years or older. Some experts believe these figures underestimate the true number of cats suffering from significant mental decline.
“There is an increasing body of evidence that shows the immune system and inflammatory response have an influence on behavior, but we don’t yet have enough data on cats,” said Siracusa. “We want to investigate how physical health influences mental health and vice versa.”
Siracusa, along with his university colleagues and a team at Italy’s University of Milan, will study 100 client-owned cats age 7 years or older. Researchers first will perform a routine veterinary exam on each cat to look for signs of chronic inflammation, including specific blood markers and physical changes. Qualified veterinary behaviorists then will assess the cats’ behavior, their living environment and their cognitive abilities using validated questionnaires and behavioral tests.
Siracusa, Chief of the Animal Behavior Service and Primary Care Education Section at Penn Vet, is a leading voice in behavior medicine for companion animals. He earned his DVM from the University of Messina, Italy, and his PhD of Animal Medicine and Health from Spain’s Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He is a Diplomate of both the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and European College of Animal Welfare and Behavior Medicine.
First awarded in 2016, the Mark L. Morris Jr. Investigator Award was created to honor the legacy and vision of Dr. Mark Morris Jr., son of Dr. Mark Morris Sr., the Foundation’s founder. Mark Morris Jr. was renowned for his pioneering work in small and exotic animal nutrition, and his dedication to Morris Animal Foundation’s mission to advance animal health through excellent science.