Intelligence is something some cats are born with, just as some people are more blessed. However, the trick is making the most of what kitty has early on and then to maintain it throughout a lifetime.
Some cats may seem brilliant because they’ve been trained to perform all sorts of “circus tricks,” like offering a high five or fetching. Of course, the more cats learn, the more they are able to learn. Still, arguably, other cats are even smarter, as they’ve trained their humans to feed them on command or get petted whenever they desire.
We know in humans that learning at a young age (excellent pre-schools and/or parenting that initiates learning at a very young age) primes the brain for best potential development. We know in humans and in dogs that continued enrichment and problem solving throughout life helps support brain health and might delay or prevent the onset of dementia. And indeed, geriatric cats can get dementia or an Alzheimer’s-like condition referred to as feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
Of course, learning in humans has been well-studied, and dogs are used as a model for brain aging in humans. Staying young hasn’t been studied nearly so much in cats. Maybe it’s because they’re supposed to have nine lives anyway. However, there are lots of assumptions that can be made based on results of studies in that species known as dogs, not to mention those few studies that actually have focused on cats.
Make life interesting
We know from various studies on domestic cats that brain stimulation and an enriched environment aren’t only important for mental well-being but also physical health. Cats who live in a dull environment actually are more likely to become anxious as a result and suffer from feline lower urinary tract disease or Pandora syndrome (which can impact gastrointestinal health, the bladder and more). We also know that increased activity means decreased odds of being overweight and/or obese. And obesity affects quality of life as well as life span.
Cats who live in a dull environment actually are more likely to become anxious as a result and suffer from feline lower urinary tract disease or Pandora syndrome.
Start them young
For people who happen to get their cats as kittens, classes for kittens (where they are offered) might be an ideal way to start. Kitty kindergarten teaches kittens to learn, and people are instructed about how to teach cats and to encourage further socialization. In cats, social interactions can be particularly stressful unless they are primed early in life. Kitten classes are often conducted at veterinary clinics, so going into a carrier, a car and to the vet clinic may actually be fun at this young age, from about 8 to 15 weeks. Arguably, indoor/outdoor cats require brain power to merely survive outdoors, such as understanding how to avoid cars and predators. However, social cats increasingly are taken places on a harness and leash, and cat parents are constructing safe catios. These sorts of outdoor experiences are likely equally as stimulating and clearly far safer compared to living life outdoors. Cats exposed at a young age are more likely to actually enjoy traveling in a cat stroller, investigating the neighborhood on a leash and harness or experiencing birds flying by from the vantage point of an outdoor catio.
Golden rules of vitality
We may not be able to offer our cats the fountain of youth — but here are seven ideas that promote and support cats remaining mentally vital into their golden years:
Change diet as needed:
As cats age, their dietary requirements change. Through the years, talk to your veterinarian (not Dr. Google) about the appropriate diet for your cat’s current age.
Give them some DHA and EPA:
Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits, from combating cancer to preventing inflammation and supporting brain health. However, not all products are the same; talk to your veterinarian first, so you don’t waste your money.
Keep the prey drive alive:
Cats are born predators, and giving cats a safe outlet to satisfy this need allows them to be cats. They may not be able to hunt mice inside your home, but food and/or treats can be hidden in places around the house for them to “hunt.” Also, consider food puzzles and food dispensing toys.
Ensure they exercise:
Exercise is a natural stress buster and calorie consumer. It’s very satisfying for cats to catch the feather at the other end of an interactive cat toy. Twice daily, exercise can do the trick, even if just for two or three minutes at a time. Cats don’t require marathon play sessions — but they do require their needs be met. Same as in people, exercise generates positive endorphins, which not only have a “feel-good” effect but also is beneficial to physical well-being, including brain health.
Stop the pain:
In humans, we know chronic pain affects quality of life, flexibility and may speed the aging process. Mostly, people are able to communicate that they are in pain. Cats, however, are masters at masking pain. This is one reason why twice annual veterinary visits are important. Osteoarthritis is vastly underdiagnosed in cats, and your vet can tell a lot in the course of a routine exam. Today there all sorts of ways to address pain, which ultimately may slow the aging process.
Keep ’em learning:
In assisted living centers people are taught to use computers or engage in crossword puzzles or Scrabble competitions. Senior cats don’t play Scrabble, but they can learn — just as old dogs can learn new tricks. Numerous studies confirm that lifelong learning in humans and dogs is beneficial, so why would it be any different for cats?
Keep it fun:
Sure, cats don’t play Scrabble, but they can play games like hide-and-seek or the very popular “find the treat inside the paper grocery sack.” Also enrich the environment. Indeed, while cats disdain change, a dull environment may be even more harmful. Some cat toys are incredibly sophisticated, or opt for old-school, like an empty box with catnip dropped inside.
Lifelong learning from kittenhood on, sprinkled with an enriched environment offering mental stimulation, physical exercise and appropriate nutrition, will help your cat continue to be smart enough to run your household the same at 20 years as at 20 months.