The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Cat studies offer insights into progress of dementia

Research into key proteins linked to cognitive disease finds parallels between feline and human conditions.

New insights into how cats develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome – the feline equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease – highlights similarities in how dementia affects cats and people.

The findings aid understanding of key indicators of the disease, which could support speedy diagnosis and treatment.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the Dick Vet and the University of California examined the brains of cats for key biological molecules associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

They sought to understand how two key proteins, known as beta-amyloid and tau, develop in cats of various ages and how their presence relates to the development of CDS.

Elderly cats develop clinical signs similar to those of dementia.
Elderly cats develop clinical signs similar to those of dementia.

Protein accumulation

They found that beta-amyloid aggregates in cortical areas of the brain – close to the brain surface – in cats as young as four years, and mostly affects grey matter.

These signs correspond to the beginnings of dementia in humans – beta amyloid deposits form in the same regions in human brains in early adulthood, decades before people show any outward symptoms of dementia.

In cats, deposits of these proteins accumulate until the cat reaches a senior age – between seven and 10 years old – before the deposits progress to the hippocampus deeper within the brain, in a process similar to the development of Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

The cerebellum, which is part of the brain at the base of the skull, was least affected in cats. In adult humans, this part of the brain is affected only in the final stage of dementia.

Cognitive decline

Tau protein was found in brains of cats of all ages, which correlates with the presence of this protein in human brains. However, the amount and type of tau was found to be of significance.

Half of the cats with advanced deposits of tau in the study had been diagnosed with CDS, and these cats tended to have a higher number of such deposits. In humans, there is a strong association between deposits of this protein and cognitive impairment.

Findings from the study, published in Frontiers in Aging, build on outcomes from a previous review study published in Vet Record regarding signs of cognitive ageing in cats, and the benefits of speedy diagnosis.

The research, by the same team, outlines common behavioural changes and signs linked to CDS and underscores the need for prompt diagnosis and treatment.

The latest findings also reinforce the benefit of cat owners in recognising signs of disease, which are distinct from signs of ageing, in older cats. This was outlined in previous studies in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice and in Veterinary Sciences.

Collectively, our studies demonstrate the similarities of dementia in cats and humans, and the value of studying dementia in cats for the benefit of feline and human medicine. Our latest research points to the accumulation of tau proteins, and the region of the brain in which this happens, as key indicators of the progress of dementia in cats.

Professor Danielle Gunn-MooreProfessor of Feline Medicine

Related links

Scientific publication in Frontiers in Aging

Scientific publication in Vet Record

Scientific publication in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice

Scientific publication in Veterinary Sciences

About the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies 

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than eight hundred staff and almost fourteen hundred students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos. 

The School comprises: 

The Roslin Institute 

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security 

The Roslin Innovation Centre 

The Hospital for Small Animals 

Equine Veterinary Services 

Farm Animal Services 

Easter Bush Pathology 

The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education 

We represent the largest concentration of animal science-related expertise in Europe, impacting local, regional, national and international communities in terms of economic growth, the provision of clinical services and the advancement of scientific knowledge.