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Mind and Body: What’s Going on in Your Cat’s Brain?

Here are facts about the feline brain and tips on what to expect in each phase of your cat's life.

Stacy Hackett  |  Nov 17th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our September/October 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

When I put away groceries, my cat, Phillip, studies my activities carefully, following me from the pantry to the refrigerator and back again. Sometimes I wonder if he’s memorizing the location of all his favorite people foods (that he isn’t allowed to eat) or devising a plan to open the cabinet doors to get to the cat treats the next time I leave the house. What’s going on in his brain, anyway?

Physically, Phillip’s brain is not that much different than mine. In fact, though a cat’s brain is comparatively smaller than that of other mammals, the structure is quite similar to that of a human’s in that we both have cerebral cortices and lobes. Just as in humans, a cat’s cerebral cortex is responsible for decision-making, learning, and short- as well as long-term memories. So maybe Phillip really is memorizing where I keep those foods I won’t let him eat.

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Photo by Gina Cioli / Lumina Media

Kitten

The cerebral cortex plays a critical part in a kitten’s development in that memory shapes so much of his ability to learn. A kitten takes note of what other cats, other pets, and even humans do through interacting with them, and this helps the other parts of his brain develop properly. When we first brought Phillip home at about 12 weeks old, he followed my older cat, Jack, around the house constantly and imitated many of Jack’s behaviors.

“Kittens in the early months need interaction with their own and other species to develop social skills (cerebral) and physical coordination (cerebellum) through play, exploration, and mock hunting,” said Heidi Pavia-Watkins, d.V.M., of the Airport Irvine Animal Hospital in Costa Mesa, California.

Don’t worry: If your kitten seems a bit shy and isn’t jumping feet first into the fray of the household, he probably still observes everything around him and learns from all of the various activities. you can gently coax him to play with interactive toys.

Be concerned: A kitten who struggles at mealtime or can’t seem to grasp the concept of the litter box may be dealing with an injury or illness. Take her to the vet as soon as you can.

Adult

As your cat moves out of kittenhood and into adulthood, he continues to learn through repetition and observation. This is why Phillip knows exactly where I keep his cat food, and why he waits under that cabinet every morning until I feed him. The different areas of a cat’s brain each perform specialized tasks; interconnections among these areas pass information back and forth rapidly, giving your cat the ability to react quickly to his environment.

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Photo by Shutterstock

Don’t worry: New situations or changes in your adult cat’s environment can throw her off a bit, and she may miss a jump onto a new couch or become confused if she can’t find something. Give her a little time to get used to the changes.

Be concerned: If your adult cat consistently seems unable to anticipate and remember the normal activities in your house or the layout of your furniture — or if he has a sudden change in his personality — he may need to be examined by a vet. “Adult cats with brain injury or disease will often have a change in behavior (aggression or stupor) or changes in coordination, routine, or appetite,” Dr. Pavia-Watkins said.

Senior

The brain of a senior cat can show signs of aging the same way as a human’s. In fact, the American Association of Feline Practitioners estimates that 50 percent of cats 15 years old and older exhibit some of these symptoms of cognitive brain disorders:

  • Decreased interaction with humans and other pets
  • Less desire to eat
  • Urination or defecation outside the litter box
  • Decreased problem-solving skills
  • Less awareness of their surroundings
  • Inconsistent sleep-wake cycles
  • Loud crying, especially during nighttime hours
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Photo by Shutterstock

Before diagnosing your cat yourself, however, make sure he receives a thorough veterinary examination. “A veterinarian should assess the cat to rule out specific organ or disease processes such as hypertension, hyperthyroid, gastrointestinal, or urinary tract disease,” said Dr. Pavia-Watkins.

Don’t worry: Proper nutrition, regular mental stimulation, and a few safety precautions can help your senior cat fight the signs of brain aging. Spend a little extra time with your senior to help her stay “mentally fit.”

Be concerned: A senior cat with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome needs help from her owner to ensure she has the best possible quality of life, explained Dr. Pavia-Watkins. Make sure she has ready access to fresh water and food, appropriate shelter and a comfortable resting area, treatment for any pain or discomfort, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear or distress.

About the author: A lifelong cat owner, Stacy N. Hackett writes about cats, cat breeds, and pet-related topics. A big source of inspiration comes from her two adopted cats: Jack, a 6-year-old red tabby domestic shorthair, and Phillip, a 2-year-old gray-and-white domestic shorthair. Stacy also is “stepmom” to a Cocker Spaniel/Labrador Retriever mix named Maggie as well as two brown tabbies named Katie and Leroy.