These problems may be strictly behavioral but it’s important to rule out physical causes. Older cats in particular may be at risk for thyroid tumors, liver failure, or a brain disorder.

  • The first consideration should be hyperthyroidism.
    • As many as 30 percent of older cats have benign tumors on one or both of their thyroid glands.
    • It’s actually a good disease because most respond well to early treatment. Methimazole tablets control thyroid hormone levels for most affected cats; radioactive iodine treatment cures many others.
    • Don’t procrastinate. If hyperthyroidism is not managed it causes severe heart disease and kidney failure. A simple blood test makes the diagnosis.
  • Other possibilities
    • A type of brain tumor, called meningioma, is fairly common in older cats and can be responsible for a wide variety of symptoms.
    • Inflammatory brain diseases can also be manifest as behavior changes.
    • Liver failure can indirectly affect the brain.
    • A thorough neurologic exam and medical workup are important.
  • Behavioral causes
    • Cognitive dysfunction, an aging brain disease of cats as well as dogs, can be responsible for licking and repetitive pacing. A medication called selegiline can help many of these older pets feel better.
    • Conflict behavior, stress, anxiety
    • Compulsive disorders require other medications plus tailored behavior modification.

This sounds bad but while these problems are serious they are far from hopeless. Many cats with these symptoms have a decent chance of improvement; even brain tumors in cats often carry a positive outlook.