Is your cat a “happy vomiter,” or is it something more serious?
As a veterinarian with cats of my own over the years, I’m well acquainted with cats yakking. There’s the time Skate vomited in the hearth, the retching echoing up the chimney as if the house were possessed. Then there’s Noni, who threw up in my son’s bedroom…so he made a sign with a big arrow, just in case I missed where to clean.
My cats are “happy vomiters,” meaning they’re just doing what cats do and there’s nothing pathological about it. But vomiting can be a sign of significant illness, so how do you recognize when a problem is minor or quite major?
Is My Cat Vomiting?
It can be tricky to spot the difference between vomiting, retching and regurgitation. But knowing the difference helps your vet target the most appropriate tests.
Vomiting is when partially digested food is ejected from the stomach. Signs include:
- Salivation and drooling
- Lip licking
- Abdominal heaving
- Vomited bile or a large volume of partially digested food
This is food that doesn’t get as far as the stomach and sits for a while in the gullet. Signs include:
- Little effort is involved — sometimes the cat just lowers his head
- A sausage-shaped offering
- No signs such as restlessness, lip licking or drooling
Also known as “dry heaving,” this involves reverse stomach contractions. Signs include:
- Little abdominal effort
- No excess salivation
- Only a small volume of vomit is produced
What Causes Vomiting?
There are many reasons cats vomit, but for starters, it’s helpful to know if the problem is “primary” (directly related to the gut) or “secondary” (vomiting is a symptom of a problem elsewhere in the body).
Examples of primary vomiting include:
- Infection: This could be due to causes like feline distemper or campylobacter.
- Toxins: That “bad” mouse or toxins in spoiled food could be the culprit.
- Inflammation: A common cause is hair rubbing around inside the stomach.
- Ulcers: Perhaps a medicine damaged the cat’s stomach lining.
- Cancer: Though uncommon, gut cancers can cause sickness.
Secondary vomiting can be caused by:
- Liver diseases, such as cholangiohepatitis
- Kidney failure
- Overactive thyroid glands
- Urinary blockage
The more signs you pick up on, such as excessive thirst, weight loss and poor appetite, the more likely it is the cat has an underlying problem that needs treatment.
Take my cats Skate and Noni. They throw up but are otherwise the picture of health. In their case, their sickness is down to the irritation of fur in the stomach (hairballs), and they need no intervention other than me brushing them more regularly.
However, a cat with a recent history of taking arthritis medication or losing weight needs to be taken more seriously.
What Should You Do?
First, be aware that this information is for guidance only. If you are worried, contact the vet.
If your cat seems otherwise well and has thrown up, take the cat’s food away for 24 hours but leave fresh water. The first meal you offer should be bland, such as a white meat (chicken, turkey, cod, rabbit) with a small amount of boiled rice. Give a small portion. If your cat doesn’t vomit, give food little and often over the next day or so before taking 2–3 days to transition back to normal food.
If your cat vomits repeatedly, brings food back or takes a turn for the worse, contact the vet.
Likewise, the cat who shows other signs of illness, such as those listed below, likely has an underlying problem of which the vomiting is a sign of ill health:
- Drinking a lot
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Struggling to pass urine
- Change in behavior, such as unusual grumpiness
- Dull coat
- Offensive breath
- A swollen belly
Even if the cat isn’t in danger of becoming dehydrated through vomiting, the underlying issue needs to be sorted by the vet.
When Is a Vet Trip Essential?
If you’re unsure what to do, take a look at this list. If you recognize any of these signs in your cat, see the vet:
- Repeated vomiting: If this goes on for more than 4 hours, contact the vet.
- Dehydration: If the cat can’t hold down water, there’s a risk of dehydration.
- Losing fluid in diarrhea: Sickness and diarrhea makes dehydration more likely.
- Blood in the vomit: This is a sign of internal bleeding and should not be ignored.
- Dullness or lethargy: A cat who seems unwell or withdrawn could have gut pain.
Good luck, and here’s to “happy vomiters.”
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 2, 2016.