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Cat Vomiting: 7 Causes and How to Help

Cat with open mouth about to vomit
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Overview

Severity: i Medium
Life stage: All
  • Cats may vomit occasionally from hairballs or mild stomach upset. This is usually benign.
  • However, in other instances, vomiting may signal a serious medical problem.
  • Cat vomiting may happen due to systemic illness, an obstruction, food allergies, parasites, and more.
  • Treatment for vomiting will depend on the cause.

Most cat owners are all too familiar with the characteristic hacking sound of cat vomiting. But just because we’ve all heard it, doesn’t mean it should be a regular occurrence. 

Vomiting in cats can often be an early sign of illness. Be careful not to overlook this important change in your cat’s health.

Here is everything you need to know if you notice your cat vomiting.

Why Do Cats Vomit? 7 Causes of Cat Vomiting

Just like humans, cats can vomit for many different reasons. Some causes of cat vomiting are relatively benign and may even resolve on their own. Others can be much more serious. 

Here are a few of the most common reasons why cats vomit.

Hairballs

As cats lick themselves, their rough tongues pull loose fur out of their coats which is then swallowed. Large volumes of hair can accumulate in the stomach and are not easily digested, leading the cat to vomit a hairball. This cause of vomiting is usually nothing to worry about. But, if your cat has hairballs frequently, you may want to address this with your veterinarian. In some cases, hairballs can be an early sign of a gastrointestinal problem.

Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is essentially a fancy term for an upset stomach, which can occur because of dietary indiscretion, toxins, or medication side effects, among other things. Some causes of gastroenteritis are mild and will resolve on their own. Others can be more serious and will need a vet’s attention.

Foreign Bodies or Obstructions

If your cat eats foreign material—such as a toy, pieces of string, a hair tie, or another object—this may cause blockage and damage to the GI tract that can lead to vomiting. This cause of vomiting is serious and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Food Allergies and Inflammatory Bowel Disease

While allergies are fairly uncommon in cats, they can cause vomiting. When cats eat a trigger food, the inflammation in their digestive tract may lead to regurgitation. Some cats may also experience chronic diarrhea as a result of these conditions.

Systemic Illnesses

Chronic illnesses such as kidney disease, pancreatitis, and hyperthyroidism can all cause nausea and chronic vomiting due to various mechanisms. Addressing these causes of vomiting requires identifying the underlying condition, and many of these conditions require lifelong management.

Parasites 

This cause of vomiting is more common in kittens, but can occur in animals of any age. Occasionally, pet owners will even see live worms in the vomit. The good news is that treating the parasites often resolves the vomiting.

Cancer

Cancers of the digestive tract are fairly common in cats and can cause vomiting by interfering with normal digestion. Cancers in other areas of the body can also cause feelings of nausea, discomfort, and malaise, which can also lead to vomiting. 

Types of Cat Vomit

Cats can vomit due to several causes, and its appearance may provide clues to what caused it in the first place. 

Most cat owners are familiar with hairballs, which occur when the cat ingests large quantities of hair during normal grooming. This hair cannot be digested and may be vomited back out of the digestive tract. 

Vomit from other, more serious causes may include blood, bile, mucus, or partially digested food. The frequency, timing, and appearance of the vomit are all important factors to discuss with your veterinarian.

It can also be helpful for pet parents to be aware of the differences between vomiting and regurgitation. 

Vomiting is the forceful expulsion of stomach and upper intestinal contents, while regurgitation is the expulsion of the contents from the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Vomiting is an active process, often lasting several minutes, during which the cat may look unwell, drool, retch, display abdominal heaving, and finally vomit. 

Regurgitation, on the other hand, happens quickly and often without warning. The cat is typically fine one minute, then suddenly “spits up” without retching or heaving. Identifying which of these two processes your cat is experiencing can help you and your veterinarian narrow down the possible causes of the problem.

Cat Vomit Color Chart

Pet parents often want to try to diagnose the cause of their cat’s vomiting based on the color or consistency of the vomit. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is not that simple. The color of a cat’s vomit can vary depending on what the cat has eaten (including any non-food items!), any dyes used in the food or treats the cat eats, and a number of other factors. 

Because of this, color is not a reliable way to diagnose the cause of your cat’s vomiting. While the following chart may be helpful, you should talk to your veterinarian.

chart

Cat Vomit ColorPossible Meaning
Yellow, orange, or brownMay occur due to the presence of partially digested food and bile in the stomach.
Red or pinkMay indicate the presence of blood. Or may be due to ingested foreign material or dyes used in the cat’s food and treats.
Clear or whiteMay occur due to the regurgitation of saliva from the esophagus or when the cat vomits with an empty stomach.
GreenCan sometimes occur due to the presence of bile or because the cat has ingested green foreign material or foods using green dyes.
Black or brownBlack or brown cat vomit that looks like coffee grounds can be a sign of bleeding in the digestive tract and should be addressed by your veterinarian immediately.

Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Always take your cat to see a veterinarian in order to accurately diagnose the problem.

Cat Vomiting: When to Worry

We used to think that some cats were just “pukers.” However, we now know that chronic vomiting is a sign of an underlying problem.

It’s normal for cats to have the occasional hairball due to their fastidious grooming behaviors, but vomiting that’s not related to hairballs is a sign of a medical issue. 

If your cat vomits multiple times in a day, you notice an increase in the frequency of vomiting, or if your cat is vomiting blood, it’s best to discuss the problem with your veterinarian.

Vomiting in cats is especially concerning if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as:

If you notice these symptoms in your pet, contact your veterinarian for further guidance.

Cat Vomiting Treatment

Many cat owners wonder what to give a cat for vomiting. But because vomiting can be caused by so many different conditions, there are also many different treatments. 

If your cat’s vomiting is due to cancer or a systemic illness such as chronic kidney disease, diagnosing and treating the underlying condition will be the primary goal. 

For mild cases of vomiting due to hairballs or gastroenteritis, your veterinarian may prescribe supportive care such as antiemetic medications like Cerenia (frequently used “off label” for cats) or an antacid, like Famotidine.  

Occasionally, your cat may need to switch to a diet formulated to support gastrointestinal health, such as Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Fiber Response cat food, or even a prescription diet, such as Hill’s Prescription Diet z/d Low Allergen cat food, particularly if the vomiting is due to an underlying food allergy or inflammatory bowel disease.

Vomiting due to a foreign body or obstruction of the GI tract is particularly serious. In many cases, the foreign material will not pass through the GI tract on its own and may cause serious damage if it is not removed immediately. To treat this type of vomiting, your veterinarian may recommend emergency surgery to remove the foreign material and any damaged sections of intestine. 

Home Remedies to Stop a Cat Vomiting

It’s best not to try to treat your cat’s vomiting at home without consulting your veterinarian first. Many causes of cat vomiting, such as a foreign body or obstruction, can cause severe damage or even death if not appropriately treated right away. 

If your cat’s vomiting is simply due to hairballs, your veterinarian may recommend giving an over-the-counter hairball treatment daily to help the hair pass through your cat’s digestive tract, such as Hairball Soft Chews for Cats from VetriScience. You can also ask about diets specifically formulated to reduce hairballs, such as Royal Canin Hairball Care cat food. 

Never give your cat any medications—either prescription or over-the-counter products—unless directed to do so by your veterinarian. 

General Cost to Treat Cat Vomiting

The reasons a cat vomit are varied, so the cost depends on the severity of the cause. If your cat requires emergency care for vomiting, the costs are likely to be higher than a regular veterinary visit. After-hours and emergency services tend to have higher rates due to their availability and breadth of services. 

If your cat is treated for gastroenteritis, this usually means rehydration with intravenous fluids, blood panels, possible X-rays, or an abdominal ultrasound. Medications such as antiemetics (to stop vomiting), probiotics (to build gut flora), and antidiarrheals may be administered. Medication costs range from $10 to $100, with blood panels costing between $100 and $250. The more blood tests performed, the higher the costs. 

Feline abdominal X-rays hover between $200 and $500, while an abdominal ultrasound costs range between $300 and $600. Should your cat require overnight care and fluid hydration, this could be an additional $200 to $500. 

If your cat has a foreign body lodged in their esophagus or gut, endoscopy or surgery may be required. A typical endoscopy costs between $800 and $2,000, while surgery tends to be $1,000 or more. 

Chronic illnesses such as pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism have ongoing costs. For example, an acute episode of pancreatitis costs between $400 and $1,500. Ongoing testing, exams, and medication for feline thyroid issues range between $600 and $900 per year. 

Costs can quickly add up. Having a pet health insurance policy from a company such as Lemonade can come in handy. When your cat is vomiting, it’s always best to talk to your veterinarian and have peace of mind. 

A basic policy covers medical care and treatment for things like vomiting, diarrhea, and feline injuries. This may be covered under their basic plan if any procedures or diagnostic testing are required.

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    How to Prevent Cat Vomiting

    Many causes of cat vomiting can be prevented. Try these measures to keep your cat’s digestive system healthy:

    Consider your cat’s diet. Make sure your cat is eating a high-quality and balanced diet. That also applies to feeding too many treats or table scraps. 

    Watch for non-food items. Do not allow your cat to ingest any non-food items such as pieces of toys, string, or house plants. 

    Ask your vet about special diets. If your cat has been diagnosed with a condition such as food allergies or inflammatory bowel disease, feeding a special diet as prescribed by your veterinarian may prevent vomiting. 

    Consider an OTC hairball remedy. Finally, for long-haired cats or those that have frequent hairballs, ask your veterinarian about over-the-counter products to help prevent vomiting due to hairballs.