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If you have cats, you’ve likely seen them vomit at some point in their life. Some cats vomit so often that their people think of it as “normal,” however that is far from the truth. While not every act of vomiting is an occasion for an emergency trip to the veterinarian, vomiting in cats is never normal.

In this article, you’ll learn what causes cats to throw up food, the difference between throwing up and regurgitation, how to interpret vomit and most importantly how to recognize when vomiting food is a sign of a serious medical issue.

Why Do Cats Throw Up Food?

Cat laying in front of food looking a little sick

Vomiting isn’t a specific disease or diagnosis, it is a non-specific symptom caused by many things and may be a common occurrence in feline-friendly households. Occasional vomiting (once a month or less) is usually not a sign of concern, especially if the material brought up includes hair. However vomiting more often indicates something is awry, and some sort of investigation and intervention is warranted. 

Cat Vomiting vs. Regurgitation

Cat laying down and mouth open

If your cat is bringing up food, it may not be vomiting, which is why it is important to know the difference between vomiting and regurgitation. 

Vomiting can happen at any time and is an active, strenuous activity often preceded by retching. Cats feel nauseous, may drool or vocalize and often won’t want to eat. 

Regurgitation is due to problems with the esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Regurgitation is a passive process, the cat burps and undigested food comes out. Regurgitation usually happens soon after eating, and the cat may regurgitate and then try to eat again. There is no nausea.

Why Do Cats Throw Up Undigested Food? 

Cat eating from bowl very quickly

Is your cat throwing up food but acting normal? The most common cause for cats to regularly vomit undigested food is gorging. When cats gorge, they overextend their stomach, which triggers the cat to vomit. 

Eating grass can also cause vomiting. While we don’t know exactly why cats eat grass, we do know that the shape and texture of grass may irritate their gag reflex and cause vomiting.

If your cat is vomiting due to gorging or eating grass, it is not a medical emergency. However, there are other reasons why a cat keeps throwing up after eating that do require veterinary attention, which can include:

Intestinal obstruction: things that can get stuck or lacerate the gut, including small toys, bones, large hairballs, hair ties, ribbon or tinsel, can all cause vomiting. 

Allergies or adverse food reactions: cats can have allergies to ingredients in their food that can cause chronic vomiting. The most common allergens are poultry, beef, pork, eggs, soy, turkey and lamb. Cats with food allergies usually have diarrhea and itchy skin as well. Adverse food reactions are a problem with the food, such as food poisoning, reactions to food additives, lactose intolerance (adult cats can’t digest milk), or eating people food that doesn’t agree with the cat.

Gut inflammation: cats can vomit and have diarrhea due to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Chronic untreated IBD has been associated with a specific intestinal cancer called lymphosarcoma. Bacterial overgrowth in the gut can also cause vomiting and diarrhea. 

Cat laying on bed feeling sick

Intestinal parasites or viruses: parasites, such as hookworms and roundworms, are a common cause of vomiting and diarrhea in cats. Cats with worms can also have a potbellied appearance. Cats with panleukopenia, feline leukemia or other viruses can also vomit. 

Problems elsewhere: Diseases that cause nausea, such as chronic kidney disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, neurological disease, hyperthyroidism, inner ear problems, and diabetes can all cause vomiting. 

Poisoning: chewing on lilies or other toxic house or yard plants or accidental ingestion of antifreeze, pesticides, herbicides, or human prescription drugs can all cause vomiting. Some cats can also vomit in response to medications prescribed to them.

Stress: moving, visitors, changes in routine and adding new pets to the household can all cause stress in cats, which can cause vomiting. 

Cat Vomiting Food: When to Worry 

Cat being held at the vet's office

If your cat vomits often, consult with a veterinarian at your earliest convenience. Vomiting is never normal, but there are some specific symptoms associated with vomiting that indicate a potential emergency that requires veterinary intervention as soon as possible: 

  • Acute vomiting (your cat experiences sudden vomiting).
  • An uptick in chronic vomiting (your cat occasionally vomits, but has started vomiting more frequently).
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Acting tired or weak
  • Straining to urinate or defecate in the litterbox, or inappropriate elimination elsewhere in the house
  • Increased aggression (could indicate pain)
  • Hiding more
  • Drooling
  • Fever 
  • Diarrhea
  • Yellowed skin or whites of eyes (jaundice, can indicate liver disease)
  • Fresh red blood in vomit or material that looks like coffee grounds (digested blood, evidence of gastric ulcers or severe stomach irritation)
  • Vomiting in conjunction with medication administration
  • Worms in your cat’s stool in addition to vomiting
  • Your cat has already been diagnosed with a disease like diabetes or kidney disease.
  • You see evidence that your cat consumed something dangerous, such as chewed up hair ties, ribbon, tinsel, poisonous plants or other poisonous substances.
  • Your cat is very young or very old.

Treatment Options for Cats Throwing up Food 

Lovely cat at home in bed looking sick

Your veterinarian will conduct a complete physical examination, discuss your cat’s symptoms with you and will likely recommend some tests. These tests can include bloodwork, urinalysis, fecal exams for parasites and imaging studies, such as abdominal ultrasound or abdominal radiographs (x-rays). 

It is a good idea to bring a sample of the vomit, a stool sample and anything else out of the ordinary you think your cat may have consumed to the appointment. In addition, know the brand and type of food you feed your cat and how much and how fast your cat eats.

Treatment will depend on the cause of vomiting and may include:

  • Medication to reduce nausea
  • Deworming for parasites
  • Treatment for diseases outside the stomach that can cause nausea
  • Detoxification of poisonous substances
  • Surgery to remove an obstruction
  • Diet changes for food allergies or hairballs 

In many cases of mild, acute vomiting, nausea medication and a bland diet for a couple of days are all that is needed to heal the cat.

Pet parents often wonder if there are any home remedies for cat vomiting. Unless your cat is vomiting due to gorging food, there are no home remedies for cat vomiting. Do not ever give a cat human medication for vomiting unless directed by a veterinarian and never let a cat go more than a day or two without eating.

How to Prevent Cats Throwing Up Food

Cat playing with a food puzzle to help slow down eating

If you are concerned about your cat developing a problem with vomiting, follow these steps to reduce the likelihood of that happening:

Slow your cat’s eating by using a food puzzle. If your cat gorges on their food, consider a puzzle feeder or an automatic feeder that feeds pre-measured amounts at different times of the day. Alternatively, you can feed your cat several smaller meals throughout the day or spread the food out on a flat surface.

Switch your cat’s food. Consider changing your cat’s diet to a food formulated for sensitive stomachs. If your cat vomits food and hair, brush your cat more often to remove hair and consider switching to a hairball food.

Minimize stress in your cat’s environment. Stress can cause vomiting, so keep your cat calm at home by providing enough litter boxes, water bowls and food and offer plenty of scratching and climbing opportunities.

Bring your cat in for regular veterinary care. Have your cat checked out yearly by your veterinarian, and speak with them more often if you have concerns about your cat’s habits.