Cat Vomiting: Understanding What's Normal—and What's Not
If you've spent enough time with cats, you've probably heard a cat's down-in-the-throat, wet, "glurk" sound that signals that vomit is on the way. Maybe it's a hairball. Maybe it's undigested food. Maybe it's clear or foamy liquid. Whichever one it is, cat vomit happens, and you've got the cleaning supplies to prove it. But if vomiting happens too often, it might be more than a cat's upset stomach. It could be a sign of disease or illness.
Understanding What’s Normal
Let’s face it—cats throw up, probably more than we’d like. Your cat vomiting once or twice in a month may not indicate anything abnormal. Many felines throw up hairballs of fur they've ingested during grooming, but that shouldn't be more than a couple times a month. That's why your attention to what's normal for your cat is so crucial, says Ernie Ward, DVM, a writer, podcaster, pet nutrition advocate, and veterinarian who works with cats at animal rescue groups in North Carolina. But if your cat is exhibiting signs of acute or chronic vomiting outside of her regular routine, it may be a sign of something more serious.
- Acute vomiting is a day or two of vomiting, usually without any other signs of illness.
- Chronic vomiting is vomiting once or twice a day, usually with weakness, non-stop vomiting, abdominal pain, blood in vomit or stool, weight loss, or lethargy.
It’s important to know your cat's habits, Ward says. Is it normal for your cat to throw up hairballs? Is it normal for your cat to eat grass outside or nontoxic house plants sometimes and barf? Those issues may be easily solved with changes to kitty’s grooming and feeding habits, or by removing temptations in your environment. However, acute or chronic vomiting can be a sign of a more serious disease.
Find Out What’s Causing Your Cat’s Vomiting
Because cat vomiting can be a sign of a serious disease or just a dietary indiscretion, it can be crucial to visit a veterinarian for a physical exam and testing to figure out what's causing it. Brace yourself for a long list! Vomiting in cats can be caused by:
- Changes in diet or frequency in feeding
- Allergic reactions to food
- Eating something the cat wasn't supposed to (people food, plants, etc.)
- Eating too fast or too much at a sitting
- Adrenal gland disease
- Dislocation of the stomach
- Inflammation of the intestines (gastroenteritis)
- Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Intestinal parasites
- Liver disease
- Metabolic disorders (kidney disease, etc.)
- Neurological disorders
- Obstructions in the intestines or the throat
- Toxins or chemicals. If you worry your cat has eaten a toxic plant or chemical, call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 866-426-4435 or the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661. Consultation fees may apply.
Causes of vomiting range from irritating to life-threatening, so consult with your veterinarian right away if you suspect your cat’s health could be in danger.
When to Call the Vet
A major sign to watch for in cat vomiting is frequency. "If a cat barfs once, then goes right on to her regular business, that's usually OK,” Ward advises. However, if she throws up again and again—consider that a red flag. “Cats who vomit and sit there quietly, as if they don't have the energy to get up afterwards, that’s a warning sign."
A second issue to watch out for is the content of her vomit. Undigested food might just mean your cat ate too fast. But Ward says vomit that is dry heaves of brothy, watery foam is something that gets his attention.
A third, serious issue is colored vomit. Dark, tarry or coffee ground-like bits in vomit can indicate partially digested blood, and that means a visit to the veterinarian. If cat vomit is yellow or pale green, that could be bile and indicate an underlying disease or condition. "It stains and is hard to get out of the carpet," Ward says. A single instance of yellow, bile-colored vomit isn't a big deal, but if it continues, talk to your veterinarian.
Other clinical signs that may appear with vomiting and help in diagnosing include dehydration, bloody or non-bloody diarrhea, changes in drinking, reduced appetite, weakness, or weight loss.
Diagnosis and Treatment
With a complete physical exam and appropriate testing, a veterinarian may diagnose a cause of vomiting and treat it appropriately. That can range from:
- Antibiotics for infections
- Changes in diet
- Surgery to remove a tumor or foreign body from the throat or intestines
- Various treatments for underlying diseases
Your veterinarian may recommend stopping food and water until the vomiting has stopped, then gradually reintroducing water and a bland or easily digestible food. It's important during treatment for vomiting that cats do not receive any additional or different food. Your veterinarian is trying to calm down your cat's digestive system and check for reactions to a particular food, and extra food in her diet can make that difficult.
Because vomiting can cause dehydration, your veterinarian may need to hydrate your cat with fluids and recommend that water be freely available in the home. Your veterinarian may also prescribe medication to control vomiting or relieve digestive inflammation.
While cat owners can't diagnose underlying conditions, if a veterinarian thinks less serious causes are at work, your home treatment after a visit can be important, especially with feeding. Don't give up if you've got a food allergy or food intolerance, Ward says. "Too often, people give up and persist in the behavior," he says, thinking there's nothing to be done. "Or they feel powerless."
But you're not powerless. Ward encourages cat owners to be methodical and strategic in trying solutions for chronic vomiting that's not tied to another disease. Adjustments could include:
- Changes in diet or frequency in feeding. If you initiate a food change, remember it's better to change diet slowly, if you can, by mixing in less and less of the old food.
- Eating too fast or too much at a sitting. If this is a recurring problem, consider giving your cat smaller, more frequent portions and time to eat (don't rush them). If you have multiple cats, make sure one of them isn't eating the other cats' food.
- Hairballs. If your cat vomits more hairballs than is healthy, you might have to help with some regular brushing, as often as daily for long-haired cats.
- Lactose intolerance. Remember, while cats think many dairy products are tasty, most cats are lactose-intolerant and can't properly process cow milk and may experience diarrhea or vomiting.
- Toxins or chemicals. Make sure your cat can't get into food, plants, or other household hazards that cause vomiting or, worse, are toxic. See our lists of plants that are toxic to cats and foods that are toxic to cats for more info on common household dangers.
A cat's vomiting can be caused by something totally normal—like those pesky hairballs—or extremely abnormal and more serious. Your cat and your cat's doctor are both counting on you to notice when it happens and to reach out for help.