Every cat guardian recognizes “the sound.” You know, the one your poor kitty makes as she is about to deliver from the depths of her stomach a precious little bundle of…vomit.
Yes, it’s not the most glamorous topic. But vomiting in cats is not only stressful for us (why do cats miraculously seem to always find the one piece of carpeting or fabric in a 1,000 square-foot radius to regurgitate on?), it’s stressful for our cats too. It can cause dehydration, loss of electrolytes, and let’s face it… on the list of favorite things to do, vomiting does not usually rank highly on anyone’s list.
As humans, we’re often able to pinpoint the exact cause of an unwelcome revisitation of our stomach contents (that $5.99 discount seafood buffet sounded like a good idea at the time). However, the things that make our feline friends regurgitate differ quite a bit from ours. So put on your waders!
Here are the 4 most common causes of vomiting in cats.
1. Hairballs/Hair Gastritis
Hairballs are an unfortunate by-product of our kitties’ cleanliness. When your cat grooms herself (or other cats in the household), the velcro-like barbs on her tongue pull out hair, which she swallows. Since hair is indigestible, it usually passes through the GI tract and is eliminated in the litter box.
However, sometimes hair forms a matted clump in the stomach that isn’t able to pass through. Its only source of elimination is to be ejected through vomiting. The resulting hairball is not a “ball” at all, but rather a cylindrical tube of tightly-packed hair (molded into this form as it comes back up through the esophagus), sometimes surrounded by a puddle of fluid.
Hair can also cause an inflammation of the stomach lining known as “hair gastritis”, which can cause a cat to vomit fluid or food without actually bringing up visible hair. Your cat may have several of these episodes before she is able to successfully expel a hairball.
You can reduce episodes of hairballs by regularly brushing or combing loose hair off your cat and by feeding her a high-fiber diet. If she seems to be suffering several episodes closely together, you may want to consider a commercial hairball remedy.
The most popular hairball remedies on the market are flavored gels that, once swallowed, stick to ingested hair and help it slide through the GI tract more easily. There are now also chewable products available that taste great and may be easier to administer to some cats than gels.
2. Eating Too Quickly
Another common reason cats vomit is from eating too quickly. Since cats are 4-legged and thus have a horizontal (rather than vertical) esophagus, swallowed food can hit up against the esophageal sphincter (a ring of smooth muscle fibers that closes off the stomach from the esophagus), and cause regurgitation of food just a few minutes after eating.
Cats in multiple-pet households where there is perceived competition for food often have a tendency to gobble too quickly. My cat Trouble (nicknamed “Ninja” for his uncanny stealth abilities) is particularly adept at eating his own food in record time and then attempting to “help” the other two cats by eating theirs as well. This causes our senior kitty Jasper to inhale his food, which then sometimes comes right back up.
We’ve solved this problem for Jasper by allotting enough time to monitor all the cats while they eat, and by splitting Jasper’s meal into 2 smaller portions fed about 15 minutes apart.
There are several dietary factors that can cause vomiting. Your cat might be eating a poor-quality diet, or one that is too rich (some cats, like some people, have more sensitive stomachs than others). Abruptly changing a cat’s diet without slowly transitioning from an old food to a new one can also cause stomach upset.
Milk is a also a common culprit. Just because some cats enjoy the taste of cow’s milk does not mean they are able to digest it properly. In fact, cats are actually lactose-intolerant, since they lack the lactase enzyme necessary to break down lactose in milk. This can cause vomiting and diarrhea, so it’s a good idea to hold the moo-juice!
Food allergies can also cause intermittent vomiting. If your cat looks and feels fine and is not losing weight, but still vomits for no apparent reason, be sure to discuss it with your veterinarian.
Lastly, make sure that your cat does not have access to human junk food. I recently read an article about an owner whose cat was morbidly obese and had a “penchant for lunch meat and Doritos.” How would a cat know that he has a penchant for Doritos?? Regularly feeding human junk food with artificial dyes, chemicals, and preservatives is just asking for a one-way ticket to chronic GI inflammation for your feline friend.
4. Ingesting Non-Food Items/GI Obstructions
Cats are, by nature, extremely curious creatures. They like to chew and swallow lots of things they shouldn’t, including pieces of plastic, string, fabric, toilet paper, sticks, and cat toys. Although in most cases these small items eventually find their way through the GI tract, any one of them can cause a cat to vomit.
If an object is unable to be vomited up or moved safely through the GI tract, it may become lodged in the stomach or intestine. (You can learn more about intestinal obstructions in my “He ate what?” post). If your cat is vomiting continuously, appears to be in pain, and is not eating or drinking, call your veterinarian immediately.
When Should You Worry?
It’s important to remember that an occasional bout of vomiting in your cat is probably not serious. If she’s still eating, drinking, and having normal bowel movements, the vomiting was probably an isolated incident.
However, frequent vomiting in cats can indicate other more serious conditions, so be sure to let your veterinarian know if the vomiting happens more than just intermittently.
And if vomiting is accompanied by any of the symptoms below, call your veterinarian immediately:
- Weight loss
- Blood in the vomit
- Changes in appetite and water intake
Congratulations! You are now a crash-course expert in all things kitty puke. 🙂
Remember, dealing with a little occasional vomit is a small price to pay in exchange for the pleasure of sharing our lives with our wonderful feline friends. So the next time you’re cleaning up that stubborn spot, just keep in mind that your kitty was probably only following one of the 10 original “Cat Commandments”: If you have to throw up, get to a chair quickly.