Cats have a reputation for vomiting frequently and in the most inconvenient places. While occasional vomiting is normal and expected, anything more than that could be a sign of an underlying health concern. Vomiting is a common reason that pet parents bring their cat to the vet. It is also a clinical sign that can have many different underlying causes, ranging from minor to life-threatening. Understanding the different types of vomiting in cats is essential for any cat owner. Being able to recognize the signs and causes can help you seek appropriate medical care for your feline friend, ensuring their overall health and well-being.
Overview: about cat vomiting
Vomiting in cats is a common occurrence and can be caused by a variety of factors. There are several types of vomiting in cats, which your vet will want to distinguish between to help determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment. Each has its own set of causes and symptoms.
Regurgitation, the expulsion of undigested food from the esophagus, is different from vomiting but may appear similar to pet parents. Regurgitation usually occurs shortly after eating, has the appearance of undigested food (often in a tubular shape), is a silent and passive process (no retching), and does not cause abdominal contractions as vomiting does. In cats, it is most often caused by esophageal issues or rapid eating.
Unlike regurgitation, vomiting ejects contents of the stomach and small intestine. It involves forceful contractions and is often associated with nausea (drooling or lip-licking) beforehand. Acute vomiting refers to sudden, often severe, episodes of vomiting, and may be caused by toxins, infections, dietary indiscretion, or gastrointestinal obstruction.
Chronic vomiting is characterized by long-term, frequent episodes of vomiting, which can be caused by inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, food allergy, or other systemic disease. Chronic vomiting can also lead to serious consequences, such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
Different types of cat vomit (with pictures)
There are many possible appearances of cat vomit. Sometimes the appearance can give a clue as to the underlying cause, but not in all cases. In addition to evaluating the appearance of your cat’s vomit, it is important for pet parents to monitor for other clinical signs of illness in determining the best course of action or when to seek veterinary care.
1. Clear or white foam
When cats vomit white or clear foam, it typically means that their GI tract is empty. This type of vomit is not very specific and can be caused by multiple things ranging from mild to severe.
2. Brown, yellow, or green bile
This liquidy type of vomit is usually a combination of bile and stomach acids, and can be caused by many different underlying issues ranging from minor to severe. If your cat consistently vomits bile in the morning, it may be due to bilious vomiting syndrome. These cats vomit if their stomach is empty for too long – try feeding a small meal before bed and contact your vet if it doesn’t resolve or if your cat shows other signs of illness.
3. Undigested food
Vomiting or regurgitating undigested food may be due to multiple factors. In some cases, it may be as simple as your cat is eating too fast or overeating. If your cat is otherwise well, you may try using a feeding toy, puzzle feeder, or automatic feeder to offer your cat smaller and more frequent meals. If your cat continues to vomit undigested food or shows other signs of illness, please schedule an exam with your vet.
Below is an image of a hairball. They appear as damp clumps of undigested hair, cylindrical in shape, and variable in size. The color of a hairball may vary based on the color of your cat’s coat moistened by digestive fluids.
Hairballs, known as trichobezoars, occur due to fastidious grooming in our feline friends. It is not uncommon for a cat to expel a hairball every couple of weeks, but more than that may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition – either digestive or perhaps allergies or anxiety leading to overgrooming. If your cat is hacking but not bringing up a hairball, you should see your vet as well, as this may be a sign of another issue, such as GI disease or even asthma. In rare cases, a hairball may become lodged in the stomach or intestines, leading to an obstruction requiring emergency surgery. The best way to prevent hairballs is through frequent grooming, especially in long-haired cats. You may also discuss diets and medications with your vet. Learn more about hairballs and cats and the best home remedies.
Below is an image of vomit that is pink-tinged with red flecks due to the presence of blood. This blood is bright red. If blood is coming from further down the GI tract, it may appear more like coffee grounds. You should always contact your vet if you notice blood in your cat’s vomit (hematemesis). Possible causes may include ulceration, ingestion of rat poison, bleeding disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, foreign body, or infection. Learn more about blood in cat’s vomit.
6. Foreign material
Below is cat vomit containing plant material.
Dietary indiscretion (eating something they shouldn’t) is a frequent cause of vomiting in animals. In many cases, it may be minor and self-limiting. However, keep in mind that some plants (like lilies) can be extremely toxic to cats. Other objects, such as hair bands or string, have the potential to cause a life-threatening linear foreign body obstruction by getting lodged in the intestines. If your cat has eaten something that they shouldn’t, call your vet or a poison control hotline. If they are showing other signs of illness, such as lethargy, loss of appetite, weakness, or difficulty breathing, seek emergency veterinary care.
What are the common causes of cat vomit?
There are many possible causes of vomiting in cats, for example:
- Eating too fast
- Dietary changes or indiscretions
- Intestinal parasites
- Gastrointestinal disease – such as inflammatory bowel disease or intestinal lymphoma, pancreatitis, gastritis, ulcers
- Systemic disease – such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease
- Food allergy
- Medication side effects
- Toxicity or poisoning
Steps to take at home when your cat vomits
If your cat only throws up occasionally or has a single episode of acute vomiting but seems otherwise fine, you can try the following at home:
- Skip their next meal but make sure that fresh water is available
- Offer a bland, easily digestible diet, such as plain boiled chicken, or get a prescription bland diet from your vet
- Consider adding probiotics like Fortiflora for GI health
When to visit the vet
While occasional vomiting in a cat who appears otherwise healthy can be normal and expected, seek veterinary care if you notice the signs below:
- You suspect your cat swallowed a non-food item or something toxic
- Your cat has multiple episodes of acute vomiting or vomiting does not resolve within 48 hours on a bland diet
- Your cat is vomiting more than once per month
- Your cat is showing other clinical signs such as loss of appetite, nausea (drooling, lip-licking, swallowing), diarrhea, constipation, lethargy, unproductive retching, straining in the litterbox, fever, weight loss, or change in behavior such as hiding
- You see blood or foreign material, such as fabric, in your cat’s vomit
- Your cat is very young, old, or has underlying medical conditions which may predispose them to dehydration
How your vet may diagnose and treat vomiting
To help determine the cause of your cat’s vomiting, your vet will get a thorough history from you and begin with a nose-to-tail physical exam. Be prepared to answer questions about your cat’s diet, lifestyle, and other clinical signs. Additional testing that can help your vet determine an underlying cause and best treatment options may include:
- Bloodwork including thyroid – This is an excellent way to get information about your cat’s overall systemic health. Bloodwork can help your vet determine if your cat has kidney disease, liver disease, or an endocrine disorder such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism. While some types of cancer can cause changes on bloodwork, many do not.
- Fecal – To look for evidence of intestinal parasites
- X-rays – Radiographs of the abdomen are helpful in looking for masses, enlarged organs, and evidence of intestinal obstruction.
- Ultrasound – An ultrasound is able to help your vet get a more detailed look at the soft tissue structures in your cat’s abdomen, including the appearance of their intestines and stomach.
- Specific blood tests – Your vet may recommend additional bloodwork, such as a gastrointestinal panel or vitamin B levels.
- Biopsies – Biopsies of your cat’s intestines may be needed to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease versus intestinal lymphoma, two common causes of chronic vomiting in cats. Not all owners wish to pursue this level of testing.
- Empirical treatment – In some cases, your vet may recommend trying treatment options such as medications or diet change, and monitoring your cat’s response.
Whatever the cause, your vomiting cat may need supportive care, such subcutaneous fluids, a bland diet, and anti-emetic medications. Specific treatments will depend on the underlying cause and may include:
- Deworming medications for parasites
- Antibiotics for infection
- Medical management for systemic disease such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or kidney disease
- Surgery to remove a mass or obstruction
- Diet change for food allergy
- Steroids for inflammatory bowel disease and some types of cancer
- Variable treatments for toxicity or poisoning
- Grooming, diet change, and hairball remedies for frequent hairballs
Frequently Asked Questions
How often is too often for a cat to vomit?
This may vary from cat to cat, but in general, you should alert your vet if your cat vomits more than once a month or has other associated clinical signs such as a change in appetite, activity level, or weight loss.
Is it normal for a cat to vomit hairballs?
It can be normal for cats to vomit hairballs every couple of weeks, especially if your cat is long-haired or a fastidious groomer. If this is bothersome for you or your cat, or if it occurs more frequently, please contact your vet.
Can cat vomit be dangerous?
Yes, in some cases, vomiting may indicate a severe or life-threatening medical issue. In other cases, it may be minor. If you are concerned or if your cat is displaying any of the other clinical signs listed above, be sure to contact your vet.
How can I prevent my cat from vomiting?
This will depend on the underlying cause. If your cat only vomits occasionally or vomits hairballs, you may try grooming them more, hairball remedies or diet, or a feeding toy to help them eat slower. If vomiting is more consistent or your cat shows other clinical signs of illness, you will need to see your vet for diagnostics and treatments.