Your four-legged friend means the world to you. Trust us, we get it.
We also understand that you would do just about anything to ensure your cat's health and happiness.
That's why it can be worrying when your beloved fur baby starts vomiting out of nowhere.
You feed them the best food available, monitor their health, and do everything you can to keep them out of harm's way... so why are they throwing up?
In this article, we'll explain the multitude of reasons why your cat may be vomiting and let you know when it's time to take your feline friend to the vet.
Not all vomiting should be cause for total panic. However, it's important for pet owners to know when they should act quickly, as vomiting is often a sign that something more serious needs to be addressed.
Let's get started!
Types of Vomiting
First, there are two types of vomiting that will help your veterinarian determine the underlying cause and best way to treat the problem.
These two types are acute vomiting and chronic vomiting.
Acute vomiting refers to a sudden episode of vomiting and lasts for 1 to 2 days. Cats with acute vomiting usually don’t have other symptoms.
Chronic vomiting refers to ongoing vomiting. Cats with chronic vomiting will vomit more than 1 or 2 times/day and have other symptoms, such as abdominal pain, weight loss, and depression.
Causes of Acute Cat Vomiting
The underlying causes of acute vomiting range from minor to severe.
Therefore, it is important for pet owners to know these causes and act accordingly.
Dietary Reasons for Cat Vomiting
One of the most common reasons behind vomiting is diet. Many cat foods contain rendered animal byproducts, such as bone and various organs, that do not enter the human chain.
You may be wondering why your cat is eating food that isn't safe for humans. As it turns out, these animal byproducts can add important nutrients and healthy proteins to a cat’s diet.
However, if your cat may vomit if they have trouble digesting these byproducts.
Additionally, a sudden dietary change can cause cat vomiting, along with diarrhea. When switching your cat's food, it is important to go slowly. It helps to start by mixing a small amount of the new food into the old food, then slowly increasing the amount of new food until your cat is eating only the new food.
Overall, feeding your feline friend a high quality diet with easily digestible ingredients is key, along with making gradual changes in diet, to avoid upsetting your cat’s stomach.
Treats & Milk
Many cat owners go above and beyond when it comes to feeding their feline friends high quality, well-balanced meals (and we applaud you for it).
However, it is important to recognize that cat treats are equally important for maintaining a high quality cat diet.
Take a look at the bag of cat treats you have in your cabinet. Read off the ingredients. Emulsifiers, surfactants, dyes, propylene glycol, FDC red #4 (and more) are additives and preservatives that can lead to gastrointestinal tract inflammation and, subsequently, vomiting.
Finally, milk. Most pets will gobble up milk if it's placed in front of them. For cats, though, it's important that it's cat’s milk.
Your cat doesn't have the necessary enzymes needed for breaking down the milk sugars in cow's milk. Therefore, secondary gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting are likely to develop if a cat drinks cow’s milk.
Eating Too Fast
Cats that eat as if it's their last meal on earth are much more prone to vomiting. As a quadruped (walking on four legs), your cat has a horizontally-positioned esophagus.
If your cat has eaten too quickly, they may regurgitate whole, undigested food, even after several minutes have passed. This is because the swallowed food can get backed up in the esophagus instead of passing through a little sphincter to the stomach.
Help your cat slow down when they eat. For example, give your cat only small portions of food at a time to keep them from consuming their whole meal in one bite.
Additionally, if you have multiple cats, watch them at mealtime to make sure that one cat isn't eating for four cats. If this is the case, you will be better off feeding your felines in separate rooms.
Allowing each cat to have around 20 minutes of relaxed eating will also help slow their habits because they won't feel that if they don't eat their food, someone else will.
Portion control will also help prevent obesity, which in turn helps prevent additional health issues from developing.
Consuming Foreign Bodies
If cats aren't able to digest milk from a different species, then you can be sure that they aren't able to digest foreign bodies like toys and hairballs that enter their system.
Luckily, most cats aren't like dogs, who will eat just about anything in sight (although some still do). However, cats are known to constantly clean themselves.
If your kitty has beautiful long fur, you'll need to step in and help out with the grooming. Daily grooming is recommended for long-haired cats, while short-haired cats can get by with weekly grooming.
Additionally, if you have a multi-cat household, make sure that one cat isn't grooming everyone else.
The constant hair licking results in hairballs. Your feline's gastrointestinal tract isn't equipped to handle all the fur. Thus, vomiting occurs. As pet owners ourselves, we know that you do not want to come home to a vomited hairball on the floor.
If you're unsure if your cat is vomiting from hairballs, check the vomit for cylindrical plugs. If you see these plugs, you can be pretty sure that hairballs are causing the vomiting.
Pet parents can help prevent hairballs by adding a bit of fiber (canned pumpkin, unflavored psyllium) to the cat's diet. This will help move consumed hair through the GI tract more swiftly.
Toxins or Chemicals
Ingestion of toxins or chemicals can also cause vomiting. Poisoning commonly leads to sudden, severe vomiting in cats.
Many felines vomit from time to time, some more than others. However, if your cat doesn't typically throw up often and is suddenly vomiting, consider the possibility that they ingested something poisonous.
Pet owners may not realize that many common household plants are extremely toxic for cats. If your cat is particularly fond of getting into your plants, consider purchasing wheatgrass (cat grass), which can provide your kitty with great nutritional benefits.
Take some time to research which plants are poisonous for cats and be sure to remove them from your home.
The chemicals found in herbicides, pesticides, and household cleaners can cause immediate, acute vomiting if ingested.
If your cat has consumed any of these products, no matter how small, it is imperative that you call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 1-888-426-4435.
A representative will be able to help you through the next steps.
Acute vomiting can also be a sign of an intestinal parasite. Intestinal parasites can be transmitted through contaminated water or a contaminated food source.
Intestinal parasites are common in cats, with some cat populations having as high as a 45% prevalence rate.
The parasitic infestation will also cause diarrhea, anemia, and weakness, increasing the likelihood of other infections. Intestinal parasites also rob the body of important nutrients. For example, kittens with intestinal parasites will have trouble gaining weight because they don’t have enough nutrients to support healthy weight gain.
Finally, some GI parasites found in cats, such as roundworms, can also affect humans. Therefore, a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is extremely important to prevent these parasites from being transmitted to the cat owner.
Intestinal parasites include:
- Isospora sp. (coccidia)
Again, a timely diagnosis and appropriate medication are paramount for effectively treating intestinal parasites.
Acute Kidney Failure & Acute Liver Failure
Dysfunction of the organs responsible for detoxification—the liver and kidneys—can cause vomiting in cats. In these cases, vomiting is often considered a non-specific symptom, meaning that the vomiting is not directly linked to kidney or liver failure.
However, due to the severity of such failure, it is important for your veterinarian to test for organ function to rule out any potential problems.
When you look at the root cause of many diseases, you'll find one major thing in common: inflammation. Inflammation of major organs, including the gallbladder, small intestine, and colon, can lead to vomiting.
However, vomiting and diarrhea are typically only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to inflammation. Inflammation is directly linked to diseases such as cancer.
To prevent the development of more severe health issues, it is important for a cat owner to have their veterinarian figure out the underlying cause of the gastrointestinal inflammation.
Bacterial Infection of the Gastrointestinal Tract
Another potential reason for acute vomiting is a bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract. Like people, cats have normal, healthy bacteria that live in their gut and help with digestion and nutrient absorption.
However, if there’s an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria due to an infection, the normal intestinal functions are greatly affected, leading to diarrhea and vomiting.
While many bacterial gastrointestinal tract infections clear up in about a week's time, we recommend seeking veterinary treatment for the underlying cause of the infection, as it may likely resurface if not handled appropriately.
Also, it is important to monitor your cat's weight and hydration as the infection clears.
Cat Vomiting Bile
The yellow, foamy vomit that you may find is called bile. Cats vomit bile when bile enters the stomach and causes inflammation. Bilious vomiting commonly occurs on empty stomach in the early morning or late at night.
If bilious vomiting occurs once, it's likely not a cause for alarm. However, if your cat's vomit continues continues to be yellow and foamy, take your cat to your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.
Acute cat vomiting is also a symptom of inflammation of the pancreas, called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can often progress quite rapidly and make cats extremely ill. If caught early, though, it can be treated without any permanent damage to the organ.
Again, an accurate diagnosis for why the vomiting is occurring is very important.
After surgery, many cats will experience nausea and acute vomiting. In these cases, both symptoms will subside as the medications and anesthesia in your cat's system flush out.
Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-nausea medications to help your cat heal faster and maintain a healthy appetite. There are also holistic ways to ease postoperative nausea and vomiting. More on that in a minute!
Finally, certain medications can consequently cause acute vomiting.
If the medication that is causing the vomiting is for a chronic condition, you may want to speak to your vet regarding possible alternatives.
Continued vomiting can lead to the development of other conditions, such as inflammation of the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract.
Causes of Chronic Cat Vomiting
We want to make sure our readers understand that no kind of vomiting is considered to be normal, despite what you may have heard. Some reasons behind the vomiting are less severe than others, but no vomiting should be overlooked entirely.
In cases of chronic vomiting, pet owners should be on high alert, as continued vomiting can signal an unresolved medical condition.
Food intolerance and food allergies can cause chronic vomiting. Pet owners may not realize that their beloved cats and dogs can develop allergies just like people.
In fact, food allergies are often the underlying cause of cat vomiting that occurs intermittently over a long period of time.
If your cat has normal energy levels, is a healthy weight, and doesn't appear ill but throws up from time to time, you may want to look into whether they have developed a food allergy.
Over time, a cat’s digestive system can become sensitive to an ingredient (usually a protein) and actually mount an immune response against that ingredient. This response can inflame the digestive tract and possibly lead to the development of food allergies.
Removing the offending protein from the diet is the best way to prevent vomiting due to food allergies. A food elimination trial, which is a lengthy and sometimes expensive process, will help your veterinarian determine which protein is causing your cat’s food allergies.
Finally, many holistic experts on the topic recommend a species-appropriate raw food diet, if possible. We recommend talking to your vet regarding your individual cat's needs.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes chronic vomiting in cats. IBD includes conditions like gastritis, pancreatitis, enteritis, and colitis.
IBD can have much more serious consequences if not treated appropriately. The aforementioned conditions are directly linked to chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
On a side note, chronic vomiting in cats is also a symptom of gastrointestinal cancer. You can see why it is so important to pinpoint the exact cause of chronic vomiting. Early recognition and diagnosis can save your cat's life.
Chronic Toxicity Poisoning
Like acute vomiting, chronic vomiting can also be caused by poisoning. However, with chronic vomiting, the underlying cause can be more difficult to pinpoint.
With acute vomiting from toxicity, the toxic element is consumed only a short time before the vomiting ensues. With chronic vomiting from toxicity, the toxic element is consumed (or inhaled) in small amounts over an extended time.
A common cause of chronic poisoning comes from lead, which affects humans and pets alike.
Intestinal obstruction results from the accumulation of ingested solids and fluids in the intestinal tract. To relieve the accumulation, your cat may intermittently vomit over an extended period of time.
Intestinal obstruction can occur for several reasons, ranging from foreign body ingestion to more severe causes like a tumor or hernias.
Neurological disorders in cats can develop due to such reasons as injury and infection. Neurological disorders often have one main symptom in common: chronic vomiting.
Cats with neurological disorders have the potential to live long lives, but only if a proper diagnosis is made and a treatment plan is developed.
A long-standing intestinal parasite infestation that is not promptly diagnosed and treated can lead to chronic vomiting.
Parasites must be diagnosed and treated by your vet. If left untreated, chronic vomiting may be the least of your worries.
Additional Symptoms to Look For
In many cases, vomiting is considered to be a non-specific symptom, making it challenging to diagnose a disorder solely on the presence of vomiting.
Thankfully, there are other clinical signs to look for in conjunction with cat vomiting:
- Weight loss
- Bloody vomit
- Bloody diarrhea
- Reduced appetite
- Lethargy and weakness
- Fluctuation in water intake
Furthermore, pet owners should monitor the frequency of the vomit and when it occurs (e.g., after eating, being outdoors)
When to Make a Vet Appointment
If you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms, there are a few things you should consider.
How old is your cat? How is your cat's overall health? Is there any chance they may have ingested something poisonous? How long has your cat been vomiting (several weeks, just once, etc.)?
We firmly believe that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your beloved four-legged companion. Again, no vomiting should be considered "normal."
If you have any reason to believe that your cat's vomiting is a sign of something more severe, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Treatment for Cat Vomiting
Typically, treatment for cat vomiting will involve withholding food and water until the vomiting has stopped. Then, pet parents will be advised to slowly reintroduce water and then a bland diet.
This treatment, however, is solely for vomiting. It is imperative that pet owners get to the bottom of what is causing the vomit so that the primary issue can be treated as well.
Preventing Cat Vomiting
In many cases, cat vomiting can be prevented. Simple changes, such as feeding a high quality cat food that doesn’t contain an allergy-producing protein and making sure that any poisonous plants and chemicals are removed from your home, are great ways to start.
Again, preventing the vomiting will depend on the underlying cause.
CBD Oil for Cats
Speaking of prevention, there is one supplement we highly recommend: CBD oil. CBD oil is a digestive aid that helps support proper digestion and bowel health. It can aid in occasional gastric distress and support a healthy gut and normal stomach pH.
Although CBD oil certainly can't undo poisoning, it's a great supplement to consider to boost overall wellness in your kitty and potentially avoid a mess on the carpet.
We recommend our all-natural, non-GMO, soy-free, lab-tested CBD oil for cats!
Cat Vomiting: The Bottom Line
We know that your feline companion means the world to you and realizing that something isn't quite right can be extremely nerve-wracking for a doting pet parent.
The first step is recognizing any change as soon as possible. The sooner a symptom like vomiting is noticed, the sooner a diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan can begin. We sincerely hope your four-legged friend feels better soon!
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, she pursued a non-traditional career path as a veterinarian.
JoAnna completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, then became a medical writer. As founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company, JoAnna is passionate about educating pet parents about pet care and responsible pet ownership.
Although she does not currently have any pets to call her own, she loves living vicariously through other pet parents and watching Nat Geo!