Chronic Vomiting in Cats

Cat owners know it’s not uncommon to find your seemingly happy cat bringing up stomach contents, either through vomiting or regurgitation. Whether it’s only once in a while or a frequent occurrence, this can leave any caring owner concerned.

The good news is that in many cases the cause is unknown and the vomiting doesn't continue. The bad news is that in some cats it can occur on a more regular basis without an easily determined cause, a condition known as "idiopathic."

Vomiting vs. Regurgitation

Chronic Vomiting in Cats
Cats often eat grass when they feel unwell*

Vomiting is defined as the forceful ejection of the contents of the stomach and can be a sign of a number of more serious issues. If you find it is becoming a daily occurrence and it’s accompanied by additional signs such as lethargy, a fever, and/or changes in behavior, it is recommended you visit your veterinarian for a check-up.  

Regurgitation in cats is slightly different in that a cat expels the undigested stomach contents without much force and it’s not normally accompanied by heaving or gagging.

The first task for you as an owner is to determine whether your cat is vomiting or just regurgitating. Generally if they are vomiting, this will be accompanied by heaving and wrenching of the stomach, expulsion of partially or completely digested food, and might include yellow liquid bile. If a cat is only regurgitating, much of the contents will be undigested and will normally be covered in slimy mucous.

It is vital to make this differentiation as both can have very different causes. A cat who only regurgitates undigested food on a regular basis may eat too quickly or have an intolerance to a certain food, a situation that could be addressed through preventative measures. A vomiting cat may be ingesting prey when outside the house or have hairballs or an underlying gastric issue.

Keeping a note of when the incidents occur will help you determine a pattern and allow you to take preventative steps to help your cat or for review with your veterinarian. It must be noted that if you ever notice blood in your cat’s vomit, it is important to contact your veterinarian as this can be a sign of a more serious concern.

Common Causes of Vomiting

In some cats, vomiting can be a sign of a transient bug. Just as humans contract gastric upsets such as norovirus, cats may also ingest bacteria or a virus which causes a brief vomiting bug known as gastritis.

The key to determining whether the cat is suffering from something more complex than merely an episode of bringing up food is the addition of other symptoms. In cases where there is the possibility of vomiting resulting from an underlying condition, possible causes include:

  • Ulcers
  • Liver or kidney issues
  • Pancreatitis
  • Addison's disease
  • Heartworm
  • Pancreatic tumors
  • Foreign body
  • Thyroid problems
  • Ketoacidosis

If you are concerned, it's important to describe all the symptoms to your veterinarian in detail. Because vomiting is such a common variable in many different disorders, a wide picture of the overall condition of the cat can help pinpoint where the problem is coming from.

In cases of idiopathic chronic vomiting, it can be difficult to determine the culprit, but it can often be narrowed down to:

  • Ingestion of abnormal food matter (e.g. whole prey when outside)
  • Hairballs from excess grooming
  • Eating too fast
  • New food
  • Food intolerance

There are some easy ways you can try to determine if any of these issues contributes to your cat vomiting:

  • Keep your cat inside or allow them out for only short periods
  • Fit a collar with a bell attached so when they go out , it will warn prey of the cat’s presence
  • Feed smalls amounts frequently in place of two larger meals
  • If your cat eats too quickly and is on their own during the day, consider investing in a specially designed bowl to slow the cat’s eating, a treat ball that you can include the daily dry ration inside or a pet feeder which opens on a timer
  • If you believe hairballs are a problem for your cat, read our article on dealing with this issue (link)
  • Ensure your cat is groomed daily and try a food formulated to help with the transit of hair through the gut, as this may help to relieve some of the vomiting

Allergy vs. Intolerance

Food intolerance can be a problem in a number of animals — we will talk about food allergy and intolerance in a later article — but some of the main triggers can be wheat, dairy, beef, pork and liver, all commonly used in pet food formulation.

Unlike an allergy where an instant reaction may occur that includes restriction of breathing and swelling, an intolerance can cause an array of more generalised signs, but often includes gastric upset and skin problems, particularly dry patches.

If you suspect a food intolerance, an exclusion diet is the normal recommendation. This involves removing all suspected problem foods over a defined period and monitoring the results. This can include changing the protein source to a novel protein or a hydrolysed protein. It's then suggested that you reintroduce single sources one at a time and allow time to elapse in case a reaction occurs.

Vomiting in cats can be a concern, but in many cases it can be a natural way for the cat to expel something that could potentially make them more ill. For example, you might see a cat binge on grass to the point that they make themselves sick, but that is a natural way to eliminate prey that is (possibly) making them feel unwell. If your cat is otherwise healthy, just ensure they have access to plenty of water.

But as always, if you are concerned at any time, don’t hesitate to give your vet a call.

*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club