Cats have a habit of bringing presents home to their loved ones. It’s an offering to the humans who take good care of them. However, those presents our cat companions have hunted for and now proudly place at our feet or on our pillow, are typically dead or dying prey. Sometimes, this means there may be a build-up of bacteria or other illness that can make kitty throw up. And hunting live prey isn’t the only thing that can cause vomiting. Mr. Fuzzy Socks may end up with digestive upset, but how can we tell when vomiting is caused by a minor digestive upset or a serious illness? Refer to this quick reference guide for answers.
Quick Definitions to Broaden Your Kitty Vocabulary
Vomiting typically occurs with digestive upset and is associated with illness, such as viruses, bacterial infections, and injury. It takes a great deal of physical effort, and can quickly lead to dehydration because food, as well as liquids, are ejected from the body. Those fluids need to be replenished.
Regurgitation, on the other hand, does not involve much effort. There is no heaving, salivation, lip-licking, and restlessness as there is with vomiting. Partially digested and still mostly solid food is ejected from the gullet, not the stomach.
Hairballs happen to cats everywhere. As long as they don’t happen very often, a few months apart, they are safe. Sometimes kitties need a little help, so a vet trip is necessary, just like vomiting and regurgitation. However, hairballs are typically safe and normal.
Why does kitty throw up?
When caused by a minor digestive upset, vomiting occurs when something indigestible or biologically dangerous enters and irritates either the stomach or the first section of the intestine. Kitty’s body expels the irritant through peristalsis - the contractions involved when food makes its way down from the esophagus - but in reverse. It might be something the body identifies as toxic, a virus, fungus, bacteria, or something caustic.
Irritants may include:
- Greasy human foods, small bones, seeds, and similarly indigestible foodstuff.
- Foreign objects, such as a length of yarn, a stick, or a small piece of plastic. When the same object also causes a blockage as the body tries to expel it, projectile vomiting may occur.
Vomiting can also be a symptom of an infection or a serious condition such as:
- Viral or bacterial infection.
- Worms and other parasites.
- Liver disease, kidney disease, or cancer.
What should you do when kitty throws up?
- Examine the vomit for any of the following:
- Bright red blood means there’s bleeding in the upper digestive tract; dark red blood that looks like coffee grounds means the bleeding is in the lower digestive tract. This indicated an immediate trip to the vet
- Yellow bile would indicate an empty stomach and irritation in the duodenum - the first section of the small intestine. This may also mean a quick trip to the vet.
- Worms. Definitely head to the vet if you see worms or worm-like shapes.
- If kitty seems well after throwing up, do not give her any solid food for 24 hours. Don’t forget to make sure she is well-hydrated.
- Give her a small, bland meal after her 24-hour fast. For example, white meat with boiled rice is a bland meal. Just remember, though tempting, do not season the meat or rice.
- If she’s able to keep this down, continue feeding her this diet in small amounts for the next 2 or 3 days. And then she can go back to her regular food.
- If she’s unable to keep the food down or her condition becomes worse, take her to the vet right away.
If kitty’s vomiting is accompanied by any of the following, have her checked by her vet asap:
- Excessive thirst
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty urinating
- Foul breath
- Distended stomach
- Grumpiness and other behavioral changes
- Eating spoiled food or a dead mouse that has gone “bad.”
- Stomach inflammation due to hairballs.
- Feline distemper, campylobacter, or other infections.
- Ulcers, especially if kitty has been taking prescription medication, such as arthritis drugs.
- Overactive thyroid glands.
- Blockage in the urethra.
Other warning signs that require an immediate trip to the vet:
- Vomiting multiple times for more than 4 hours.
- Kitty can’t keep water down.
- Kitty is lethargic and showing signs of stomach pain.
- Closely observe Miss Kitty Fantastico over the next few hours, immediately after throwing up. Ultimately, when we aren’t sure what to do, do not hesitate to contact the vet.
Sometimes kitties just need to expel something from their body, like a hairball. Other times, they need to clear something toxic, or a foreign body attempting to cause infection, like viruses and bacteria. And other times, kitty needs to get rid of something toxic. Whatever the cause, it’s up to us to check for problematic symptoms that may mean a trip to the vet is warranted. If not, then we need to monitor kitty and maybe even choose a bland diet for the next 24-hours to keep double checking that she’s recovering and that it isn’t something that may develop into something serious.
- “Cats & Vomiting,” Cornell Feline Health Center
- “Vomiting in Cats,” VCA