I knew it was going to be a rough day when I walked in and saw that three of my ten morning appointments were vomiting cats. Second only to the chronically itchy dog, vomiting cats can be one of the most frustrating things we have to deal with as vets because there are so many possible reasons why it can happen. Anything from what the cat had for dinner last night to metabolic diseases that may have been brewing for years could be the cause, and distinguishing between them can take a lot of time, money and effort. And that’s just for the vet – as the owner of a cat that vomits frequently myself, I understand how unpleasant it is to walk downstairs in the middle of the night and step in a pile of cat sick. Be it on the new white carpeting or the beat up old sofa, it’s not pretty. It may be a harmless hairball, but it can also be a sign of serious illness in your cat so it’s definitely worth getting it checked out by your vet. If you are unlucky enough to have a vomiting cat, here are some things you may want to consider.
Why do cats vomit so much?
Vomiting in cats is extremely common, but that doesn’t mean that it’s normal. Some cats are simply prone to hairballs, especially long-haired cats or those that groom excessively. Others are particularly sensitive to the kinds of food they eat and may not be able to tolerate a particular protein such as beef or additive such as wheat gluten. Intestinal worms can cause vomiting sometimes, and you may even see them wriggling around after they come up! Poisonings are rare (cats have a much more discerning palate than dogs) but do occur. Sometimes playful kittens will swallow things such as pieces of string which can be very dangerous indeed. Metabolic disorders such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes and liver problems can all cause vomiting too as can tumours of the intestinal tract such as lymphoma. Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, an organ which secretes digestive enzymes) or inflammatory bowel disease are other common causes which can present themselves in a wide array of confusing ways. And of course there is one of my favourite terms, “dietary indiscretion”, which can describe the ingestion of anything from rancid rat remnants to last week’s chicken chow mein from the bin. With such a huge range of possibilities, it’s easy to see how difficult it can be to find the underlying cause.
What should I do if my cat vomits?
As with any medical condition, the best thing to do is contact your vet. They may tell you to simply starve your cat for a few hours (cats should never be starved for long periods of time though, and should always be brought to the vet if they go more than 24 hours without eating, as this can lead to other serious problems) and reintroduce a bland diet such as plain boiled chicken, as this may fix many acute cases of vomiting. As always, fresh water should be available at all times. Or, if your cat is displaying other symptoms such as lethargy, inappetence or diarrhoea they may recommend you bring him straight down to the clinic. The vet will do a physical exam and take a detailed history, so try to remember as many details as you can about your cat’s behaviour in the past few days. They may take a blood test or check the urine to rule out metabolic diseases. Depending on the symptoms they may also choose to take some x-rays of the abdomen to look for anything that the cat may have swallowed, or perhaps perform an ultrasound scan to check for any tumours or other problems with the internal organs. Because there are so many possible causes for vomiting, sometimes many different tests will be needed so it can become quite expensive at times. Yet another case where pet insurance is a real plus!
How is vomiting treated?
As previously mentioned, if your cat is otherwise well, you may be asked to feed him something bland such as chicken or white fish with no flavourings or fats added. Although dogs often appreciate rice or pasta mixed with their meat, cats usually do better without the addition of a carbohydrate. Or, if you’re not up for cooking, there are a number of prescription pet foods available that can help as well. If hairballs seem to be the problem, there are special pastes and foods that will help them pass through the body instead of being vomited up. A worming tablet or liquid may be prescribed if there is evidence of worms. An anti-emetic (medication that stops vomiting) can be given to help calm things for a bit, and sometimes other medications such as antibiotics or steroids are used as well. If a foreign body is found (in other words, your cat ate something that got stuck), surgery will be performed to remove it. Surgery can also be used to remove some types of tumours, or to take biopsy samples of different parts of the intestinal tract to help diagnose the problem.
Some cases of vomiting will resolve on their own, while others can require weeks of intensive diagnostics and treatments. If left untreated, excessive vomiting can make the cat very ill and you also risk missing any underlying medical problems so make sure you talk to your veterinary surgeon right away if you are at all concerned. But please be patient with your vet if they can’t fix the problem right away – and remember that we can be just as frustrated by it as you!
If you are worried about your cat vomiting, talk to your vet or use our interactice Cat Symptom Guide to check how urgent the problem may be.