When does a cat vomiting need veterinary attention?


Most cat owners have experienced the unpleasant sensation of cat sick between the toes on a nightime bathroom trip, or as a nice addition to your favourite rug. Vomiting is the active expulsion of stomach contents, which in cats can be violent, and may have many causes. It needs to be differentiated from regurgitation: where food is brought up with minimal effort from the oesophagus before ever reaching the stomach.

You may see warnings signs such as drooling, swallowing, licking their lips more, or hiding away. Short-term vomiting consisting of one or two episodes, or lasting less than 24 hours, in an otherwise healthy cat is usually nothing to worry about.

What do I do if my cat is sick?

If your cat is sick once or twice but appears otherwise well, remove their food for a few hours, then feed small amounts of a highly digestible food such as chicken, or a prescription diet from your vet. Allow them constant access to a small amount of water. After 24 hours go back to your usual routine.

When should I be worried?

It is best to contact your vet if your cat:

  • continues to repeatedly vomit.
  • cannot keep water down.
  • is lethargic or listless.
  • has pale, dry, cold or yellow gums.
  • has diarrhoea alongside the the vomiting.
  • could have eaten something unusual.
  • has a known underlying condition such as diabetes or renal disease.
  • has blood in the vomit.

 What could be the reason for the vomiting?

 Occasional vomiting may be caused by:

 furballs. Cats often ingest hair while grooming. If it forms into clumps it may irritate the stomach, eventually being vomited up. If your cat vomits hairballs frequently your vet may suggest treatments or diets to reduce hair build up and grooming your cat regularly to reduce the volume of hair ingested.

  • eating too rapidly. Cats that gobble food too quickly may regurgitate. If you’ve got multiple cats make sure you have separate feeding bowls in seperate locations to reduce competition. Try serving dry food in a used egg carton, or putting kibble in plastic bottles with holes that dispense the food as it rolls. These puzzle feeders slow eating, create mental challenge, combat boredom and increase exercise which combats weight gain.
  • eating too much at once. Cats naturally eat small amounts and often. While not always practical, specialists suggest 5 small meals a day. Dry kibble absorbs fluid in the stomach and swells which may cause vomiting, especially in older cats.
  • eating spoilt food or huntingmay result in irritation of the stomach.

Then there are more serious causes for vomiting.

 Ingestion of foreign bodies. Cats are more particular about what they eat than dogs but we do occasionally see cats with blockages. Cotton or string can cause a blockage or trauma to the gut.

 Ingestion of certain toxins. We see fewer toxicities in cats because of their fussy nature, with a few exceptions.

Some cats like to nibble on grass. If unavailable, or out of boredom, they may eat house plants such as Dieffenbachia (Dumb Cane) and lilies which are toxic. Ask your vet before bringing new plants into your house or garden.

Cats like the taste of antifreeze but it’s especially toxic to them. Never use it in ornamental water features, keep bottles secure and labelled, and wipe up spills immediately. Vomiting, increased thirst, lethargy and lack of appetite may be signs of ingestion. Ingestion is usually not witnessed, partly why it’s often fatal. Call your vet immediately if you suspect ingestion.

Food allergies or new foods. Not all foods suit all cats and any diet change should be slow, taking at least a week. It’s also thought some cats may actually be allergic to certain proteins in foods. If your vet suspects this, they may recommend a hypoallergenic diet using hydrolysed proteins. These are proteins which are broken down into very small pieces so are highly unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.

Parasites. Roundworms are the most common intestinal parasite, affecting cats of all ages. Large burdens can be found in kittens resulting in vomiting, diarrhoea and a failure to thrive. Tapeworms are transmitted via hunting or by fleas, so older cats are more prone. There are many ineffective medications for sale so it’s best to speak to your vet before administering a product. Adult cats should be wormed every 1-3 months, and kittens more frequently.

Cats with kidney diseaseor liver diseasemay vomit. Other signs include lethargy, lack of appetite, weight loss and increased thirst. Cats with liver disease may have a yellow discolouration to the skin/gums. Liver disease can occur alongside pancreatic and intestinal disease in a complex known as ‘triaditis’. If your vet suspects underlying medical reasons for vomiting, blood tests and other investigations may be advised. Treatments options will depend on the organs involved and severity of disease.

Gastrointestinal diseases. Infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or small parasites known as protozoa can cause gastrointestinal signs. Inflammatory bowel diseases are a complex group of disorders caused by an immune reaction and result in persistent or intermittent diarrhoea, and/or vomiting. It may be part of the above mentioned ‘triaditis’ syndrome.

Cancers. The two most common tumours affecting the stomach and intestines are lymphoma and adenocarcinoma. They may cause a partial blockage resulting in vomiting, weight loss, diarrhoea and appetite loss. The cat’s age, condition, the tumour location, the severity of disease and your wishes will affect treatment options. Surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be options once diagnosed. Sadly, sometimes euthanasia may have to be considered.

What will my vet do?

After taking a history and examining your cat your vet may advise dietary adjustments and medical treatments alone if the symptoms are mild. With more severe symptoms, investigations such as blood tests, x-rays, urine samples or ultrasound may be discussed. Treatment may include intravenous fluids, antiemetics (anti-vomiting drugs) and stomach protectants. If a blockage is suspected then surgery may be discussed. The most appropriate treatment is the one that will address the underlying cause, whatever that may be, and your vet is perfectly placed to determine that and then to get your cat on the mend.

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22 thoughts on “When does a cat vomiting need veterinary attention?

    1. There are several possible causes of the symptoms you’ve described, but the most common are probably Cat Flu and a foreign body stuck up the nose. It would be best to get him checked out by your vet, as these conditions can sometimes be quite serious if not treated appropriately.

  1. My cat Wimperlie had kittens about two months ago. I kept two of the kittens but today she was acting funny. She’s thrown up twice with dark brown throw up and has had diarrhea. But there was blood in her diarrhea. She doesn’t act lethargic but she acts like her stomach might hurt I don’t know what to do

    1. I would strongly advise you get her seen by your veterinarian as soon as possible. These signs are suggestive of a serious intestinal bleed – e.g. a ruptured stomach ulcer, or poisoning with blood-thinners. While it might be something relatively innocuous, it might also be life threatening without treatment.

  2. My cat, who is notorious for eating too fast, has thrown up every time he has eaten today. He isn’t acting different other than he wants to be fed again. I’m concerned because even when he has just a few kibbles of dry food, he has vomited that too. The vomit is just mucus and kibble, with no smell, foam, or color. At what point do I make the trip to the emergency vet?

    1. As a general rule, if they’ve been being sick for 24 hours, if they can’t keep water down, of if they’ve vomited more than 3 times in quick succession.
      Just so you know, if you’re worried in the evenings or weekends when your normal vet is shut, or when we’re all offline (we’re based on UK time!), you can always use our online Symptom Checker to see whether something’s an emergency – go to https://vethelpdirect.com/interactive-pet-symptom-checker/

  3. Hi, I think my cat has a hair all problem. He was constipated for 4 day so I gave him some lactulose twice on Monday (2ml), on Tuesday only once 5ml of paraffin oil and again lactulose on Wednesday and Thursday 2x2ml. He also was getting half of spoon of salmon oil with his wet food in the morning and some probiotics at the evening. Wednesday and Thursday he got portion of anti hairball paste. After paraffin oil he passed a huge poop on Wednesday morning and today (Friday morning). There was a lot of hair in his poo. Also, today in the morning he vomited a huge hairball 10cm long and 2 cm wide. After an hour he vomited two more times but this time only water. For few hours now he is sleeping and seems to be tired. Should I take him to the vat or is he clearing himself from hair in digestive system?

    1. While he was passing hairballs, I wouldn’t have been so worried, but if he seems unusually tired or sleepy, a vet check is probably a good idea, in case there’s something more serious going on.

  4. Hi, I have a question regarding my two month old kitten. I noticed some spats of dry heaving last night, but she quickly recovered and meowed until I picked her up and played. Today, not too long ago, she threw up some white foamy substance. I carried her over to the water bowl and she sat there for a while, drinking little sips of water. She is now sleeping. She was recently spayed at an animal shelter two days before I adopted her (I adopted her on June 22nd) and I am concerned that the violent heaving could affect her incision. Is this something I should be worried about, or am I just being overly paranoid?

    1. It is unlikely to be a problem; cats are usually spayed using a very small incision (quite like keyhole surgery in humans), and these heal up very fast. I’d check the wounds and make sure they aren’t reddened, painful, swollen, or bulging, and if not, just keep an eye on things. Of course, if the retching continues, contact your veterinarian for advice.

  5. My cat was spayed on Monday and was doing okay but now is vomiting. Is this normal? Its been almost a week and she is not back to her normal self. Should I be worried?

    1. Not necessarily worried, but I would strongly advise you to get her checked out by your vet. She might have had a bad reaction to the painkillers after surgery, or a minor surgical complication, for example.

  6. I have 2 cats they are brother (Snickers) and sister (Shadow), they are about 7 years old. They often throw up their food and clear liquid, at least 2-3 times per week sometimes more often. Neither of them act different before or after but I’m concerned that it might be a bigger problem. The vets by me are very expensive so I can’t just take them in because I’m overthinking the problem. It would be minimally $400 and that’s before they do any testing. Snickers and Shadow both sneeze with projectile boogers as well as this vomiting problem. I’m wondering if you have any advice that could help me before taking them to the vet.

    1. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to diagnose the causes of vomiting in a cat over the internet! If they’re long-haired, then it might perhaps be furballs, but usually you’ll see those in the vomit. Sadly, I think veterinary examination of at least one of them is probably the best way forward.

  7. My older cat has been throwing up all morning. She’ll normally throw up from eating too fast or not drinking water after eating dry food but she hasn’t eaten all day. She has most likely taken a few bits of our ZZ plant (toxic.) Her gums are dark purple and no apparent blood in the vomit. Is this an emergency?

    1. Any animal with purple gums is likely to need emergency veterinary attention – it’s usually a sign of shock or cardiorespiratory failure.

  8. My kitten has suddenly gotten very lethargic and wont eat or drink. She has been throwing up and I’m not sure what is happening. She was fine a couple of days ago.

  9. My cat has been excessively vomiting all day. He usually vomits 2-3 times one day out of the month and today it’s been quite a lot more than that. He seems to be normal after. There are some pieces of food in it and sometimes it’s clear with a white “foam” he doesn’t seem to be eating too fast or too much? So I’m not sure what’s causing it and idk if I should be alarmed or not.

    1. I think if it’s that regular, it’s probably something he’s eating, but without seeing him it’s impossible to be certain. If the pattern hadn’t changed, I would be inclined to make an appointment to get him checked out by your vet, just to be sure there isn’t anything sinister going on.
      However, continual vomiting all day is potentially dangerous as they can easily become dehydrated; it may also represent a more serious health issue, so a phonecall to the vet would be recommended if it hasn’t settled down.

  10. So he has slowed with the vomiting so far it’s been 1-2 times a day but we took him over to my friends house and I’m convinced it’s the food because he doesn’t throw up after eating any other food. But we have sensitive stomach food for him that he was fine on for a couple of months now. But now it’s been making him vomit

    1. It may be that that particular food doesn’t agree with him any more – the intestine’s tolerance can change. However, there might be something else going on – for example, something he isn’t exposed to at your friend’s house. It can be difficult to determine exactly what’s going on! However, trying him on a different (but still nutritionally complete) diet may help.

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