Why Cats Really Vomit
Behavior May Indicate a Serious Issue
Jennifer Hawkins, DVM
It's 6 a.m. and you're just about to hit the snooze alarm when you hear a familiar sound.
Your cat is gagging and retching, so you jump out of bed in an attempt to stop the inevitable. Just as you reach the bathroom, you witness your cat step from the tile floor and onto your white carpet where she expels her entire stomach contents.
When she has completed this task, she looks at you as if to say, "What's the big deal? I feel fine. Really." And, well, she does always seem fine, right?
In fact, you've witnessed similar events at least every two weeks and your cat always seems her normal self afterward. You've come to accept her vomiting as part of cat ownership.
But, is cat vomiting normal?
When, and How Often, Does Your Cat Vomit?
As a veterinarian, I usually ask pet owners a routine set of history questions when they bring their cat to me for a physical examination. One of those questions is whether vomiting is ever noticed. I receive various responses:
"No more than usual." How much is usual for a cat to vomit? Cats really should not vomit; vomiting is not normal behavior for a cat. If your cat vomits more often than every 8 weeks, she likely has a chronic underlying problem.
"Only when he eats too fast." I enjoy my food as much as the next person, but I have never successfully eaten so fast as to cause myself to vomit. Are cats significantly different? No. In my veterinary experience, most of my cat patients that vomit almost immediately after eating typically have an underlying gastrointestinal disorder.
"She vomits hairballs about twice a week." Gosh, that’s a lot of hair your cat must be ingesting! Hairballs are generated when cats swallow hair from routine grooming. The hair usually passes normally through the gut but occasionally can be vomited up in a tubular mass. Hairballs are just that: hair. No food is vomited with hairballs. If you note that your cat has vomited food and there is some hair in it, that does not make it a hairball. It is my experience that true hairballs are relatively uncommon. My three-cat household has not had a hairball in more than a year.
Vomiting May Be an Underlying Disorder
Chronic intermittent vomiting may be caused by any of the following: organ dysfunction, inflammation of the pancreas, inflammatory bowel disease, gall bladder disorders and cancer.
While cats seem fine initially, their underlying disorder can become more severe if not treated immediately. Talk to your veterinarian if you think any of the above scenarios sound familiar.
Dr. Hawkins received her veterinary degree from the University of California, Davis and practices in Orange County, Calif., where she also works at local animal shelters. In addition, she is an advisory faculty member for aspiring veterinary technologists at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. Dr. Hawkins is an active member of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association where she serves on the Board of Trustees.