Written by Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT
How many times is “normal” for a cat to vomit? If you deal with cat vomiting occasionally, this blog is for you…
As an emergency critical care veterinary specialist, I see a lot of vomit. That’s because at the ER veterinary clinic, I’m always seeing dogs and cats that are presented for too much vomiting.
How much is too much?
For some reason, we cat owners seem to tolerate way too much vomiting. This happens even to veterinary professionals! Two decades ago, when I owned my first-ever cat, my housemate (who was an internal medicine veterinary resident fascinated by vomit and diarrhea and such) asked me if I ever did bloodwork and x-rays to find out why my middle-aged cat was a chronic vomiter (“What are you talking about? Once a month is totally normal for a cat. Whatever!”). Since then, after my housemate made me feel guilty, I’ve always pondered why we cat owners are so tolerant of cat vomit. The truth is, if your cat vomits more than once a month, it’s too much and may warrant a medical work-up.
Cat vomiting vs. coughing
The first thing I need to know as a veterinarian is if your cat is vomiting versus coughing. If your cat is vomiting (for example, hairballs), you’ll see your cat actively retching (with her stomach heaving) and having what we vets grossly call a productive vomit. With productive vomit, your cat may bring up some bile (yellow-tinged fluid), undigested food, or hair. If the vomit is nonproductive (nothing comes out), your cat may be coughing instead, which is a classic sign of feline asthma.
Underlying medical problems
Regardless, if you find your cat doing either more than once or twice a month, something more serious may be going on that warrants a trip to the veterinarian. That’s because certain underlying medical problems can cause chronic vomiting in cats, such as:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Kidney/renal failure
- Gastrointestinal cancer (like lymphoma)
- Liver disease
- Foreign body (something stuck in the stomach or intestines)
- Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland)
- A diabetic crisis (e.g., diabetic ketoacidosis)
Keep in mind, with any medical problem, the sooner your veterinarian diagnoses it, the better the prognosis and the better for your cat’s survival and longevity. A medical work-up might include the following:
- Basic blood work (like a complete blood count, biochemistry panel)
- Thyroid test
- Ultrasound (I always like to have my abdominal ultrasounds performed by a board-certified veterinary radiologist, called a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Radiology or “DACVR” for short)
If it turns out your cat is coughing, a sterile lung fluid wash (also called an endotracheal lavage) should be done to rule out asthma.
When in doubt, better to heed the side of caution, right? Think of it this way: If you vomited once a week for years, wouldn’t you go to a medical doctor? If your dog vomited once a week all his life, chances are you’d take him to a veterinarian sooner than later.
Again, if your cat is vomiting more than 1-2x/month, and a different food trial doesn’t cure it, it’s worth talking to your veterinarian to make sure the occasional vomiting isn’t due to a medical problem. You won’t regret playing it too safe with your feline family member.