Cat Vomiting: What Does It Mean and When Is It Serious?

Cat Vomiting: What Does It Mean and When Is It Serious?

Is your cat vomiting? Here is what that might mean and when you should contact your veterinarian when your cat throws up.

From a simple hairball to a more serious condition like cancer, there are many reasons why cat vomiting might be a part of a cat owner’s life. But when a cat vomits, it’s important to figure out why it’s happening so you can determine if the issue needs to be addressed. While it’s a common event, it’s also a sign – serious or not – that something’s not quite right in your cat’s body.

Sometimes, the urgency of the situation will be obvious, such as when you see your cat throw up blood. But other times, it might be less clear what’s going on inside your cat’s body.

It’s important to avoid panicking over something unimportant, but you also want to protect your cat’s health. Here’s a guide to help you decide if your cat’s vomit is serious or not.

The Different Types of Cat Vomit

So you can take better care of your pet in the case of cat vomiting, here are some different types of cat throw up you might encounter and what they can indicate:

  • Chronic and acute cat vomiting
  • Clear or foamy white vomit
  • The color red
  • Undigested food
  • Other colors in cat vomit

The Differing Urgency of Chronic vs. Acute Cat Vomiting

Has your cat suddenly started throwing up, or do they throw up every now and then? This is how you can categorize your cat’s vomiting as chronic or acute.

Chronic means that your cat vomits regularly, perhaps every few days, weeks, or once a month.

Acute vomiting, which often causes more concern, is when the behavior onsets suddenly.

Both chronic and acute conditions need to be addressed by a veterinarian, but chronic vomiting is usually less urgent than acute.

Yellow or White Cat Vomit That’s Clear or Foamy Means an Empty Stomach

If your cat coughs up a substance that is clear or foamy and white, it’s likely just coming from their esophagus and an empty stomach. They aren’t coughing up anything they consumed, simply the mucus and water that exists in their body already. The white foam might mean that the lining of your cat’s stomach or esophagus is a little irritated.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes clear cat vomit is just water. Cats will sometimes drink too much too quickly and have to regurgitate some of their hydration. If this happens once (acutely), it’s likely not an issue, but there are some diseases that can cause cats to overdrink. If your cat is continually (chronically) drinking too much water and throwing it up, they may need to be tested for diabetes or kidney disease.

Likewise, a yellow color to the vomit might indicate they are throwing up bile. This will happen if your cat needs to vomit and there is nothing in their stomach for them to regurgitate. Bile is typically produced in your cat’s liver and stored in their gallbladder, and when your cat eats, the gallbladder releases the bile.

When your cat isn’t eating, the gallbladder can’t release bile and it gets backed up, sending the acidic yellow substance back into your cat’s stomach where it can be thrown up.

Blood Is a Cause for Concern

Is your cat vomiting blood or are there traces of blood in their throw up? This is alarming, and you should take immediate action. The blood in cat vomit can come from a lot of places, including the stomach, throat, or mouth.

If the blood appears after your cat has vomited several times, it might be from damage caused to these body parts by the vomiting itself. It can also indicate your cat has ulcers somewhere in their throat or stomach, which might be caused by toxins.

Remember that blood might not appear bright red or crimson in your cat’s vomit, as we see it when they get a cut to their skin. Sometimes, such as when the cat vomiting blood has stomach ulcers, they will actually produce a substance that looks like coffee grounds. Blood that comes from the GI tract might also appear more brown than red.

Chunky Cat Vomit Means Food Isn’t Being Digested

If there are chunks of food in cat vomit, this indicates that the food was never digested – meaning it never left your cat’s stomach. This can mean a number of things. If your cat ate too fast or ate too much, they might immediately vomit up some or all of the undigested food. If they are allergic to something they ate, the vomiting will also happen relatively soon after eating.

Alternatively, undigested food can mean that your cat has some kind of obstruction that prevents the food from getting into the GI tract. In this case, your cat might vomit up undigested food after not eating for a day or so. This is part of the reason it’s important to keep a close eye on your cat’s eating habits in relation to their vomiting.

Other Colors and What They Might Mean

Of course, any color in your cat’s vomit might be a result of something they ate that was that color. A cat treat flavored or colored with beetroots might create a red or pink color to their vomit, just as a cat food with leafy greens in it might color their vomit green.

When trying to assess the cause and severity of your cat’s vomiting, it’s important to remember details about their diet, activities, and behavior. It can be nearly impossible to assess your cat’s health using only the description of their vomit – you’ll need information about other symptoms (such as diarrhea, constipation, appetite, and water consumption) as well as input from your veterinarian.

A cat looking at its vomit spill on the ground

What Causes Cat Vomiting?

Cat vomit is not uncommon, and this can make it very hard to identify what is causing your animal to regurgitate their food and drink. The vague nature of this symptom means it can be associated with a lot of different problems, including:

  • Drug side effects
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Organ problems
  • Infection
  • Toxic substances
  • Hairballs

Certain Medications May Cause Cat Vomiting

If your cat is taking any kind of drugs or medication, or undergoing some kind of treatment, you should check to see if vomiting is a common side effect. Everything from a simple antibiotic to an intense round of chemotherapy can cause cat vomiting.

It’s important to be aware of the side effects of any treatment for your cat so you can expect the side effects and avoid worry. Even if vomiting is a recognized side effect of your cat’s medication, you should still alert your veterinarian to the cat’s reaction in case there is another drug or treatment that might work better for your cat’s issue and won’t cause them to vomit.

Many Gastrointestinal Issues Can Make Your Cat Throw Up

There are a variety of gastrointestinal issues that can make your cat throw up their food and drink. A vomiting cat might have parasites, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), allergies, ulcers, toxins, or a foreign object in the GI tract. If your cat is vomiting, gastrointestinal issues may be a likely cause.

Vomiting Might Indicate a Problem with Your Cat’s Organs

Many organs work together to help your cat’s body function and digest their food properly. Sometimes, cat vomiting can be caused by organ dysfunction in the liver, kidney, or pancreas. Your veterinarian will be able to do blood testing and interpret your cat’s other symptoms to decide if organ problems are causing your cat to throw up.

Neurological issues can also cause vomiting in some cats. Disorders or conditions that affect the brain, such as cancers, vestibular disease, and even inflammation of the brain lining (also known as encephalitis) may cause your cat to vomit.

Throwing Up Can Be a Sign of Infection

Vomiting is a symptom of some infections that are common in cats. For example, vomiting can be an early sign of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), heartworm, or even feline panleukopenia. Again, any infection that results in vomiting will likely have other symptoms at the same time, and your veterinarian will need to do testing to identify the infection and choose a course of action to treat it.

Ingesting Toxins or Poisons Can Stimulate Vomiting

If your cat consumes something toxic or poisonous, their body will likely try to get rid of that problematic substance through vomiting. This natural process can be useful, and sometimes, if pet owners know their cat has ingested something toxic, they will try to make their cat vomit. Never do this without consulting your veterinarian, who will also be able to give you a variety of techniques for making your cat vomit if you want them to expel something they’ve ingested.

There are many things around your house that your cat can consume that will be toxic and may cause vomiting. In 2020, the most common call to the ASPCA Poison Hotline was about an animal that had consumed an over-the-counter medication. Other things that might make your cat vomit include certain houseplants, foods like chocolate, and household cleaning products.

Why Is My Cat Coughing Up Hairballs?

Hairballs aren’t technically vomit – they are just a concentration of ingested hair that your cat is expelling from their body. It’s normal for your cat to consume some of their hair while grooming, and most of this hair should pass through their digestive tract without a problem. If the hair isn’t properly digested, though, it stays in the stomach and comes up as a hairball.

Hairballs are especially common in long-haired cat breeds, and they shouldn’t cause much concern unless they are happening often. If your cat is coughing up a hairball daily, that might mean they’re overgrooming or something else is wrong. There are some treatments for excessive hairball production, including special high-fiber cat foods and gentle laxatives that help your cat digest their hair. Consult your veterinarian if your cat is coughing up recurrent hairballs.

What to Do If Your Cat Starts Vomiting

Whether it’s acute or chronic, vomiting means you need to take action of some kind. Don’t panic when your cat vomits. Take these steps instead:

  • Note the consistency of the vomit
  • Remember details about your cat’s past few days
  • Monitor your cat closely
  • Contact your veterinarian
  • Consider a brief fast

Note the Look of the Cat Vomit

As we’ve discussed above, the consistency and color of the throw up itself might tell you something about the cause of cat vomiting. Even if it doesn’t indicate anything to you immediately, your veterinarian might want this information later. As you’re cleaning it up, note any color or consistency details that may be relevant.

Consider Your Cat’s Schedule Over Recent Days

When your cat vomits, there might be an immediately obvious cause, and there might not be. Think about their last few days, and possibly even write down a little schedule to see if anything stands out as relevant.

This should include your cat’s comings and goings (especially if they are an outdoor cat – where did they go and what may they have been exposed to?); their diet, including content and quantity of recent meals or any changes to the menu; and their drinking habits, medications, and, if applicable, the last time they threw up.

You might immediately notice a pattern or cause of your cat’s vomiting. If you don’t, these are still valuable details to have in case you need to go to the veterinarian.

A cat beginning to vomit outside on the grass

After Your Cat’s First Vomit, Monitor Them

If your cat vomits once, the best course of action is to monitor them closely. Look for other symptoms, such as sneezing, loss of appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, constipation, or irregular bathroom habits. If your cat doesn’t throw up again and continues with their normal behaviors, there is no need to raise the alarm or call your veterinarian.

You should still remember the date and other significant details about your cat’s vomiting, in case it becomes a chronic problem that happens weekly or monthly. If your cat vomits three or more times within a day or two, you should contact your veterinarian and pursue diagnosis and treatment.

Only Use At-Home Remedies with a Veterinarian’s Approval

There are some at-home remedies you can consider if you're confident your cat’s vomiting is not resulting from an internal illness or a reaction to a toxin. After you’ve discussed what to do with your veterinarian, you might try putting your cat on a 12-hour fast with no treats or food. Give them small amounts of water every 30 minutes during this time. Sometimes their system just needs a break, and a half day off from eating can allow them to reset and feel better.

You also might want to reassess your cat’s diet, including how much they eat and the type of cat food they’re eating. Again, never pursue this course of action without discussing it with your veterinarian first.

What the Veterinarian Might Do for a Vomiting Cat

If you have decided to take your pet to the veterinarian, or at least call them, because of cat vomiting, here is what to expect:

  • Extensive questioning from your veterinarian (this is where those notes will come in handy!)
  • A physical exam
  • Diagnostic testing
  • Treatment suggestions
  • Possible surgery

Your Veterinarian Will Have Lots of Questions, So Be Prepared

Your veterinarian will do an intake exam, and they’ll have many questions for you about your cat's habits and the progress of the vomiting behavior. These will include questions about:

  • Your cat’s diet (What is the last thing your cat ate?)
  • Their environment (Has your cat been exposed to any dangerous plants or household cleaners or other toxins, such as rat poisons? Does the cat go outside?)
  • Bathroom habits (Have they been urinating regularly? What about bowel movements?)

…and other questions that might seem random. It might be helpful to keep a journal about your cat’s last few days so you can give your veterinarian all the information they need to make decisions about the next steps.

A Physical Examination Will Be the First Step

Your veterinarian might be able to learn something from a simple physical examination of your cat. They will check their mouth for foreign objects and use their hands to press on your cat’s abdomen to see if they feel any masses or enlarged glands. They might also listen to your cat’s heart and take their temperature.

They May Suggest Diagnostic Testing Such As X-Rays, Ultrasound, and Blood Work

If your veterinarian can’t see any obvious reason for your cat’s vomiting with a physical exam, they’ll likely recommend some kind of test that allows them to see what’s going on in your pet’s body. This might include blood work, urine analysis, x-rays, ultrasound, endoscopy, or a barium study.

These types of tests can help your veterinarian identify if your cat has a foreign object in their gastrointestinal tract, or is experiencing a blood clotting disorder or a life threatening disorder like liver disease.

However, if your cat is suffering from toxin exposure, it can be hard to identify with testing. Depending on how these tests go, your veterinarian might also want to take tissue samples from parts of your cat’s digestive system such as the GI tract or the esophagus.

Surgery May Be Required in Serious Cases

If a veterinarian can’t identify the cause of your cat’s vomiting with other testing methods, they may suggest an exploratory surgery. This is usually only in cases where the vomiting is very serious or combined with other alarming symptoms such as weight loss or severe dehydration (i.e., your cat can’t keep down any fluids or nutrition).

Your Veterinarian Can Suggest a Range of Possible Treatments

If surgery is not necessary and the tests haven’t identified another health issue for your cat, your veterinarian will likely suggest a variety of treatments to reduce or eliminate the vomiting. This might include a change in diet, over-the-counter vomiting remedies, fluid therapy, or even feline-specific antacids.

Is Your Cat Vomiting? Take Action

Even though vomiting can be a relatively common occurrence among cats, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored by cat owners. It’s important to keep a close eye on all of your cat’s behaviors to ensure they stay healthy and happy, and that includes monitoring them when they throw up.

Especially if you have a cat vomiting blood or vomiting with regularity, you need to alert your veterinarian immediately and take steps to get them feeling better. It’s not always just a hairball – so better safe than sorry!