Digestive system disorders in general are among the most frequently observed health problems in cats. Many of these disorders may be directly associated with organs such as the liver, pancreas and gall bladder, all of which play a crucial role in the digestive process. Many others, however, may arise in the alimentary canal, the long tube leading from a cat’s mouth and extending the full length of the animal’s body. A signal that something has gone wrong somewhere within this passageway often takes the form of a process scientifically termed emesis — but most commonly referred to as vomiting.
Even the healthiest of cats is apt to vomit on occasion. In most cases, her owner has nothing to worry about (except for the need to clean up the resulting mess). But if a cat frequently gags and throws up whatever she has recently ingested, there is reason for concern, and a prompt visit to the veterinarian is definitely in order.
Episodes of repeated vomiting that persist for five days or less are considered to be acute, according to Michael Stone, DVM, clinical professor of small animal medicine at Tufts, while those lasting eight weeks or longer are viewed as chronic. “But any cat who vomits and doesn’t eat for longer than 12 hours, seems lethargic and appears to be losing weight, should be evaluated by a veterinarian,” he advises.
The activity that normally takes place along the alimentary canal — also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract — begins when a cat takes food into her mouth, chews it into small pieces with her teeth, and allows it to move to the pharynx, the hollow structure at the back of the mouth. From this holding area, the food is swallowed, passing into the animal’s stomach. Within the stomach, a muscular, bag-shaped organ, the ingested food mixes with potent acids and enzymes that are produced by the stomach lining and then progresses through a narrow sphincter (pylorus) into the first section of the small intestine (duodenum).
There the food blends with bile, a yellowish liquid secreted by the liver, as well as a digestive fluid that is produced by the pancreas. Before moving on into the intestinal tract, these substances and their enzymes perform a key role in neutralizing the harsh stomach acids and breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates so that they can be absorbed through the intestinal lining and into the cat’s bloodstream. However, it is at this point — the gastroduodenal connection — that the complex digestive process is most frequently interrupted. Consequently, the ingested substances reverse their course, are propelled back through the digestive tract and are expelled as vomit.
The Reasons a Cat Vomits
Bouts of feline vomiting can be caused by a wide array of gastric irritants, ranging from the short-lived and ultimately harmless to the chronic and potentially life-threatening. Among the most common — and in most cases relatively benign — cause of frequent vomiting are hairballs, which are wads of undigested hair, moistened by bile and other digestive fluids, that a cat may spit up every week or so without resulting in any lasting health problems. “These clumps of hair in an otherwise well-functioning cat are little cause for concern,” says Dr. Stone. “But owners should make sure to brush their cats frequently. This will lessen the amount of swallowed hair.”
Other frequently diagnosed causes of feline regurgitation include motion sickness, the ingestion of such substances as the leaves of poisonous plants, spoiled cat food, small rodents, various human medications and certain human foods, such as chocolate or onions.
A vast array of other — and frequently more consequential — causes of feline vomiting include: digestive tract invasion by worms or other parasites; constipation; the presence of benign or cancerous digestive tract growths; and a coronavirus or feline parvovirus infection. Some potential causes of feline vomiting can be treated over time, says Dr. Stone, while others must be addressed without delay. For example, he points out: “Swallowing a piece of string is a common and very serious cause of vomiting, one that is likely to require immediate surgical attention.”
A cat who vomits on rare occasions — but seems to be healthy overall — is unlikely to need veterinary treatment of any sort. But a cat who appears to be weak and vomits more than once during the course of a day or so should be taken in for a thorough examination without delay.
Other signs of a serious physical disorder that may be accompanied by vomiting include: a swollen abdomen; pale gums; accompanying diarrhea; fever; and blood in the vomit. Laboratory tests would be done to look for such causes of vomiting as liver or kidney disease.
Blood samples would be evaluated, and X-rays and ultrasound imaging might be needed to search for gastrointestinal tract tissue abnormalities. Also, says Dr. Stone, “A veterinarian will look under the tongue of a cat who has been vomiting in order to see whether anything has become lodged there. If a piece of string is found, for example, immediate surgical intervention will be needed in order to remove other string that the animal may have swallowed.”
How to Alleviate Your Cat’s Vomiting
Depending on the cause of vomiting, a variety of measures can be taken to alleviate the problem. Says Dr. Stone: “The treatment of vomiting can be divided into surgical and conservative — or nonsurgical — management. Surgical management procedures include, for example, the removal of foreign bodies or tumors from the digestive tract. Nonsurgical treatment will address such causes of vomiting as gastroenteritis, stomach ulcers, or pancreatitis. Medical therapy may include antiulcer medications and antiemetic drugs, which are designed to stop the vomiting no matter what the cause.”