Digestive system disorders 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 likely 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 vomits, there is reason for concern, and a prompt visit to the veterinarian is definitely in order.
“Any cat who vomits and doesn’t eat for longer than 12 hours, or who seems lethargic and appears to be losing weight, should be evaluated by a veterinarian,” according to Michael Stone, DVM, a specialist in internal medicine at Tufts.
Common causes of vomiting
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 causes 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 healthy cat are little cause for concern,” says Dr. Stone. “But owners should make sure to brush their cats frequently — especially long-haired cats. This will lessen the amount of swallowed hair.”
Other frequently diagnosed causes of feline vomiting 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.
The vast array of other — and frequently more consequential — causes of feline vomiting include: digestive tract invasion by worms or other parasites; severe constipation; the presence of benign or cancerous digestive tract tumors; and a coronavirus or feline parvovirus infection.
When it’s an emergency
Some potential causes of feline vomiting can be treated over time, says Dr. Stone, while others must be addressed without delay. “GI obstruction by something a cat has swallowed is a common and potentially serious cause of vomiting, one that is likely to require immediate surgical attention.”
Diagnosis is key
A cat who vomits on rare occasions but seems to be healthy overall is unlikely to need veterinary treatment. 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; 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 GI tract 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 it’s alleviated
Depending on the cause of vomiting, a variety of measures can be taken to address the problem. According to 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 causes such 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.” — Tom Ewing
What Nausea Can Indicate
Your cat Dotty is typically a big eater, showing up excitedly at feeding time each day and gobbling up every bit of food in her bowl. For the past day or so, however, her behavior has changed dramatically. She seems to be hungry enough … but when she spots her food, Dotty just sniffs at it and walks away. If that’s the case, you’d be well advised to take her to your veterinarian without delay. Although she hasn’t vomited, her apparent loss of appetite could be a sign that she’s experiencing nausea. And feeling sick to her stomach may indicate the presence of a serious physical disorder that should be treated immediately.
Dr. Michael Stone defines nausea as “a sensation of discomfort in the stomach, accompanied by an urge to vomit.” Animals like Dotty, of course, cannot describe their exact sensations in words. Consequently, as Dr. Stone points out, “We try to avoid the term nausea in veterinary medicine.” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that, given Dotty’s abrupt change in behavior, there is something about her food that is disagreeable. Other signs that a cat may be experiencing nausea include drooling, pawing at the mouth and uncharacteristic lethargy. If these signs persist,they may suggest disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, hyperthyroidism or hepatic lipidosis.
A cat like Dotty, who has shown a loss of appetite for a period of 24 hours or more — whether or not she seems to be experiencing nausea — should receive prompt veterinary care, says Dr. Stone. “If the cat is very listless,” he adds, “she should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.”