Even the healthiest cat is apt to vomit now and then. In many cases, there’s nothing to be concerned about—except the cost and effort required to clean up the resulting stain on, say, a brand-new oriental rug. But if the otherwise fastidious little animal frequently gags and throws up whatever it has recently ingested, there is reason for concern, and a visit to the veterinarian is certainly in order.
“A lot of cats vomit on occasion,” notes Richard Goldstein, DVM, an associate professor of small animal medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “But I don’t think a cat owner should tolerate it at all—certainly not if it occurs more than once a week.”
Fortunately, he adds, most owners do seem to be appropriately concerned. Cats are routinely brought to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, he notes, with frequent bouts of vomiting as their owners’ primary concern. “We see these cats all the time,” says Dr. Goldstein. “They can be young or old and of any breed.”
A common complaint—and in most cases a relatively benign cause of feline vomiting—is the disgorging of a hairball, a damp, cylindrical wad of undigested hair, moistened by bile and other digestive fluids. It is not uncommon for a cat to expel a hairball once every week or two without any enduring problems. Indeed, a serious complication might occur if a cat does not bring up a hairball occasionally, since a clump of matter that has passed from its stomach into its intestinal tract could cause a life-threatening blockage.
Other frequently diagnosed causes of feline vomiting include the ingestion of such substances as the leaves of poisonous plants, spoiled cat food, various human medications, pieces of string or yarn, antifreeze, certain human foods (chocolate or onions, for example), or any number of objects that a cat might find lying about on the floor—paper clips, rubber bands, and the like.
A vast array of other causes of feline vomiting include: internal parasites; a wide variety of gastrointestinal conditions, such as constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, or obstruction due to an ingested foreign object; the presence of benign or cancerous gastrointestinal growths; and a wide range of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, kidney disease, and hyperthyroidism. To diagnose the cause of frequent vomiting, says Dr. Goldstein, “You start with a thorough history from the owner, a physical examination of the cat and then go to bloodwork and fecal examination to rule out possible toxicities, parasites, and metabolic diseases. If everything seems normal, you’d move on to imaging—x-rays and ultrasound, which can be helpful in finding masses, foreign objects, and other gastrointestinal tract problems. Finally, you may have to do a biopsy of intestinal tract tissue if cancer or inflammatory bowel disease is suspected.”
Regardless of the cause, cases of protracted feline vomiting will need supportive care, often involving intravenous or subcutaneous fluid therapy, and feeding a bland, easily digested diet once the vomiting has stopped. An anti-emetic drug may be prescribed to stop the vomiting in cases of dietary indiscretion or certain metabolic diseases. Specific treatment, of course, will depend upon the diagnosis. Parasites will be addressed with deworming medication. Toxicities will be treated with appropriate antidotes or supportive therapy.
Suspected infections will be treated with antibiotics, and metabolic diseases will be treated with specific therapies directed at the disease. Obstructions will need to be removed surgically, and cancer may be treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy. Inflammatory bowel disease, a common disorder in cats, is treated with dietary therapy, antibiotics and/or steroids. “Although some cat owners might think that vomiting is a normal part of feline behavior, it’s not,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Any episode of a cat’s vomiting that occurs more than once a week should certainly be brought to the attention of a veterinarian. And if it happens routinely—even less often than once a week—it should be investigated.”