If you had a human roommate who regularly vomited on the carpet, you’d probably worry about their health. However, many cat owners see their pet’s vomiting as a reality.
Then why cats vomit so much? And is it normal?
“It’s never really normal for a cat to vomit,” he said. Sara Schmidveterinarian specializing in canine and feline internal medicine at the University of Tennessee.
But before you take Mittens to the ER, you should know there’s a problem: Much of what we think is vomiting is actually something else.
“I teach veterinary students, and one of the first things I always teach them is: How do you determine that it’s vomit and not something else? Because there are a lot of similarities,” Schmid told LiveScience.
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One of those similarities are hairballs. Healthy cats spend between 30% and 50% from their daily grooming, and much of that fur ends up on their stomach. In general, passes through your gastrointestinal system and ends up in his poop. When it doesn’t, you get a hairball.
Hairballs are eliminated through vomiting, so the process seems identical. The only difference is what falls on the carpet: a wad of wet hair, instead of a puddle of vomit.
Still, even hairballs can be a sign of something more serious.
“In a healthy cat population, 10% of short-haired cats and 20% of long-haired cats will have a hairball two or more times a year,” Schmid said. If it happens more than that — several times a month, for example — it’s a good idea to take your feline to the vet, he added. It could be the result of excessive grooming, a sign that your cat needs to be groomed, or even an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) problem.
Another thing similar to vomiting is coughing. A coughing cat looks like it’s vomiting, but all that comes out is foam or mucus.
Retching is similar: a cat’s stomach pumps in and out as if it were vomiting, but its stomach is empty, so nothing comes out.
Finally, there is regurgitation. While vomiting (and the other similar ones mentioned) is an active process in which the abdomen contracts to remove food from the stomach, regurgitation is passive. In this scenario, food that has not yet reached the stomach simply returns.
“A lot of times cats do that if they eat too quickly,” Schmid said. “We see cats mentioning things because they’re like, ‘Food! Excited!’ and they eat it, and all of a sudden, it comes right up.”
You can tell if food hasn’t reached the stomach by looking at the consistency: if it’s still mostly solid chunks and doesn’t contain yellow bile or partially digested food, it’s probably been regurgitated.
But just because it’s not always vomit doesn’t mean liquids coming out of a cat’s mouth aren’t cause for concern. Each of these processes seems very similar and it takes a veterinarian years of training to spot the difference. If in doubt, call your veterinarian. It could be serious.
“Gastrointestinal illness and vomiting are probably one of the most common complaints; if you look at insurance claims for dogs and cats, they’re always in the top five or ten reasons a pet goes to the vet,” he said. Schmid. “So I would say, overall, it’s a common type of disease.”
Even if it’s not caused by a health condition, there could be something harmful in your food. Schmid said cats with chronic vomiting (regular vomiting that persists for more than three weeks) often have an allergy or intolerance to something in their diet. A veterinarian can diagnose that problem and recommend a diet that best suits you.
“I would say that in general, if your cat is breeding things, you should consult your veterinarian,” Schmid said.