Every cat owner has experienced it. You’re in your bed, blissfully drifting off to sleep in the silence of your home when you hear IT. That sound coming from the depths of your cat as whatever is inside is trying to make its way outside. First, there are a few short, muffled hiccup-sounding noises, followed by a cough and a splat as whatever your cat has birthed through their gullet hits the floor. Then, suddenly, you are not so sleepy anymore, a little nauseous yourself, and ready to grab the paper towels and cleaning products. Alright, perhaps a bit dramatic, but some variant of this story exists for the vast majority of cat owners.
So, how much throwing up is too much throwing up? First, we need to deep dive into…
Regurgitating, Retching, and Vomiting (Oh My!)
Regurgitation: A passive motion that does not require effort or contraction of the abdominal muscles. When your cat regurgitates, the expelled food and fluid tend to be undigested and may have a cylindrical shape reflecting the shape of the esophagus.
Retching: Also known as dry heaving or gagging, the abdominal muscles are contracting, and effort is going into the motion. Sometimes cats retch for benign reasons like a simple tickle in the throat or, in some cases, to help them hear better. YES, you read that correctly. For example, there are videos of cats gagging after hearing their owner run their thumb down the teeth of a comb. The scientific reason for this is that sound reminds them of prey, and they are zeroing in on the sound.
Vomiting: Like retching, your cat is working hard when vomiting. Vomiting might be accompanied by several retches before the actual contents of the stomach come out.
Now that we have established the differences between these lovely actions, why would your cat vomit, retch, or regurgitate?
Gorging: If your cat eats too much too fast, it may trigger regurgitation due to a stretch reflex in the stomach. Dr. Shea calls this the “scarf and barf.” The regurgitation will look like undigested food, may contain whole pieces of kibble, and will likely be tubular in shape (like their esophagus) but not always.
Nausea: Sometimes your cat just doesn’t feel great, and they can catch stomach bugs just like us. These episodes should pass within a few hours or days.
Hairballs: Cats spend a lot of time grooming, and because their comb is their tongue, they end up swallowing a lot of hair. Some cats are able to pass hair through their digestive tract into the litter box, but sometimes the hair accumulates in the stomach. When the hair in the stomach becomes too much, it is vomited up. Hair in your cat’s throat can also lead to retching.
Curiosity: If a cat eats something other than food like grass, plastic, hair bands, etc., it may lead to vomiting.
Food allergies: Allergies aren’t just for people! Your cat could frequently be vomiting due to an allergy to an ingredient in their food. If you suspect this is the problem, it is important to bring them in to discuss their diet.
Constipation: If your cat is constipated, it has to come out somewhere. If their digestive tract is backed up and they can’t poop, they might vomit for digestive relief.
Other health issues: Vomiting can be a symptom of many other illnesses. It is important to rule out more benign causes and bring them in for an exam if you suspect a more severe health issue.
In Conclusion, How Much is Too Much?
Our general rule of thumb is that more than 2 or 3 times a month warrants investigation. There are some cats that are, for lack of a better phrase, just a little more pukey than others. Yearly visits help us establish a baseline for what is normal for your cat.
We are here for you and your cat! Vomiting can happen for many reasons, and we can get to the bottom of it, so give us a call to schedule your cat’s next appointment.