Ask A Vet: Why Is My Cat Vomiting?


Cats vomit sometimes and not all causes warrant medical intervention. Some will be self-limiting and not life threatening, but some are dangerous and it is important to know which causes are likely to be emergent. The following list can help you decide when you should call your vet or if you should proceed immediately to the animal ER.

Foreign Body Ingestion

When your cat eats something that is not a food item, like a string or a toy, you want to call your vet sooner rather than later.  Even if the item is small and likely to pass, it is a good idea to have your veterinary team on standby just in case. As indigestible items pass through the stomach and bowel, they can cause profound irritation at the very least and they can completely block the bowel. Complete obstruction is a surgical emergency. The longer you watch and wait, the sicker your cat will get.

Strings and yard can be specifically bad because of the way a cat will play with them. Have you ever noticed how your cat chews at something, opening his mouth, lifting his tongue and sometimes pawing at his face? This normal tendency can lead to a particular issue with string or yarn. These items are called “linear foreign bodies” because of their shape.  Your cat’s mouthing tendency can create a special issue that wraps such a linear item around the base of his tongue. The other end of the string will pass into the GI system, but be tied to the tongue. His bowel can fold along the string, like an elastic waist band and will make the string saw through the bowel wall, emptying contaminated intestinal contents loose into his abdomen.

If your cat is vomiting and acting sick, don’t delay. If she has foul smelling, projectile vomit and is not even able to hold down clear liquids, it is an emergency. This is a time to take your cat to your vet. If it is afterhours, these symptoms do not need to wait. Go to the animal ER. Remember, you might not be able to visualize a string even if it is under the tongue if it has sawed into the base and your cat will probably resist you looking.

Metabolic Disease

These are things like renal (kidney) disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and liver disease.  The mechanism for the vomiting in these cases is different from the foreign body, but you will need a vet’s help to uncover these causes. Each will have a different treatment protocol and prognosis, so getting to the root cause is essential. These cases will usually be characterized by intermittent vomiting, sometimes weight loss and are often accompanied by other signs that may not be obvious, like increased water consumption or urination.

Such intermittent signs may not warrant an ER trip and can usually wait for your regular vet, but don’t wait too long. Early diagnosis is your best chance for a successful treatment plan.

Infectious Causes

Believe it or not, cats can get stomach bugs just like people.  Viruses and bacteria can make your cat vomit.  These patients sometimes have a fever also and many do not seem to feel well.  Diarrhea can accompany or follow the vomiting. Even if your cat is not around other animals, you can track infectious agents in on your shoes.

Infectious gastroenteritis can become severe and contribute to dehydration, but if treated appropriately, your cat should recover without incident. There are viruses in cats that can have a scarier prognosis and you will need a veterinary team to help you if the vomiting goes for more than a day or so or if diarrhea develops. The two symptoms together can rapidly dehydrate your cat and must be addressed. It is a good idea to contact a veterinary professional and get their input on the individual case to help decide if it is an emergency.


Vomiting in cats is often dismissed by vets and other people as “just hairballs”. Trichobezoars (damp wads of undigested hair) are somewhat common in cats because of their grooming method, but if your cat vomits more than once a week, you should ask your vet. Many other more serious problems can be overlooked if you assume that the cause is hairballs. If you cat vomits cylindrical shaped vomit that is the same color as his coat, it could be as simple as a hairball though and administering a weekly petroleum based laxative (labeled for use in cats) can help. Like other causes of intermittent vomiting, hairballs are not as likely to be an emergency unless your cat is completely obstructed and not able to help down even clear liquids.

Other Causes

There are other unusual causes of vomiting in cats. Things like developmental defects in young animals or gastrointestinal cancers in older cats. These miscellaneous causes will require veterinary diagnostics to unearth the source and because they are so varied, they have different treatment protocols and prognoses.

Vomiting can be a sign of serious diseases and disorders, especially if it continues for more than an episode or two and your cat is acting like she feels bad (lying around and not interested in normal activities). Scan your environment for possible culprits, like partially chewed/missing toys or string. NEVER give human medications to a cat. Let your vet decide what needs to be given based on his/her exam and diagnostic results. Take up solid food, offer clear liquids and call your vet!


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vet thumbnailAbout The Author: Dr. Kathryn Primm is a practicing small animal veterinarian and practice owner at Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, TN.  She has consulted on articles for national magazines, done numerous radio interviews and appeared on local television. She has contributed to articles for Prevention magazine (April 2015) and Woman’s Day (Feb 2014 and June 2015). Her radio segment Chattanooga Pet Talk airs each week on all the local iHeart Media affiliates.

She has a social media presence on TwitterFacebook and Google+ and enjoys interaction with others about her passions, animals and communication.  She has written a book, Tennessee Tails:Pets and Their People. The book received recognition as Runner Up in the Memoirs category at a national book festival. You can read more about Dr. Primm and how to get the best value for your pet care dollar at her website,

Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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