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Sick cat

The essentials

  • Cat vomit has many potential causes — Parasites, toxic substances, and foreign objects can all make your cat throw up.
  • Pay attention to the details — Noting the timing and frequency of your cat’s vomit, as well as the color and presence of any other symptoms, helps you or your vet find the underlying cause.
  • Always go to the vet after two or three episodes — If your cat vomits more than two or three times in 24 hours or appears sick otherwise, it’s best to take them to the vet for treatment.

Every cat parent dreads that gut-wrenching sound. Cat vomit is defined as a feline retching and ejecting contents from their small intestines.

While it sounds pretty self-explanatory, cat vomit can be mistaken for coughing or regurgitating, which isn’t the same thing. Regurgitation happens when a cat ejects the contents of their esophagus — usually food they’ve eaten too quickly.

Vomit, on the other hand, includes things that made it past your cat’s esophagus to their stomach or small intestines. Interestingly, a hairball may be vomited or regurgitated, depending on how far it traveled before it was expelled.

Here are some other common reasons cats vomit, including what you can do to help them feel better.

12 reasons your cat is throwing up

Despite their reputation for possessing nine lives, cats are surprisingly delicate. Their natural curiosity often outwits their tiny kitty brains into sneaking a tantalizing bite of human food, sampling houseplants, or ingesting toxic household chemicals.

The list of potential cat dangers in the average American household is virtually endless — and so are the possibilities for disastrous tummy problems. Here are 12 common reasons that cats vomit:

1. Toxic chemicals

While it may not be shocking to learn that harsh cleaning supplies are toxic to cats — as they are to virtually every living creature — many chemicals that are safe to use around humans and even dogs can have devastating effects on cats.

For example, while it’s sometimes okay to give a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to dogs to induce vomiting, the same compound causes intestinal ulcers in felines and should never be used internally or externally.

2. Human food

Some foods in your pantry, such as raisins and chocolate bars, are poisonous to your cat. But even non-toxic human foods like milk and cheese can cause tummy troubles due to food intolerances and high-fat content.

3. Hairballs

Imagine your cat’s tongue like a vacuum filter. As your cat grooms themself, loose fur sticks to your cat’s tongue and gets inadvertently swallowed and stuck — just like hair wound up in a vacuum filter. If hairballs don’t pass through your cat’s digestive tract into their feces, they get regurgitated or vomited.

Fun fact: vomited hairballs are round while regurgitated hairballs are oblong due to the shape of a cat’s esophagus.

4. Foreign objects

Hair ties, pen caps, and bottle tops can all wind up in your cat’s mouth. If they don’t choke on these objects, they end up in your cat’s stomach. However, foreign objects don’t typically digest properly, so they’re vomited or become obstructed in the GI tract.

5. Constipation

Ultimately, if food can’t pass through, it comes back up. Serious constipation can cause vomiting, especially if it’s coupled with a loss of appetite.

6. Too much kitty food

While cats tend to watch their portions more than dogs, they might still overeat if the opportunity presents itself. Make sure to only feed your cat the amount of food recommended for their size and age. You should also store human and pet food securely away from your cat to prevent them from stealing snacks.

7. Empty stomach

Too much food can make your cat nauseous, but so can extreme hunger. Call your vet if your adult cat goes longer than 24 hours without eating. Kittens and pregnant cats should eat at least every 12 hours — and more often than that if they’re weaning or under 6 months old.

8. Diet changes

Sudden diet changes can cause unpleasant side effects like vomiting and diarrhea. Gradually phase out your cat’s old food when you change their diet, rather than switching to the new food all at once.

9. Stress

Your cat might not be able to explain the mind-body connection like a yoga instructor, but they intuitively feel it and their body reacts accordingly. Stress and anxiety affect seemingly unrelated parts of your cat’s body. These negative emotions cause physical harm, such as urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea and vomiting.

10. Parasites

Intestinal parasites like tapeworms can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Keeping your cat on flea/tick prevention and deworming them at your vet’s discretion can help prevent intestinal parasites.

I recommend checking a fecal sample on cats once a year to determine if they need to be dewormed. Keeping them on monthly heartworm, flea, and intestinal parasite preventative will help prevent most parasites. This is especially important if your cat goes outside.

Dr. Jennifer Schott

11. Cancer

While certainly not the most common reason for vomiting, cancerous tumors can cause GI upset. Usually, this is more likely if your cat suffers from chronic vomiting rather than acute.

12. Pancreatitis

Yellow cat vomit may be bile from their liver. Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas. It can occur suddenly or develop over time, which is known as acute or chronic. While it’s a common issue in dogs, pancreatitis is relatively rare in cats and often comes in tandem with diabetes or liver disease.

👉 Yellow or bilious vomiting isn’t always concerning. It can also be a sign that your cat’s stomach is empty. 

Cat vomit color guide

The color of cat vomit can give you clues to the culprit. Here’s a chart with a brief rundown of what the colors may signify:

Cat vomit chart

Color Signs of
Yellow Pancreatitis, liver disease, gallbladder disease, diabetes, empty stomach
Blood Toxic ingestion, ulcers, parasites, severe stomach irritation
Green Food or substances vomited from small intestines
Brown Digested blood caused by ulcers, foreign objects, or hairballs
White foam Inflammation in the stomach or small intestines
Clear Drank too much water

While the color of your cat’s vomit may indicate possible reasons, something else your cat has eaten may muddy the waters. When trying to figure out why your cat is vomiting, take note of your cat’s health as a whole, especially if your cat is experiencing any other symptoms, such as pale gums or seizures.

Determining the cause of your cat’s vomiting

Cat vomit can have many different causes. Noting other symptoms and paying attention to details can help you or your veterinarian narrow down the underlying cause. Ask yourself questions like:

  • When did the problem start? Knowing how long your cat has been vomiting may give you a clue to the problem and determine whether the issue is chronic or acute.
  • How often is your cat vomiting? A single episode of vomiting isn’t usually anything to worry about, but you should call a vet if they experience several episodes or if they’ve vomited several times over the past few days.
  • What color is the vomit? Beyond the color, can you see anything in the vomit, such as pieces of worms?
  • Do you have multiple pets? If so, pay attention to see if anyone else is vomiting or appears sick.
  • Are they having diarrhea? Vomiting coupled with diarrhea signifies intestinal inflammation and can rapidly dehydrate your cat. Call your vet if your cat has both of these issues — especially if they’re a kitten who can quickly reach critical levels of dehydration.
  • Are they still eating their food? You should call a vet if your cat vomits and goes longer than 12 hours without eating.
  • Are they acting lethargic? It can be difficult to tell when your cat is sick because felines often try to hide their symptoms. But, they’ll typically seek out a calm, quiet spot to rest if they’re feeling unwell.
  • How much water are they drinking? A cat who drinks excessively and then vomits repeatedly may have an underlying disease, like diabetes.

Always call your vet if your cat vomits or has diarrhea more than 2 or 3 times a day. When you get there, be prepared to answer these questions and provide a stool sample if diarrhea has been an issue.

How your vet will treat vomiting

Once your veterinarian learns all of the possible clues, they’ll decide how to proceed. Depending on the most probable cause, they may recommend blood work with urinalysis to test for diseases, fecal flotation for parasites, x-rays, abdominal radiographs, or a combination of these.

Common treatment methods include:

  • Fluids. Your veterinarian may administer fluids to combat the risk of dehydration or to flush toxins if they ate something poisonous.
  • Medication. Acute, temporary causes of vomiting may be abated with anti-nausea medication such as Cerenia (maropitant) or Zofran (ondansetron), and plenty of fluids. If your veterinarian diagnoses your cat with a chronic illness like diabetes, they will need medications for ongoing treatment.
  • Diet change. Inflammation may indicate the need for a different food. Your cat may also be prescribed a special diet to deal with hairballs if that’s the underlying cause.

If your vet doesn’t find anything out of the ordinary, they’ll likely recommend supporting treatment such as feeding 25% of their normal food or plain boiled chicken until their tummy settles. They may also recommend a follow-up appointment or further testing in a couple of weeks, especially if the issue isn’t fully resolved.

While every gag doesn’t necessitate a trip to the vet, paying attention to how often and when your cat vomits can clue you into medical problems early so you can get them the treatment they need. Kittens and adult cats with health issues are at an elevated risk of dehydration, so don’t hesitate to call the vet — especially if they’re also having diarrhea or acting sick.

Frequently asked questions

What do I feed a cat if it is vomiting?

If a cat vomits once or twice but still acts relatively well, you can feed them a quarter portion of their regular food, or plain boiled chicken. The most important task is to keep them hydrated. While your cat can live a long time without food, dehydration is a much bigger danger. You should always call your vet if your cat goes more than 12 hours without eating or drinking.

When should I be concerned about my cat throwing up?

If your cat throws up more than two or three times a day, you should call the vet. You can always call sooner than that if you’re worried about them, they’re presenting other signs of sickness, they’re vulnerable due to age, or have underlying health issues.

What does serious cat vomit look like?

Brown or red vomit indicates blood, which warrants a call to the vet. You should also call a vet immediately if your cat vomits a piece of a worm so you can have your pet thoroughly dewormed, as well as any other animals in your house.

What do you give a cat for vomiting?

Your vet will likely prescribe Cerenia (maropitant) or Zofran (ondansetron) to combat your cat’s nausea. If you’re trying to ease the symptoms at home, make sure your cat stays hydrated and feed them reduced portions of their food or plain boiled chicken until they’re feeling better.

Why is my cat suddenly throwing up food?

The color and timing of your cat’s vomit can tell you a lot about the cause. If your cat vomits soon after their meal, they might eat too quickly and regurgitate their food. A slow feeder bowl may help speedy cats enjoy their meal better and improve their digestion. Irregular colors or segments in their food may indicate other issues. Always call your vet if your cat vomits more than three times a day or if the problem happens intermittently over the week.