When you find yourself woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a gagging or vomiting cat, it can be difficult to think clearly. You may go stumbling through the house, looking for signs of vomit, and only find a puddle of clear foam where your cat has thrown up.
There are many potential reasons that cats may throw up foam and each of these conditions requires its own unique diagnostic workup and treatment.
Why Do Cats Throw Up?
Cats may throw up, or vomit, for a variety of reasons. In many cases, a cat owner’s first thought when their cat vomits is that the cat must have hairballs.
While that certainly can be the case, there are many other factors that may cause a cat to vomit. In most cases, these other causes of vomiting are far more likely than hairballs, because even hairballs typically occur secondary to some other underlying condition.
One of the primary causes of throwing up in cats is an illness that affects the digestive tract.
There are many different possible causes of gastrointestinal (GI) upset in cats, including parasites, bacterial infections, food intolerance, indigestion, gastritis (stomach inflammation), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), or constipation.
Some cats may vomit because they have ingested a foreign object, such as string or an insect. Other cats may vomit due to a more serious underlying intestinal disease, such as cancer or an autoimmune inflammatory condition.
Cats can also vomit due to systemic diseases, or conditions that occur outside of the gastrointestinal tract. A number of systemic illnesses can include vomiting as a clinical sign, such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and others. Toxin ingestion may also trigger vomiting, as well as some neurologic conditions.
When considering the potential causes of vomiting in cats, it can be helpful to distinguish between acute and chronic vomiting. Acute vomiting is vomiting that has developed recently and suddenly.
For example, a cat with no previous history of vomiting that vomits several times in one day is experiencing acute vomiting. Chronic vomiting, in contrast, is vomiting that occurs over a prolonged period of time.
While it can sometimes be a challenge to distinguish between acute and chronic vomiting, characterizing your cat’s vomiting can aid in narrowing down potential causes of the vomiting. Acute vomiting is more likely to be caused by parasites, infection, or a foreign body, while chronic vomiting is more likely to be associated with longstanding diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, or systemic illness.
How Foam Is Different From Vomit?
When you think about “normal” cat vomit, you probably envision something that looks more or less like undigested food. This can make it surprising or concerning when your cat vomits frothy white foam or other clear liquid.
A cat will vomit foam when the stomach and upper intestines are empty. This foam is a combination of bile and mucous, which gives it a characteristic foamy appearance. The presence of foam in your cat’s vomit, instead of digested food, suggests that your cat probably did not eat in the hours immediately prior to vomiting.
Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Foam?
Your cat may vomit foam for a variety of reasons, including both gastrointestinal conditions and conditions occurring outside of the intestinal tract.
Common causes of vomiting in cats include:
- Intestinal Parasites: There are a variety of intestinal worms that can cause vomiting in cats, including hookworms, roundworms, and Ollulanus tricuspis, the cat stomach worm. Cats typically develop these worms after coming in contact with the vomit or feces of an infected animal.
- Infection: Bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, can cause vomiting in cats. There are also a number of viral illnesses that may cause vomiting in cats.
- Food Intolerance: Like humans, cats can develop allergies or sensitivities to ingredients in their food. While food allergies often cause skin issues in cats, some cats may develop vomiting or diarrhea as a result of a food sensitivity.
- Immune-mediated Disease: Cats are prone to a number of inflammatory conditions of the intestines, which are all commonly referred to as inflammatory bowel disease. The trigger of this inflammation is often unknown, although dietary sensitivity may play a role. Affected cats often demonstrate vomiting, diarrhea, and/or weight loss.
- Cancer: Tumors within the esophagus, stomach, or intestines can cause cats to throw up. These tumors may obstruct the mechanical flow of food past the tumor, or they may cause inflammation that interferes with normal gastrointestinal function.
- Foreign Body: Cats are naturally curious creatures. Occasionally, a curious cat eats string, leaves, bugs, or other non-food items. Once ingested, these materials can irritate the gastrointestinal tract or cause an intestinal blockage, either of which may trigger vomiting.
- Systemic Disease: In some cases, vomiting can be a symptom of a systemic (body-wide) disease. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease are all associated with vomiting, in addition to other illnesses. Even heartworms are associated with vomiting in cats.
In order to determine the cause of your cat’s vomiting, your veterinarian will need to perform a thorough physical examination and diagnostic workup. During the physical exam, your veterinarian will palpate your cat’s abdomen, feeling for evidence of intestinal masses or intestinal thickening.
Your veterinarian will also look for signs of systemic illness that may explain your cat’s vomiting. Next, your veterinarian will recommend diagnostic testing. Depending on your cat’s age, history, and physical exam abnormalities, recommended tests may include bloodwork, a urinalysis, testing for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, thyroid level testing (in older cats), abdominal radiographs (x-rays), and/or abdominal ultrasound. Additional testing may also be recommended, depending on the results of these initial tests.
What To Do If Your Cat Throws Up Foam?
If you notice that your cat has thrown up foam, it’s important to make a few observations. Did your cat vomit red foam, which could indicate bleeding in the esophagus? Did your cat vomit yellow foam, which indicates the presence of bile? Taking note of the characteristics of your cat’s vomit can allow you to provide potentially valuable information to your veterinarian.
Next, monitor your cat carefully. A single episode of vomiting (even if your cat vomits several puddles in rapid succession) may not require immediate intervention, as long as your cat is otherwise acting normal. Confine your cat to a small area for ease of monitoring (so you can be confident that your cat isn’t vomiting off in some corner of the house where you may not find it) and keep an eye on her, but she may return to normal over the next several hours.
If your cat has three or more episodes of vomiting in a day, however, or if he or she is acting very lethargic or ill even after a single episode of vomiting, you should contact your veterinarian to schedule an appointment for your cat. A loss of appetite that persists for more than one day should also trigger a call to your veterinarian.
Many cats have a long-term history of chronic, intermittent vomiting. While owners often chalk this up to hairballs, these cats often have underlying gastrointestinal issues that are contributing to the vomiting. If your cat has a history of vomiting, you should mention this to your veterinarian at your next appointment. Your veterinarian can talk to you about potential causes of your cat’s vomiting, discussing potential workup and treatment options with you. If your cat’s chronic vomiting increases in frequency or severity, this indicates a need to call your veterinarian and schedule an earlier visit.
There are a number of reasons that your cat may vomit foam, on either an acute or chronic basis. If you have concerns about your cat’s vomiting, it’s always best to contact your veterinarian for a thorough evaluation.
Frequently Asked Questions
What to do when your cat is throwing up foam?
If your cat has a single episode of vomiting, you can attempt at-home supportive care. Withhold food for several hours to allow your cat’s stomach to settle, then re-introduce food slowly and gradually. If your cat refuses to eat, or has repeated episodes of vomiting, contact your veterinarian.
When should I be concerned about my cat vomiting?
Vomiting can be a concern when it occurs acutely, as well as when it becomes a chronic problem. If your cat has more than three episodes of vomiting within a 24-hour period, or has a history of chronic, intermittent vomiting, you should contact your veterinarian for a thorough evaluation.
What can I give my cat for vomiting?
There are no over-the-counter medications that can be safely administered to a vomiting cat. If your cat vomits multiple times within a period of a week, contact your veterinarian to schedule an appointment for a physical examination. Your veterinarian will look for the underlying cause of your cat’s vomiting and may be able to prescribe anti-nausea drugs, if appropriate.