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What goes down ...

... sometimes comes back up

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2015

Your adopters and novice foster caregivers may not be prepared for that horking sound longtime cat owners know so well. Here’s what one kitty devotee learned when he explored the world of cat vomit.

I was standing in the kitchen making a sandwich when I heard that fateful sound.

Hhuallck. Hhuallck. Hhhuuuaaalllck.

I know this sound well.

I tossed the peanut butter toward the counter and raced around the corner to find my orange tabby, Bosley, sitting on the matching ottoman to my fiancée’s favorite chair, preparing to send his breakfast back. Time ground down like one of those slow-motion movie scenes as I implored him—Noooooooooo!!!!—to save the wedding by just sliding over and aiming for the hardwood floor instead.

He declined, promptly throwing up all over the pewter polyester. And as he hopped down and I swung into emergency cleanup mode, I couldn’t help but picture the two of us living on the streets, with only a stained ottoman to protect us from the elements.

Oh, Bosley. I’ll give him this: He keeps me on my toes. And as most cat owners and rescuers know, every so often you might come home to a similar surprise on the windowsill or those freshly washed sheets on your bed. You grab the paper towels, you flip on the cold water, you deal. Cats are worth it. Unquestionably.

For years, I just assumed these little “surprises” were due to a sensitive stomach—“Barfin’ Boz,” as my dad calls him. (His cat, by the way, almost never throws up. So sometimes you win that lottery.) But recently I started wondering: Well, how often is too often? Is there anything I should be doing to cut down on the vomiting? And in the case of the ottoman: HOW THE HECK DO I GET THIS MARK OUT BEFORE SHE GETS HOME?!

“When I would counsel new clients who have never had a cat before, I would oftentimes make them aware that sometimes cats vomit—and it’s typically more frequently than dogs,” says Susan Krebsbach, a veterinary adviser with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

“Oftentimes it’s due to either eating too quickly or hairballs,” Krebsbach says. But people need to know that if vomiting seems overly frequent or the barf is a worrisome color, they need to see a vet, “because it’s impossible to diagnose over the phone.”

Vomiting can be a symptom of many problems, ranging across a wide swath of severities: low-quality food or treats, food allergies, a gastrointestinal issue, a foreign body like a swallowed string, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, even organ failure.

“Frequent vomiting is not normal,” stresses Nancy Peterson, HSUS cat programs manager. “A vomit here and there, OK. But frequent vomiting—and by that I might say every day, or several times a day—something’s probably wrong.”

To help pinpoint the cause, you can also do a little detective work at home. Among the key questions to start with: Did the cat just eat? Did you recently switch foods? Is there a clump of fur in the middle of what came back up? And perhaps most important: How is the cat behaving otherwise?

“The one thing I always look at,” Krebsbach says, “is what is happening in addition to the vomiting. For example, is the cat lethargic? Is his or her appetite decreased? What does the vomit look like? If it’s undigested food, and the cat is otherwise acting normally, it is often caused by the cat eating too quickly.”

I know Bosley’s been guilty of this. The first few times we fed him wet food, he scarfed it all down, turned around, took two steps, then launched it all right back up. This can also happen in multicat households, Peterson notes, when one cat speeds through her own dinner, then hovers over another cat while she eats.

So, a few tricks: Try feeding the cat smaller, more frequent servings. Krebsbach also suggests spreading the food over a flat surface—like a plate—rather than placing it in a bowl, forcing the cat to take smaller bites. Another tip: Put a golf ball in the middle of that plate, so that the cat must slow down to move the object out of the way. And if one cat is racing through his meal much faster than the other, try feeding them in separate rooms.

If you’re finding a clump of fur in the vomit, chances are you’re dealing with hairballs. Krebsbach suggests a hairball medication such as Laxatone, which you can administer by rubbing it across the cat’s upper lip. He’ll lick it from there. Special foods can help too, as can regular brushing to reduce the amount of ingested hair.

Keep in mind, though, that while speed eating and hairballs are common culprits, they’re far from the only ones. So consult your veterinarian, and stay alert for red flags: blood, loss of appetite, lethargy or accompanying diarrhea (as in humans, dehydration is a concern).

Peterson tells the story of her adopted cat who kept gagging like he had one heck of a hairball. Turns out, he had asthma. I know I’ve been guilty of being too quick to just chalk things up to Bosley being Bosley. So I’m taking Peterson’s advice and starting a log, just to make sure this isn’t happening too frequently (and to also track the food he ate that day). I figure that whatever I find is worth mentioning at his next exam.

As for the ottoman, a standard enzymatic cleaning solution ultimately saved the day. And the wedding.

About the Author

Michael Sharp is a former Senior Content Editor at The Humane Society of the United States.