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It’s normal for cats to throw up from time to time, just like it’s normal for people to throw up. Sometimes a cat might have an upset tummy or may have eaten something that didn’t agree with them. A vomit every now and then, as long as it’s not accompanied by any other concerning symptoms, isn’t a huge cause for concern. However, if your cat seems to be throwing up a lot, or is losing weight, then this is certainly something that you need to speak to your vet about. If you’re concerned that your cat might be throwing up more than it should, the following should provide you with information about what the problem could be, as well as the treatments required for each problem.
There are two types of “vomiting” involved with cats – hairballs and general vomiting. We will discuss both of these here.
Please use this information as JUST information. Do not try and diagnose your cat yourself, leave that to your vet!
Senior cats and hairballs
Why is my senior cat throwing up hairballs?
Hairballs are normal in cats of all ages. When a cat spends time grooming, it makes sense they’ll throw up a little hair now and then. The tiny barbs on your cat’s tongue (the reason that your cat’s tongue feels sandpapery when it licks you) bend backward, which means the cat is constantly swallowing its own fur as it grooms. Your cat’s digestive system is prepared for this, and most hair is safely passed through your cat’s stomach and into its poop. Occasionally the hair builds up though and can’t pass through the bowels, so your cat will throw it up.
If your cat is throwing up hairballs occasionally, as long as their appetite and behavior are otherwise normal, and there’s no blood or excessive mucus passing, it’s nothing to worry about.
Is it bad for a senior cat to get hairballs?
Frequent hairballs can be a sign of digestive issues in older cats. As cats age, their digestive system slows down. You might notice your cat isn’t pooping quite as frequently as they used to. The slowing down of digestion means your cat might develop constipation issues. Therefore, if your cat can’t poop out the excess fur it swallows, it will likely start throwing it up.
Check your cat’s litter box at least once a day to make sure he or she is going number 2. If they’re not, it’s time for a vet trip to see if anything’s backed up. Constipation is typically very easily remedied with medication, and your vet can also provide advice on keeping your cat’s digestion moving along.
More frequent hairballs can also mean your cat has some other medical condition going on. Feline arthritis, for example, might make it painful for your cat to go to the bathroom, and that could cause constipation, which can lead to more hairballs as mentioned before. If you notice any other strange behaviors, mention those to your vet at your visit. It could all be connected.
In rare cases, hairballs in senior cats can cause an intestinal blockage. Symptoms of an intestinal blockage are:
- repeated retching without a hairball coming up
- lack of an appetite
- constipation or diarrhea
Intestinal blockages are life-threatening, so if your cat is exhibiting the above symptoms and they’ve been known to have hairballs, get to the emergency vet immediately. Blockages require immediate surgical intervention.
How to prevent hairballs in senior cats
It’s hard to completely prevent hairballs, they can just happen in some cats. There are things you can do to cut down on the number of hairballs your cat is throwing up though.
- Regularly brush your cat. I like using cat brush mitts. My cat looks forward to her daily brushing with them. They have soft, rubbery bristles, so they don’t irritate your cat’s skin. Pro-tip: wet the brush with a spray bottle of water before you start brushing. This will keep the fur from falling on the floor and it will all stick to the mitt. If you have a longer haired cat or a cat with thicker fur, you should probably also invest in a wire cat brush. This will get down into the undercoat and pull out any tangles/loose hair.
- Make sure you clean any areas of the house your cat likes to sleep in/hide in regularly. Earlier this year I was growing concerned as my cat was throwing up hairballs on nearly a daily basis. I took her to the vet, she came back with a clean bill of health. Then I realized she was sleeping during the day under a chaise lounge I keep in my bedroom. There’s not that much room under there, so I definitely don’t sweep under there as often as I should. The little goof was getting under there, getting covered in dust, hair, lint, etc., and then grooming it off. No wonder she had so many hairballs!
- Feed your cat smaller meals more times throughout the day. If you’re feeding 2 cans of food 2 times a day, maybe split those into 4 feedings. This can prevent hair from building up in the GI tract.
- I started giving my cat a bowel supplement called Pumpkin Boost. It’s a blend of pumpkin, flax seeds, coconut, and ginger. It’s kind of a chunky powder that I mix in with my cat’s food 3 times a day. Since she’s been getting that she might get a hairball once every other month, down from nearly every single day.
Why is my senior cat vomiting so much?
How much vomiting is normal for senior cats?
In order to know what’s abnormal, we first need to decide on what’s normal. The short answer: if your cat is only vomiting one to three times a month without any other weird symptoms, he or she is probably fine. More often than that, or if your cat is displaying other concerning symptoms, mention it to your vet. It could be that you just have a “pukey cat”, and if your vet doesn’t find any concerning issues, it might just be that your cat has a sensitive stomach.
When is vomiting an emergency?
A little vomit on occasion is rarely a reason for concern. However, if you notice one or more of the following symptoms, you should take your cat to a vet immediately:
- Repeated vomiting in a short period of time
- Cannot keep water down
- Pale, dry, cold, or yellow gums.
- Diarrhea alongside the vomiting
- Your cat has an underlying medical ailment such as diabetes or renal disease.
- Blood in the vomit
- Any sign your cat may have eaten something it shouldn’t have (chocolate, onions, strange things in the trash, toys, etc)
Reasons your senior cat is vomiting
Eating too fast
Speed eating is a reason why your cat might be throwing up. We’ve all done it, people and cats alike! Some cats are very food driven, and might eat their food as well as any other cat’s food. If your cat is in this category, first you’ll want to take him or her to the vet just to make sure they’re okay medically. Sometimes medical conditions such as diabetes can cause ravenous hunger.
For some cats, this is a psychological thing though. My brother adopted a cat who, for most of her life, lived on the streets. She developed a kind of panic when it came to eating, because when she lived outside she didn’t know when she’d get her next meal. So she’d scarf down her food as well as their other cat’s food, and the dog food if she could. If you’re in the same situation, you’ll want to keep your cat separated from other animals while they’re eating. Don’t keep food in an easily accessible place. You might consider getting a microchip feeder for your cats. They only accept one cat’s microchip, so if the wrong cat sticks their head under there they won’t get access to the food. It’s a bit of an investment but good if you want to keep food out for your cats.
You also might consider getting a slow feeder. These force your cat to take more time to eat, so they won’t scarf down their food as fast.
Food allergies / intollerance
Just like humans, cats can have food allergies or sensitivities. There might be an ingredient in their food that they are sensitive to, and that is causing them to throw up. This is something you’ll need to talk to your vet about so they can test for common allergens. Other symptoms of food allergies include:
- Red inflamed skin or ears
- They’re itching a lot, sometimes causing hair loss or bleeding
Eating something they shouldn’t have
Cats are curious and will sometimes eat things they shouldn’t, like clumps of hair, cotton swabs, toys, or human food. In some cases, they’ll just throw them up and be done with it. If your cat seems very ill though, and they haven’t passed any kind of object, make sure to get them to the vet as soon as possible. It’s possible your cat could have eaten something poisonous, or your cat may have eaten a large object that has gotten stuck somewhere in their digestive tract.
Switching to a new food too fast
Cats are sensitive little creatures, and sudden changes to their diet can cause a lot of issues. If your vet has recommended a new food, or you’d just like to try out something else, you can’t simply throw out their old food and start giving them something new. A slow, consistent plan must be made to switch their food. Start by adding small amounts of the new food into their old food, and gradually add more and more while removing an equal amount of their old food. Ideally, this process will take about a week.
As gross as it is, parasites are a fact of life, and cats can sometimes pick them up, particularly cats that go outside. If your cat goes outside they likely eat mice now and then, and that will make them susceptible to parasites such as roundworms. Roundworms can cause your cat to vomit and have diarrhea, and often you will see tiny worms in ther vomit or feces.
If your cat is suddenly vomiting and you notice little white worms in the vomit, it’s time to go to a vet. Thankfully treating worms is a pretty simple process, and after a round of medication your cat should be completely back to normal and hopefully not throwing up as much anymore.
It’s important to know that several types of worms that cats can get humans can also get. Therefore, if your cat is diagnosed with worms, you’ll want to clean your home and any of their favorite resting places very well. You’ll probably want to get a new litter box, clean their beds, toys, and your bedding with hot water, and generally disinfect their environment to prevent re-infection.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease is a common condition that typically affects older cats. As the name suggests, it occurs when the intestines become inflamed due to irritation, such as a foreign object or food that’s not agreeing with them. It’s an ongoing syndrome, so if your cat has IBD they might have flareups now and then even with treatment. If your cat is vomiting, that means their stomach is likely affected by IBD as well. Aside from vomiting, other IBD symptoms include the following:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite or a ravenous appetite depending on how severe the IBD is
Your vet will likely take a fecal sample and have an x-ray or ultrasound done, and sometimes a biopsy will need to be done. When your cat is diagnosed, there are a few treatment options. First, your vet will likely suggest deworming just to make sure worms or other parasites aren’t the cause of your cat’s IBD. The second step is diet change. Some cats will respond to this, and the IBD will be successfully managed with just different food. B-12 supplements for cats have also been found to be useful in IBD treatment, so your vet may suggest that as a treatment. If that doesn’t help, corticosteroids are the medication that will be used to battle chronic IBD. Your cat will stay on steroids for a few months, then be taken off to see how they react. If their symptoms stay away, you can discontinue treatment. It might be the case that your cat will stay on steroids for the rest of their life though. The good news is with treatment cats with IBD can stay happy and healthy for many years to come.
Pancreatitis is a condition where a cat’s pancreas (and occasionally liver and intestines) becomes inflamed. This is a painful condition and can often cause vomiting, nausea, fever, lethargy, and decreased appetite. If your cat is displaying any of these symptoms, an emergency vet visit is in the cards. Pancreatitis is a life-threatening condition and you’ll want to treat your cat right away. This often requires overnight hospitalization. Treatment requires giving the pancreas time to rest so the swelling can go down. This is done by not allowing the cat to eat or drink until the inflammation goes down. While hospitalized your cat will be given IV fluids. With early diagnosis and treatment, the prognosis is very good. The longer you wait to treat the cat, however, the worse the prognosis gets.
While cats of any age can get pancreatitis, it’s most common in older cats who have an underlying health condition like inflammatory bowel disease or diabetes.
When your cat recovers, it should return back to normal pretty quickly. Pancreatitis can happen again though, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your cat and get them to a vet immediately if they start displaying symptoms again.
While vomiting is not a super common issue for diabetic cats, it can be a sign that something’s amiss. If your cat is vomiting more than normal, and the vomiting accompanies other symptoms such as drinking a lot of water, urinating a lot, lethargy and eating a lot more, it could be a sign your cat’s blood sugar isn’t under control. As mentioned above, diabetic cats are more prone to pancreatitis as well, so you may want to take a look at those symptoms as well.
Fatty Liver Disease
Hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, is a condition with a wide array of symptoms. This occurs often in obese cats where extra fat accumulates in the liver. Since the liver is involved in a lot of bodily functions, the symptoms can be all over the place. Cats with hepatic lipidosis not only experience vomiting, but lethargy, jaundice, weight loss, diarrhea, changes in behavior, and loss of appetite.
Bloodwork, an ultrasound, and maybe a biopsy will be done to see for sure if your cat has fatty liver disease. If your cat is diagnosed, treatment is based on their condition at the time. If your cat hasn’t been eating, IV fluids will likely be administered. Eating a high-quality diet is how to reverse this disease, but often cats will show no interest in food. If that’s the case, your vet may suggest a feeding tube to temporarily feed your cat. It’s not a fun process, but it might be a less traumatic way to feed your cat while they’re ill. This will require a 7-10 day hospitalization while your cat is cared for and fed slowly. If hepatic lipidosis is caught early, the treatment could be less extreme.
Hyperthyroidism is a fairly common medical condition mostly seen in middle-aged and older cats. This condition is caused when your cat’s thyroid gland gets larger and the amount of hormones it produces increases. In addition to vomiting, cats with hyperthyroidism will often have weight loss, increased appetite, and increased thirst and urination. Hyperactivity is another common symptom, and their coats can look matted or greasy.
There are several treatments for hyperthyroidism, and it all depends on how advanced the disease is and your cat’s overall health. Medication is the most common option. These medications are inexpensive and easy to get from your vet or any pharmacy. Sometimes cats have negative side effects to these medications though, so you may need to look for another solutions.
Surgery is another option. Surgical treatment will completely remove your cat’s thyroid glands. The good news is since the thyroid is gone, the hyperthyroism will also be gone. However, especially in older cats, this is an intense operation that has its own risks.
If you have the funds and live somewhere where it’s available, radioactive iodine therapy is the best option for cats with hyperthyroidism. This requires your cat staying in the hospital for about a week as they will be radioactive temporarily, but it’s really the only cure for hyperthyroidism at the moment that doesn’t require removal of the thyroid. 95% of cats who get this treatment see a complete reversal in hyperthyroidism symptoms. If you live in an area where this is an option, it’s absolutely the best choice.
Vomiting can be a sign of several types of cat cancers. Stomach cancer is a common one. I had a cat who died of stomach cancer, and vomiting soon after eating was the first sign something was off. This was followed by behavioral changes and lethargy. There are a lot of types of cancers out there and each has its own unique symptoms, so you’ll need to keep an eye on your cat and see if in addition to vomiting there are any other issues. Some forms of cancer can be treated, and the sooner you get a diagnosis the better.