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Cat Regurgitation vs. Vomiting: Vet Reviewed Differences & How to Help

Written by: Gregory Iacono

Last Updated on May 16, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

Cat Regurgitation vs Vomiting

Cat Regurgitation vs. Vomiting: Vet Reviewed Differences & How to Help


Dr. Karyn Kanowski Photo


Dr. Karyn Kanowski

Veterinarian, BVSc MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

Owning a cat or several of them comes with a great deal of responsibility. Felines are independent creatures that can practically take care of themselves. However, if your cat gets sick or is involved in an accident, as a responsible pet parent, you need to know the best course of action to help them. That’s why being aware of the difference between vomiting and regurgitation is crucial.

Regurgitation and vomiting can appear to be the same thing, but to a trained eye, there are several significant differences between them. Knowing these will help you determine if your cat is coughing up a hairball, for instance, or is genuinely sick and needs veterinary care immediately. To learn those differences and become a better cat caretaker, read on.

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Cat Vomiting vs Regurgitation Infographic
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At a Glance

  • Sign of health issues
  • Abdominal contractions present
  • Often accompanied by drooling, licking, and eating grass
  • Occurs after food has been digested (or is in the process of digestion)
  • Expelled food appears digested or partially digested
  • Cat is typically nauseated
  • Usually not a sign of a health issue
  • No abdominal contractions
  • Not accompanied by these signs
  • Starts before food is digested
  • Expelled food appears undigested
  • No nausea present

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Overview of Vomiting

Vomiting in cats happens when their body is actively expelling or evacuating food that has already reached their stomach and upper intestine and is being digested. While vomiting can be a sign that a cat is ill or suffering from a dire health issue, it can also be a benign issue.

sick cat vomiting the food
Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock

Do Cats Vomit When They’re Healthy?

Cats can and do vomit when they’re healthy, most often when they “cough up” a hairball caused by ingesting hair when grooming themselves. The sound that accompanies the vomiting of hairballs is why it is often mistakenly referred to as “coughing up.” This is an example of acute vomiting. Cats can sometimes vomit for 1 to 3 days and then stop once their body has resolved the problem—for example, if your cat eats spoiled food or a moderately toxic plant. A cat that vomits once or twice a month with no other signs will likely be fine.

What Health Issues Can Cause Severe Vomiting in Cats?

Severe vomiting must be treated as quickly as possible since an underlying issue usually causes your cat to throw up. The most common causes of severe vomiting in cats include the following:

  • A bacterial or viral infection
  • An obstruction in your cat’s stomach or intestines
  • Liver and thyroid disease
  • Cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Urinary tract obstruction
  • Worms
  • Furballs
  • Gastritis (stomach inflammation)
  • Food allergies
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreatitis

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Overview of Regurgitation

The main difference between regurgitation and vomiting is that the food your cat regurgitates hasn’t started digesting in their stomach. Another difference is that rather than being an active process, regurgitation is passive and occurs automatically when your cat’s body expels undigested food. In other words, your cat doesn’t think about regurgitation; their body makes it happen. Another difference is that there’s no accompanying nausea, and your cat won’t have strong, painful contractions in their abdomen, which are often seen with vomiting.

Cat with mouth wide open
Image Credit: Luis wilker Wilkernet, Pixabay

Do Cats Regurgitate When They’re Healthy?

Cats may regurgitate when they’re healthy. Several things can force your cat’s body to regurgitate something, and it’s rare for the issue to be serious.

They include the following:
  • Your cat ate their food too fast.
  • Your cat’s food was too cold.
  • Your cat drank too much water after they finished eating.
  • Your cat got stressed or scared while eating.

What Health Issues Can Cause Severe Regurgitation in Cats?

Most regurgitation issues aren’t severe and don’t require intervention. If, however, your cat suddenly starts regurgitating frequently or has been regurgitating since they were a kitten, the following health issues might be to blame:

  • Your cat has an esophageal obstruction.
  • Your cat has an esophagus abnormality.
  • It’s idiopathic (there’s no way to tell the cause).

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When Should You Contact a Veterinarian in Cases of Vomiting?

As we’ve seen, vomiting can be acute and go away naturally, leaving your cat no worse for the wear. If it happens about once or twice a month and goes away as quickly as it comes and your cat is otherwise fit and healthy, there’s generally no need to worry. However, chronic vomiting or sudden, severe vomiting are two signs that your cat needs veterinary assistance. If your feline friend has been vomiting for over 24 hours and has any of the following signs, you should take them to your veterinarian immediately.

Female veterinarian holds sick cat close-up
Image Credit: megaflopp, Shutterstock

When Should You Contact a Veterinarian in Cases of Regurgitation?

Far fewer cats go to the vet for regurgitation-related issues than for vomit-related issues. Regurgitation is usually caused by something that just happened or that your cat just ate, and it typically isn’t life threatening. If a cat regurgitates one or two times a month, you can consider it normal behavior.

However, if your cat is regurgitating more often (or has been since they were a kitten), that’s a sign something isn’t right. If your cat regurgitates frequently and has any of these signs, you should get veterinary care immediately.

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Final Thoughts

Regurgitation and vomiting in cats can, at first glance, appear to be the same thing. That’s not the case, however. A vomiting cat might be getting rid of some rotten fish that they ate the night before or “coughing” up a hairball. However, a cat that’s frequently vomiting might also have diabetes, cancer, or several other life-threatening health issues.

Regurgitation is usually benign and happens when a cat eats too fast, drinks too much water, or gulps down their food like a dog. Occasionally, regurgitation can be a sign of a deeper health issue, but the risk is relatively low.

We hope that this information has been helpful and clarified the difference between vomiting and regurgitation in cats. While they may seem the same, the two health issues are quite different, and knowing how makes you a better pet parent!

Featured Image Credit by: (L) AjayTvm, Shutterstock | (R) Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

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