Cat Gagging: What You Need To Know & How To Help

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Have you ever noticed your cat gagging? It can be a worrying thing to observe and there are many causes for this. Some are harmless and others can be quite dangerous. It’s important to know what could be causing this in our cats and what we can do to help them if they’re gagging.

What Is Gagging?

Gagging is a normal reaction of a cat’s body (and ours too!), sometimes called a ‘gag reflex’ or a ‘pharyngeal reflex.’ It occurs when sensory stimulation (such as a foreign object, medicine, etc.) hits the back of the throat and the muscles constrict and try to expel the object from the body. It’s a protective mechanism.

It can also be called ‘retching’ or ‘dry heaving’ and can involve the upper gastrointestinal tract, down to the stomach. It can sometimes (but not always) be followed by vomiting and occur with nausea.

Gagging can sometimes be confused with coughing or sneezing so it’s important to watch the symptoms carefully to tell the difference. If you’re not sure, you can take a video to show to your veterinarian.

Also Read: Pica In Cats: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

What Causes Gagging In Cats?

As we’ve mentioned, gagging is a reflex of the body to protect it from harmful substances. It can be caused by a multitude of conditions. The main ones in cats include;

Foreign Bodies

Cats, especially young, playful ones, can sometimes ingest harmful objects, such as string, tinsel, plastic, bones, etc. These objects can cause gagging and potentially get stuck in the upper gastrointestinal tract. They can also travel to the stomach and intestines where they can cause a blockage. This will cause retching and likely vomiting, along with other symptoms.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Gag At Combs?

Toxins/Harmful Substances

Toxic substances like poisons or household cleaners will likely cause a lot of gagging and vomiting if ingested. This is because they are so irritating to the body and cause multiple clinical signs.

Also Read: Drug Poisoning In Cats: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Eating Habits

Some cats may “scarf and barf,” meaning, they eat too quickly which causes them to gag or vomit.

Some cats eat too quickly and this can cause gagging and/or regurgitation of the food. This is more common with dry kibble food.

Medications

cat taking a pill

Giving cats medications can often cause gagging.

Giving your cat medication can sometimes cause gagging, especially if the pill or tablet breaks up in their mouth when you’re trying to give them the medication. This is because the medicine doesn’t taste very nice and makes your cat feel sick.

Certain medications can also cause vomiting as a side effect. If your cat is gagging since they’ve started a new medication, inform your veterinary clinic immediately.

Also Read: How To Give Your Cat A Pill (With 7 Proven Tips!)

Hairballs

Coughing up hairballs is common for cats, due to their grooming habits.

Hairballs are a very common reason for gagging in cats. As cat parents know, cats spend a huge amount of time grooming. They groom themselves with their tongues, which have tiny spikes on them called ‘papillae.’ These act like a small comb for your cat’s fur.

During grooming, cats can ingest a lot of the hair and this forms a hairball in your cat’s stomach which they vomit up. You might notice some bile and mucus along with the hair. Some cats struggle to vomit up hairballs, especially if they have long-haired coats. This can cause a lot of gagging and vomiting behavior.

Also Read: Best Cat Grooming And Deshedding Gloves

Nausea

When our cats are feeling sick, they can gag or retch. They may or may not bring up stomach contents with the gagging. Nausea can be a symptom of many conditions, from something as simple as tummy upset to more serious illnesses and conditions, like kidney disease or inflammatory bowel disease.

Chronic/Frequent Gagging In Cats

Chronic or frequent gagging in cats is more likely to be due to a chronic condition than an acute condition e.g. acute conditions like a foreign body or toxin exposure. Chronic gagging may be caused by a hairball problem, food problem (such as eating too fast), or an underlying disease. Diseases that can cause chronic gagging in cats include, but aren’t limited to;

What To Do If Your Cat’s Gagging

If your cat is gagging it can be quite worrying to witness. First, keep calm. If you become panicked, it might make your cat feel the same.

If you can, try to have a look inside your cat’s mouth. Check for any material like plastic, string, or plant material. It might be useful to have someone else helping you and to use a flashlight. If you see an object, don’t try to pull it out; it might cause more damage.

Contact your veterinarian right away and arrange an emergency appointment. Don’t offer your cat any food as this might push the object further down and can interfere with veterinary treatment, especially if your vet needs to sedate or anesthetize your cat.

Also Read: Cat Doesn’t Chew Her Food and Throws Up: When To Worry?

How To Help A Gagging Cat

Gagging can be caused by lots of things. There are a few things that you can do to help.

  • Slow feeder bowls – If your cat eats very fast and you think this is why it’s gagging, invest in a slow feeder bowl. It will make your cat slow down and take their time while eating. You could also look at using interactive feeders which provide mental stimulation and mimic natural predatory hunting behavior for cats.
  • Hairball remedies – If hairballs are the main reason for gagging in your cat, there are lots of things out there that can help. Hairball pastes (which act as a lubricant for the hairball), hairball treats, and hairball food are all helpful. Regularly brushing your cat, particularly if they’re long-haired, can prevent some hairball issues.
  • Toxins/foreign objects – Cat-proof your house as much as possible. Keep cleaning products locked away, avoid leaving string out, dispose of leftover food promptly, and ensure that there’s nothing poisonous or toxic that your cat may access (examples include lily plants, garlic, and onions).

Also Read: The 10 Best Healthy Canned, Soft & Wet Cat Foods For 2023

Treatment of Gagging in Cats

cat and vet-compressed

Some cases of gagging might be resolved by using slow-feeding bowls or addressing hairball issues, but certain cases might be caused by more serious conditions.

If your cat has suddenly started to gag and is clearly distressed, you need to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Time is of the essence when it comes to foreign objects that are causing a blockage. The same goes for poison ingestion. Your emergency vet will examine your cat and rule out common causes of sudden gagging/vomiting to reach a diagnosis.

In more chronic cases of gagging, watch your cat for other symptoms, such as lethargy, reduced appetite, weight loss, increased drinking, and urination. These symptoms might indicate an underlying problem. In any case of chronic gagging, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. The vet will examine your cat and maybe even do some routine blood and urine testing.

Conclusion

Most of us have heard a cat gagging at some stage. In a lot of cases, this can be caused by hairballs. However, gagging that is acute and severe can be a sign of a more urgent issue and needs veterinary attention.

Chronic reoccurring gagging might also be a sign of underlying disease and is not something to be ignored or dismissed. If the gagging doesn’t resolve, it’s worth getting your cat checked out by your vet.

Also Read: The 5 Best Hairball Remedies For Cats

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my cat gag but not throw up?

Gagging can sometimes be accompanied by vomiting. This depends on if there are any contents in the stomach or if the problem is affecting the upper gastrointestinal tract, such as the esophagus, and pharyngeal area.

Why is my cat randomly gagging?

There are many reasons for gagging, from hairball issues to eating too fast, and from foreign bodies to an underlying disease. If your cat is suddenly gagging and it’s not resolving, a check-up with your vet is needed.

What to do if a cat is gagging?

Keep calm and see if you can look in your cat’s mouth for foreign objects. If you see anything, don’t pull it out. Instead, book an appointment with your vet. If gagging is a chronic problem, you can try hairball remedies, use slow-feeding bowls, and rule out an underlying disease with your vet.

Why does my cat act like he is choking?

Gagging is a strong reflex that the body uses to protect itself from harmful substances. It can appear as if your cat is choking. If your cat is continuously gagging and in distress, see your veterinarian immediately.

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About Aisling O'Keeffe MVB CertSAM ISFMAdvCertFB

Aisling qualified from University College Dublin as a veterinarian in 2015 and went on to work in a mixture of small animal hospitals here and in the UK, including a cat-only veterinary clinic for 3 years. She has completed a postgraduate certificate in Small Animal Medicine and the International Society of Feline Medicine's postgraduate certificate in Advanced Feline Behaviour. Last year, she wrote a children's book called 'Minding Mittens', which aims to educate children on cat behaviour and care and featured on the RTE tv series 'Cat Hospital'. She has recently become a Fear Free certified vet, which aims to make vet visits as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. In her spare time, she enjoys looking after her pets, which includes 6 recently rescued guinea pigs and 13 ex-battery hens and renovating her cottage with her husband and baby

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