Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Undigested Food?

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A domestic cat photographed outside, with grass in the background, next to a small pile of vomit. The image captures a common behavior where cats may ingest grass to induce vomiting, potentially aiding in digestion or removing unwanted substances from their stomach.

It’s never fun to see (or hear) your cat throwing up undigested food. It sounds gross, and there’s nothing pleasant about stepping in a freshly left pile of damp kibble. In this article, you’ll learn the differences between vomiting and regurgitation, the causes of both in cats, treatment and prevention, and some frequently asked questions.

Key Takeaways

Regurgitation is different from vomiting and happens when a cat throws up undigested food.

Many of the reasons for why a cat may be throwing up undigested food can be remedied at home.

Frequent regurgitation may indicate an underlying health problem and needs veterinary attention.

Vomiting vs. Regurgitation: Which One Am I Seeing?

An informative illustration depicting the difference between vomit and regurgitation in cats. Vomit, shown on the left, involves partially digested food and often has a fluid consistency. Regurgitation, shown on the right, is undigested food expelled from the esophagus without the forceful abdominal contractions associated with vomiting.

Before getting into what to do about your cat throwing up undigested food, it’s important to first know the difference between the two types of throwing up. Are you seeing vomiting or regurgitation?

Vomiting

Vomiting expels the contents of the stomach and of the early small intestine. Vomit usually contains some amount of at least partially digested food. It is also typically accompanied by bile, a yellow or green fluid that is part of digestion in the small intestine.

When cats vomit, it’s usually a pretty dramatic event. They’ll act anxious or on edge, sometimes lick their lips, then hunker down towards the floor. Their stomach will start to contract in and out, which is very noticeable in cats, often resembling a series of full-body spasms before retching and ejecting their stomach contents. Some cats also vocalize and make odd noises prior to vomiting.

Vomiting occurs shortly after eating, or even a couple hours later.

Regurgitation

Regurgitation looks a bit different from vomiting and is typically less dramatic. It only truly involves food being expelled from the mouth, pharynx (throat area), and esophagus. Always occurring shortly after eating, regurgitation involves a more passive expulsion of food that looks very undigested though possibly covered with a little mucus.

Compared to the spasms and drama of vomiting, regurgitation is often accompanied by a little cough or gag, but it otherwise appears as though the food just sort of popped out. The bolus of food expelled often has a cylindrical or tube-like shape.

By and large, if you see your cat throwing up undigested food, they are actually regurgitating, not vomiting.

Also Read: How to Clean Up Cat Vomit In 5 Simple Steps

What Are the Possible Causes of My Cat Throwing Up Undigested Food?

If your cat is regurgitating undigested food, there are several possible causes. Some common reasons include:

  • Your cat eats too much: if your cat overeats and surpasses their stomach’s capacity, additional food sitting in the esophagus will come back up.
  • Your cat eats too quickly: Eating fast and gulping food also leads to gulping air. Excess air in the stomach and esophagus then leads to food being expelled.
  • Your cat is stressed: If a cat is fearful or stressed, especially because of competition for resources with other pets in the home, this often leads to rapid eating and scarfing down food.
  • Your cat drinks too much water: A lot of water consumed before or after eating reduces the allowed volume of food in the stomach.
  • Inflammation of the esophagus: Esophagitis inhibits the forward motion of the esophagus, which helps food move down into the stomach, leading to spasms of the esophagus. Stomach acid from recurrent vomiting can ironically cause esophagitis, leading to regurgitation as well.
  • Inherited diseases of the esophagus: Some animals are born with inherited disorders of motility, or motion, of the esophagus, predisposing them to regurgitation. Megaesophagus is the biggest one, where the esophagus becomes abnormally dilated and its muscles cannot function properly.
  • Other acquired diseases of the esophagus: There are many other medical causes of esophageal disease. These include trauma, ulceration, and metabolic or endocrine/hormonal disorders. Megaesophagus can also develop secondary to another cause like a stricture, foreign object, a growth/tumor, or neurologic disease affecting the muscles.

When To Call the Vet

Fortunately, there are some simple remedies to use at home to help with many common causes of regurgitation. This is especially so if your cat is throwing up food because of food-eating behaviors, stress, or anxiety.

Generally, if regurgitation occurs more than two or three times a month and these home remedies aren’t effective, there may be an underlying medical cause. Take your cat to the vet to see if this is the case.

Treatment for Regurgitation in Cats

An endearing image of a veterinarian holding a cute Burmese cat in a clinical setting, reflecting the bond between a caring medical professional and their feline patient.

When at-home changes are made and your cat is still frequently throwing up undigested food, it is time to visit the veterinarian.

If you’re not sure if your cat is vomiting or regurgitating, it’s best to start with a veterinary exam. There are many underlying medical causes of both vomiting and regurgitation and it’s best to rule these possibilities out before assuming a behavioral cause is to blame. Review with your vet what you’re seeing in your cat and determine the best way to proceed.

If your cat is regurgitating often, your vet may elect to check for megaesophagus or evidence of a foreign object with an x-ray. Megaesophagus cannot be cured but can be managed depending on the underlying cause.

Regurgitation caused by a stricture, growth, foreign object, or chronic inflammation may require the passage of an endoscope down the esophagus under anesthesia to view the problem. Small growths or objects can be removed through the scope while larger ones may require surgery.

Chronic inflammation or ulceration of the esophagus is often addressed with medications to reduce stomach acid and coat the tissues of the esophagus and stomach to help with healing.

Home Care For Regurgitation

If you’re for sure seeing regurgitation and you see your cat throwing up undigested food as a result of a behavioral issue, here are some at-home approaches to help your cat.

  • Slow down your cat’s eating pace. The simplest method is to move food to the outer edges of the bowl so that your cat can’t down the food in one go. Slow feeder bowls and puzzle bowls have also been shown to help reduce regurgitation occurrence.
  • Feed smaller meals more frequently. Split your cat’s daily amount of food into three or four meals. If you can’t do this feeding schedule personally, automated feeders are helpful to portion food out at certain times.
  • Make your cat hunt for food. Cats are instinctive hunters. Some cat owners actually hide small amounts of food throughout the house for their cats to find. This is a fun and stimulating way for your cat to eat. Cover both ends of a toilet paper roll with tape and cut a small hole in the side. Put several kibbles inside and your cat will have a great time manipulating the toilet paper roll to get their food out!
  • Reduce stress with private access to food. In multiple pet households where food competition is an issue, give your cat a quiet, private place to eat. This often reduces frenzied eating behavior.
  • Keep food and feeding times consistent. Changing your cat’s food too often and feeding at inconsistent times commonly lead to an upset stomach. Automatic feeders help make feeding times more regular if you can’t be at home to do it in person. New diet changes need to be transitioned to over 1-2 weeks to allow your cat’s digestive system to adjust.

Prevention of Regurgitation in Cats

An image showcasing a puzzle feeder designed for cats, featuring various compartments and challenges to engage the cat's mind and encourage problem-solving while eating, providing both mental stimulation and nourishment.

Giving your cat a feeding set-up and schedule that helps them enjoy their food is a great way to prevent regurgitation in the first place.

Some of the at-home therapy strategies for cats also act as prevention for simple and infrequent causes of regurgitation:

  • Reduce stress for your cat by giving them a quiet, safe place to enjoy their food.
  • Keep meals smaller but more frequent to help with digestion and satiation.
  • Slow down eating by spreading the food out around the edges of a bowl or use a slow feeding/puzzle bowl.

Final Thoughts

Regurgitation is the term for your cat throwing up undigested food. This is common in cats, but should still only happen occasionally. In these cases, some at-home remedies help reduce the occurrence. Regurgitation that occurs more often than a couple times a month warrants further investigation from a veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical cause.

Also Read: 10 Subtle Signs Your Cat May Be Sick

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I be concerned about my cat vomiting?

Everyone vomits once in a while for some reason, cats included. If your cat throws up once, but appears fine afterwards and you don’t see this again for at least a month or more, there is generally very little to be concerned about.

However, if your cat vomits more than twice a month, especially on a weekly basis, there is almost always some kind of medical cause responsible that needs to be evaluated. Other concerns include vomiting accompanied by weight loss, lethargy or other behavior changes, and when your cat’s appetite is also reduced. 

What is the difference between vomiting and regurgitation in cats?

Vomiting is an action of the stomach, while regurgitation occurs more with the esophagus. With vomiting, there is active spasming/contraction of the stomach. Vomit often has signs of food being digested and may be accompanied by a green, yellow, or brown fluid called bile.

Regurgitation often occurs shortly after eating and is a more passive event. Food will usually appear to just come out with no vocalizing, spasms, or contractions of the abdomen. Food usually maintains a cylindrical shape and appears undigested. Sometimes the thrown up food may have some mucus on it, but bile is usually absent.

Why is my cat regurgitating but otherwise acting normal?

True regurgitation is not necessarily stressful to a cat because it occurs more passively without contractions and spasms of the stomach. 

Vomiting is associated with underlying nausea and a host of diseases that lead to not feeling well. In contrast, regurgitation is not associated with a feeling of nausea.

Vomiting often contributes to a feeling of lethargy because of electrolyte loss in bile. Because regurgitation does not involve loss of bile or significant electrolytes, lethargy is uncommon.

Although regurgitation may not make a cat feel as ill as with vomiting, regurgitation should still be looked into by your vet if it occurs more than once or twice a month. Frequent regurgitation still causes a loss of nutrients from the food not getting digested.

How do I get my cat to stop throwing up food?

If your cat is throwing up undigested food, which is more associated with regurgitation, find ways to slow down your cat’s pace of eating. Spread out meals so that each meal is smaller. If your cat is gulping down food, rapidly eating, or stressed over food competition with housemates, it all contributes to the problem. 

If your cat continues to regurgitate food despite some basic preventative measures at home, or if you feel your cat is vomiting instead, take your cat to a veterinarian to find the underlying causes, so that the best therapy can be used for your cat.

View Sources
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  1. Dantas LM, Delgado MM, Johnson I, Buffington CT. Food puzzles for cats: Feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2016;18(9):723-732. doi:10.1177/1098612X16643753. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612X16643753

  2. Gryzb, K. Cat Regurgitation. PetMD. Published 9/23/2022. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/cat/symptoms/cat-regurgitation

  3. Lundgren, B. Vomiting or Regurgitation in Dogs and Cats?. Veterinary Partner. Revised and reviewed December 19, 2019. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952781

  4. Miller, W. Why is My Cat Throwing Up Undigested Food? Petco. Updated January 19, 2023. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://www.petco.com/content/petco/PetcoStore/en_US/pet-services/resource-center/health-wellness/why-is-my-cat-throwing-up-undigested-food.html

  5. Zoran, DL. Managing vomiting in cats (Proceedings). DVM360. Published October 1, 2011. Accessed May 4, 2023. https://www.dvm360.com/view/managing-vomiting-cats-proceedings

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About Dr. Chris Vanderhoof, DVM, MPH

Dr. Chris Vanderhoof is a 2013 graduate of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM) at Virginia Tech, where he also earned a Masters in Public Health. He completed a rotating internship with Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey and now works as a general practitioner in the Washington D.C. area. Dr. Vanderhoof is also a copywriter specializing in the animal health field and founder of Paramount Animal Health Writing Solutions, which can be found at www.animalhealthcopywriter.com. Dr. Vanderhoof lives in the Northern Virginia area with his family, including 3 cats.

3 thoughts on “Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Undigested Food?”

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    1. Tony Stack

      So nobody wants to answer my question then?

      I’ll give you some more context. My cat was vomiting the foamy saliva puddles while he was suffering from constipation. I believe what caused this was him consuming probiotics for the first time, which I sprinkled on his food one day. I read online probiotics can help alleviate a cat’s stressful mood.

      Anyway, he’s all better now.

      Reply
      1. Avatar photoDr. Chris Vanderhoof, DVM, MPH Post author

        Hi Tony, sorry for the delay. Your original post from August didn’t come through in the queue for some reason.
        We can see excess salivation with nausea, so it’s not uncommon to see saliva in vomit. We know constipation can be nauseating, so if your cat was vomiting more at that time, it could make sense to see more saliva. I can’t common specifically on the probiotic as the cause, but anything new can certainly cause stomach upset. I’m glad to hear your kitty is feeling better.

        Reply