Recently, my cat keeps gagging but nothing comes out.
She’s retching, coughing, and heaving, but there is never any vomit or hairballs in sight! It is horrible to watch her looking so uncomfortable, and super concerning that something is wrong.
As a cat owner, I’m sure you have also seen your cat dry heaving. It is actually pretty common and often a result of a trapped hairball or another item that has been swallowed by your cat. They are gagging and dry heaving in an attempt to dislodge the item and get it out of their system.
However, a cat trying to throw up but can’t is a sign of more severe medical conditions, including kidney disease, liver disease, and heart disease. It’s important to be able to distinguish between normal dry heaving and retching that is a cause for concern.
In this article, I run through all the reasons why your cat keeps gagging but nothing comes out in more detail. I’ll also discuss what you should do when you notice this behavior and methods of prevention for the future.
Why Is My Cat Gagging & Not Throwing Up?
Cats love food and many will gobble down their dinner in a flash. This can cause cats to retch and gag, sometimes throwing up what they’ve just eaten. In these cases, gagging is normal and nothing to worry about. However, frequent and regular dry heaving is a cause for concern.
Here is a look at several common health conditions that can cause your cat to keep trying to throw up but can’t. I’ve listed all the symptoms under each subheading to help you pinpoint what’s wrong, but it’s also a great idea to contact your vet if in doubt!
Cats are meticulous self-groomers, spending hours each day using their rough tongues to keep their coats clean, soft, and shiny. Alongside all of the dirt they remove, loose hairs become ingested as a byproduct of grooming and end up inside their stomach.
Cats are adapted to be able to handle this hair that they ingest, and in most cases, it will work its way through their digestive systems before being eliminated in their litter box. However, when a large volume of hair is consumed, the hair may accumulate in the stomach, forming a hairball. As such, if you have a long-haired breed or your cat is shedding, hairballs are more likely.
In most cases, hairballs are nothing to worry about. You may see your cat dry heaving initially as the hairball irritates their stomach before a big ball of hair gets deposited on your floor. However, if your cat is dry heaving and no hairball comes up, you’ll need to take your cat to the vet for help. They may need to remove the clump of hair from your cat’s GI tract as they are having issues getting it up alone.
Feeling nauseous is another reason why your cat is trying to throw up but can’t. The sick feeling in their stomach is triggering a gag-like reflex, but there is no actual vomiting or regurgitation as a result of their dry heaving.
Cats can feel nauseous for all kinds of reasons. They could have simply eaten their food too quickly or eaten too much at once. Perhaps they ate spoiled food or a non-food item that is either toxic or indigestible. Nausea is also a symptom of many medical conditions, including GI infections or diabetes. Or maybe they’re feeling travel sick!
Regardless of the cause, it can be difficult to tell whether our cats feel nauseous or not – they cannot speak to us and let us know how they’re feeling. As such, it’s good to look out for other symptoms alongside dry heaving that indicate our cats aren’t feeling 100% themselves.
For example, cats open their mouth when they smell, but holding them open permanently can be a sign they feel nauseous. A cat drooling but acting normal, a reduction in appetite, and lethargy are also signs your cat feels sick.
Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the GI tract and can cause discomfort and dry heaving in cats, especially after eating or drinking. It can be caused by a range of different things, including:
- Bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
- Cancers or tumors along the GI tract
- Foreign materials lodged in the intestines
- Poisoning or toxicity
- Endocrine diseases such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism
- Vomiting yellow, foamy bile
In addition to gagging and coughing, diarrhea is a common sign of gastroenteritis. In many cases, a cat has diarrhea but seems fine when its intestines are inflamed. Similarly, if their appetite is reduced or your cat stopped eating dry food but eats treats, gastroenteritis is a likely cause. Other symptoms to look out for include lethargy and depression.
If you think your cat has gastroenteritis, take them to the vet. As the disease can be caused by a range of different things, the treatment will depend on the underlying cause. For example, infections may be treated with antibiotics, whereas fluid and electrolyte replacement will help to restore optimal levels of hydration disrupted due to diarrhea.
4. Lodged Foreign Body
Cats are inquisitive animals that love discovering everything they can about the world around them. One way in which they do this is through taste. They will put a range of foreign materials in their mouth – be that bugs, pieces of string, or pieces of plastic – to see what they are.
Unfortunately, these objects can become stuck in your cat’s body. If your cat keeps making weird mouth movements, the foreign body is probably stuck somewhere by the gums and is relatively easy to remove. However, if it travels into the GI tract it can block the throat or intestines.
In an attempt to remove this blockage, your cat will keep trying to throw up. After a lot of dry heaving, they may eventually be successful. In fact, is your cat throwing up but acting normal? If so, they’re probably just removing a lodged foreign body but are otherwise fine.
However, in some cases, no amount of gagging and heaving will dislodge the foreign material. It is in these situations where things become dangerous. If your cat is dry heaving, has a reduced appetite, and has abdominal pain and swelling, take them to the vet immediately. The blockage will need to be removed by the vet before it completely blocks the GI tract – something that can be fatal.
5. Kidney Disease
When cats develop kidney disease they are unable to filter toxins from their bodies. As such, these toxins accumulate and cause cats to feel nauseous. Therefore, kidney disease could be another reason why your cat keeps gagging but nothing comes out.
The disease is divided into two types: chronic kidney disease (CKD) and acute kidney disease (AKD). In AKD, onset is rapid and usually the result of eating a toxic substance. On the other hand, CKD is a progressive disease that is common in older felines and is characterized by gradual ongoing damage to the kidneys.
Aside from a cat dry heaving, other symptoms of feline kidney disease include:
- Cat not eating but drinking as usual
- Increased urination
- Weight loss
- Bad breath which smells of ammonia
- Intermittent vomiting
- A messy or matted coat
In CKD especially, these symptoms often only present when the disease is pretty far advanced. Cat sleeping positions when sick can also indicate CKD. In particular, the “meatloaf position” – characterized by a hunched back, weight shifted forward, their head on the floor, and their eyes closed in pain – shows your cat is suffering from CKD.
Keep an eye out for these signs and contact your vet as soon as possible if you become suspicious. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome.
6. Liver Disease
Like the kidneys, the liver also plays a vital role in removing toxins from the blood. Additionally, it plays its part in healthy digestion by metabolizing fats and carbohydrates, stores vitamins and iron, and produces proteins for the body.
Because the liver has such a huge role in several bodily functions, a cat that develops liver disease may show a range of symptoms. One such symptom is dry heaving, but this will usually be seen in combination with one or more of the below clinical signs:
- Lethargy or a reduction in activity
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Overall weakness
- Yellowing of the skin, eyes, and gums
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
Liver disease can be fatal if left untreated, so receiving prompt veterinary advice is crucial. With correct treatment, many liver diseases can be managed effectively. However, some conditions don’t respond well to treatment, such as FIP, FIV, and polycystic diseases. Either way, it is best to know what you’re dealing with and get any treatment administered as soon as possible.
7. Heart Disease
Heart disease refers to issues with their heart that impairs its function, for example:
- Birth defects such as holes in the heart
- Thickening and weakening of the heart muscle
- The disease of the heart valves, such as mitral insufficiency
- The disease of the heart muscle
Sadly, this condition is often referred to as the “silent killer” as its symptoms are hard to notice in the early stages. The most prominent symptoms are difficulty breathing and trouble walking. Additionally, dry retching, trouble eating, and lethargy are less obvious signs of an underlying heart problem.
If you notice any of the symptoms I have just mentioned, visiting your vet is crucial. If your cat does have heart disease, early diagnosis will help to extend its life and provide more effective treatment.
What To Do If Your Cat is Dry Heaving
I know first-hand that a cat’s dry heaving can be worrisome.
It’s hard to stay calm knowing all the health conditions it is linked to. However, some of the conditions on this list are more serious than others, and it’s best to keep a level head.
If your cat randomly starts dry heaving and they have no other adverse symptoms, wait for 24 hours to see if it resolves itself. Within this time your cat may have been able to regurgitate that hairball or foreign object. If they are gagging and coughing due to nausea, the dry heaving will also stop once the sickness subsides.
However, if your cat is dry heaving and no vomit or hairballs have come up within 24 hours, it’s best to speak to a vet. They will be able to run some checks and work out if there is something wrong. Depending on what they find, your vet may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection or physically remove a large hairball or foreign body from your cat’s GI tract.
On the other hand, if you notice gagging and coughing in combination with any symptoms of kidney, liver, or heart disease, don’t hesitate. You should take your cat to the vet immediately. These three diseases are all very serious and early diagnosis can dramatically extend the life of your cat.
How To Prevent Your Cat From Gagging & Coughing
Seeing your cat gagging and coughing can be disturbing, besides being an unpleasant experience for them as well. As such, you may wish to know how you can prevent – or at least reduce the frequency of – your cat dry heaving.
Try implementing these changes and seeing if they make a difference:
- Brushing Daily: Hairballs are the number one cause of a cat dry heaving. You can help prevent the formation of hairballs by brushing your cat daily, removing all the loose fur from their coats. This is essential if you have a long-haired breed such as a Persian, but equally as useful for short-haired cats. Besides, it will help to strengthen the bond between you and your kitty, and most cats love being brushed.
- Keeping Food Fresh: If your cat keeps trying to throw up but can’t actually vomit, they could feel nauseous. Often, this is the result of eating spoiled food. As such, you can prevent dry retching by storing cat food correctly in an airtight container and throwing away any food that is past the sell-by date. If you feed your cat wet food, ensure you throw away any left in their bowl after an hour.
- Slowing Down Feeding: Cats can also feel sick simply from eating their dinner too quickly. Check their portion sizes and spread their food out into several smaller meals throughout the day if needed. There are also certain bowls and feeders you can buy to slow down your cat’s eating habits, such as puzzle feeders and balls. These are great for providing mental stimulation as well and making cats work for their food as they would in the wild.
- Removing Toxic Compounds: Eating toxic compounds is another cause of nausea. It can easily be avoided by removing them from your home. Many popular houseplants are poisonous to cats, so try switching to safe alternatives. Likewise, swapping from chemical-heavy to pet-friendly cleaning products can make a big difference. Several human foods are poisonous to cats as well, so keep all human food out of reach.
- Supervising Play: Cats may ingest foreign objects from anywhere. However, one of the most common pieces of foreign materials found blocking a cat’s GI tract is pieces of their toys. This could be feathers, pieces of string, or other small parts that come loose. To prevent this, always supervise playtime and throw away any damaged toys immediately.
- Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Keeping your cat a healthy weight will not protect them against diseases. However, obesity is a risk factor for many health conditions. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight will only bring benefits to your cat’s life. Ensure you are feeding them correct portion sizes for each meal and try to engage in at least 15 minutes of playtime together each day.
- Attending Regular Check-Ups: The three severe health conditions on this list – kidney, liver, and heart disease – can’t be prevented. However, attending regular check-ups with your vet can mean that these conditions are picked up sooner rather than later. By doing so, treatment will be more effective and your cat will live a longer, happier life.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If your cat is trying to throw up but can’t, it can be worrisome. However, in most cases, dry heaving is usually the result of a hairball, lodged foreign object, or nausea. After the feeling of sickness has subsided or the blockage is removed, your cat should be back to its old self in no time.
With that being said, a cat gagging and coughing is a symptom of more severe conditions, so if in doubt always visit your vet. Try some of my tips for prevention as well – these will reduce the amount of dry heaving in the future, which is beneficial for both you and your kitty.
Camille Tinling says
Thank you. Your article seems informative and well-written, and I appreciate it. I especially like your lists of probable symptoms/behavior associated with each possible cause of the retching.