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The words vomiting and regurgitation are often used interchangeably, and for good reason: the two are pretty similar. Both refer to the ejection of contents from the digestive tract out through the mouth. It’s an unpleasant experience for your cat and a nuisance for you as you’re left with the cleanup!
However, regurgitation and vomiting are subtly different. Vomiting is a symptom of many medical conditions and one of the mean reasons owners call up their local vet’s office. On the other hand, regurgitation is generally nothing to be concerned about unless your cat throws up regularly.
So, what is the difference between cat regurgitation vs vomiting? Does your cat need to be taken to the vet for a checkup and treatment? And how can you stop your cat from regurgitating up for good? Keep reading to find out all the answers to these questions and more!
What is the Difference Between Cat Regurgitation vs Vomit?
As I’ve already mentioned briefly, both cat regurgitation and vomiting refer to the expulsion of food from the digestive tract and out the mouth. However, there are distinct differences between the two, which are summarized in the table below:
- Movement of material from the esophagus backward along the digestive tract.
- A passive process that doesn’t require muscle contractions nor make noise.
- Made from partially digested food, saliva, hair, and mucus. It is generally tubular thanks to the shape of the esophagus.
- Ejection of material from the stomach and/or upper intestines out the mouth.
- An active process that is facilitated by the contraction of stomach muscles in an upward motion. It is accompanied by retching.
- Made from digested and undigested food, stomach bile, and phlegm. Generally has a runnier consistency.
Here is an in-depth look at each of the differences. Use these to tell whether your cat is truly sick and needs to go to the vet, or is just regurgitating its dinner.
1. Stomach vs Esophagus
Physiologically speaking, vomiting is the word used to define the process in which the contents of the stomach and/or upper intestines are moved backward along the digestive tract. On the other hand, regurgitation is the term used to describe the process of undigested food being ejected from the esophagus and out the mouth.
2. Active vs Passive Processes
Vomiting is an active process and requires the stomach muscles to clench and unclench to facilitate the upwards motion of food backward along the digestive tract. It is often accompanied by retching as the muscles contract, which is why cats make weird noises when sick. There are often other warning signs as well, such as increased salivation and licking of the lips.
Comparatively, regurgitation is a very passive process that doesn’t require muscle contractions to facilitate the upwards movement of material. Instead, cats simply lower their heads to the ground and let the material fall out of their mouths. As such, there are no warning signs. It is an almost instant process that happens before the ingested material even hits the stomach.
3. Runny vs Tube-Shaped
Because the material ejected in vomiting comes from the stomach, vomit looks visibility different from regurgitated material. It typically contains bile, phlegm, and lumps of digested food. This means it generally has a more runny and watery consistency.
On the other hand, the regurgitated matter is usually tubular in shape. This is because it is made from undigested food mixed with saliva, hair, and mucus. Together, these substances have a firm yet moldable consistency. As the esophagus is tubular, regurgitated food takes on its shape as it’s pushed backward through the tube and out the mouth.
Why Must We Differentiate Cat Regurgitation vs Vomit?
You might be wondering why it matters whether your cat is vomiting or regurgitating. After all, they both result in a pile of sick on your floor and neither is nice for your cat. So, what’s the big deal?
However, cat regurgitation vs vomit not only differ in what they are – but they also differ in what they’re caused by. Vomiting is usually a sign that something is wrong, and might need to get an underlying medical condition checked out. It is a common symptom for all kinds of conditions, ranging from toxicity and stomach ulcers to kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.
On the other hand, regurgitation is a natural process that is generally nothing to worry about. It is often caused by eating too much too quickly. However, if you notice your cat regurgitating frequently, they might suffer from some kind of esophageal disorder that is worth getting looked at.
Below I compare the causes of regurgitation and vomiting in more detail. But remember, this is not an extensive list and I am not a vet. If in doubt, give your vet a call.
What Are the Causes of Vomiting in Cats?
Whenever cats vomit, it is usually linked with some kind of stomach or intestinal upset. This is unsurprising seeing as we know vomiting is the expulsion of material from these regions. But as so many issues can arise in the digestive tract I can’t list them all here!
If you notice your cat throwing up food but acting normal for a few days, there is probably only something minor wrong. Perhaps your cat has eaten something it is intolerant to or has a mild stomach bug. However, severe vomiting is usually a sign of a more serious illness.
Below are just some examples of chronic vomiting causes:
- Intestinal obstruction from ingesting foreign bodies
- Parasitic worm infections living in the intestines
- Bacterial or viral infections of the stomach or intestines
- Inflammation of the stomach or intestines
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Obstruction from cancers and tumors
These are all serious conditions that need treatment from your vet. When this isn’t given, you might notice that your cat is suddenly lethargic and weak due to dehydration. Some of the above conditions are also life-threatening and need prompt treatment to prevent complications from developing.
What Are The Causes of Regurgitation in Cats?
If your cat regurgitates now and again, I wouldn’t worry. Cat regurgitation after eating is often caused by cats eating too quickly. This is because cats’ stomachs are only so large, and the body can reject the food in the esophagus if the stomach is too full. You can easily differentiate this from a cat throwing up after eating as regurgitated food won’t be at all digested.
With that being said, you should call your vet if any of the following applies:
- You spot your cat regurgitating frequently
- You notice your cat throwing up hairballs daily
- Your cat keeps gagging but nothing comes out
- You see your cat coughing but no hairball comes up
The above signs could all indicate that something is obstructing your cat’s through. Examples of what could be causing the obstruction include an ingested foreign body, throat tumors, a vascular ring anomaly, or even large hairballs. The obstruction will prevent the normal passage of food down the digestive tract and needs to be removed.
Motility issues are another possible cause of frequent cat regurgitation. Examples could include polyneuropathy, polymyopathy, esophagitis, or an acquired neuromuscular disease. Your vet will be able to run tests and provide treatment for the underlying cause. This means treatment can vary dramatically and includes surgery, medication, and chemotherapy.
How to Treat Regurgitation in Cats at Home?
If your cat is regurgitating its food regularly, book an appointment with your vet. As just mentioned, both of these can signal a health problem that needs to be treated. Your vet will be able to run tests to work out the cause of this behavior and prescribe appropriate treatment.
While your cat is receiving treatment, you can further help manage regurgitation by making some changes at home. I’ve dealt with my fair share of feline tummy troubles, so I share my tried-and-tested tips for this below. Use these tips to help limit the symptoms while the treatment does the job.
These tips are also useful if your vet doesn’t find any underlying cause and can help to stop your cat from regurgitating ever again. Your cat will thank you, plus you have a worry and a chore taken off of your hands – win-win!
1. Feed Smaller Meals
There is no magic food for cats that regurgitate after eating. However, you can limit the frequency of your cat immediately throwing up its dinner by slowing down its eating habits. My favorite way to do this is by feeding my cat smaller portions more frequently.
I find my cats take their time eating their smaller portions, rather than gulping the whole lot down in one. Besides, even if your cat does still eat quickly, it won’t be overloading its stomach and digestive system at once. They instead have time to process and digest one portion before getting the next.
2. Use Puzzle Feeders
Another way you can slow down your cat’s eating is by using puzzle feeders. For anyone that feeds their cat dry kibble, puzzle balls are a great shout. These are hollow balls with little holes in the side. You simply place their biscuits inside the ball and your cat has to move the ball around to make the biscuits drop out.
Slow feeder plates are a better option for wet cat food. These are flat dishes usually made from silicone that have a grooved pattern along the bottom. Put the wet food onto the plate and push it down into the crevices for your cat to lick out. These can also be used for dry food if preferred.
3. Feed Cats Separately
Do you have a multi-cat household? Many cats that reside happily together most of the time will face competition over mealtimes. This can cause cats to gulp down their food quicker than they should. The faster they eat it, the less time anyone else has to steal a bite!
As such, another way you can slow eating and reduce cat regurgitation is by feeding your cats separately. This helps your cats to relax and enjoy eating, rather than feeling rushed. Putting the bowls in separate rooms works well. If you prefer, collar-activated cat feeders are another effective way to keep each of your cats’ meals separate.
4. Limit Water Intake
Cats should always have access to fresh water which is essential for their survival. However, cats that regurgitate frequently might benefit if you limit their water intake for an hour following mealtimes. Drinking a large amount of liquid right after consuming a big meal can cause regurgitation. Going a few hours without won’t cause any harm, but could stop your cat from being sick.
This is even more essential if you know your cat coughs after drinking water. Some cats cough when they drink too much too fast, but doing so after eating increases the likelihood of them throwing up. All this spluttering is more likely to bring up undigested food. So, give your cat a break from drinking.
5. Brush Regularly
Regular brushing is also helpful if you’re dealing with your cat regurgitating frequently. This won’t be helpful for cats that regurgitate after eating, but it will help cats that throw up hairballs regularly. Brushing removes the loose fur from your cat’s coat before it can be ingested when grooming. As such, fewer hairballs form in the esophagus.
Although some hairballs are natural, cats shouldn’t be throwing up hairballs more than once or twice this week. If more than this, speak to your vet. This is usually only an issue with long-haired cat breeds and can easily be resolved with a strict grooming schedule.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
It is a great idea to learn the difference between cat regurgitation vs vomit. It can help you determine whether or not you need a trip to the vet, besides what effective home remedies you can try. With a little knowledge, you can get to bottom of your cat’s throwing up habits.
One thing I would say is that any cat throwing up more than once per week – be that vomiting or regurgitation – should go to their vet. Regardless of which applies, this isn’t normal. Your vet will help you find out what’s up. Before you know it, your cat will be back to their old selves and the days of cleaning sick from the floor will be long gone. What can I say? You’re welcome!