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Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Undigested Food? 

Cat Eating Kibble from Bowl

It’s the middle of the night and you’re awakened by a sound everyone hates—a cat puking up food. Most feline pet parents have had this unfortunate experience. Is your cat throwing up undigested food a cause for concern? Or is it safe to clean it up and crawl back into bed? 

Sometimes pet parents think their pet is vomiting when they are actually regurgitating. This difference may sound insignificant, but it may inform your pet’s diagnosis and subsequent care plan. If your cat is vomiting, there are many reasons it could be happening. From food sensitivities to stress to hairballs—you’ll need to consult with your vet about what is going on.  

Some cats may need medical intervention to deal with frequent regurgitation—or it could be as easy as switching to a new veterinary food. Let’s talk about why your cat may be throwing up and when to seek the advice of your veterinarian.  

Understanding vomiting vs. regurgitation  

If your cat is throwing up solid food—or undigested food resembling what you put in their cat bowl—it may actually be regurgitation and not vomit. Vomiting only happens once your cat’s meal makes its way to the stomach. After your pet starts to digest the food, something happens to bring the contents back up. Vomit will include food, water and bile. Signs of vomiting include: 

A series of precursors

Cats who are about to vomit may become restless. Your cat may pace, swallow repeatedly or appear anxious. Kittens may get particularly upset before throwing up because they don’t understand what’s happening. 

Severe abdominal contractions

When cats vomit, they make a visible effort and retch to get the food out. Their entire body will probably start to heave as they expel the contents of their stomach.  

Digested food

If a cat is vomiting, at least some of the expelled food is likely to be digested. You may notice digested and undigested food mixed with water and bile. 

Regurgitating happens when food exits the stomach or esophagus. If your cat regurgitates undigested food, it is likely to occur right after they eat. Unlike vomiting, this process does not involve stomach bile. Signs of regurgitation include: 

No forceful body contractions

Regurgitated food is passively brought up—your cat will usually not heave when they are regurgitating.  

Limited water and saliva

You may notice some water and saliva mixed with undigested food, but the food may look mostly undisturbed.  

Lowered head

While a vomiting cat will often lurch their head forward and crouch as they heave, a cat who is regurgitating may just lower their head slightly and quickly expel the food.  

In short, vomiting is a very active process—you will notice your cat’s body visibly working to force out the contents of their stomach. Regurgitating is more passive and may happen quickly and quietly.  

Check for undigested food if you come across what looks like vomit on the ground—the greater the percentage of undigested food, the greater the likelihood that your cat regurgitated it.  

Even if you know the difference between vomiting and regurgitation, it can be difficult in the moment to distinguish between them. If possible, try to record a video of the act to share with your veterinarian—this can help ease the process of diagnosis and the creation of a treatment plan for your cat. 

Common reasons for cats to throw up 

A cat vomiting food is not always a serious sign of illness. Periodic stomach problems can resolve independently without any need to go to your vet. However, it is always a good idea to call and share any concerns with your veterinarian—they can often let you know if a health check is warranted. 

 

Some of the most common reasons a cat will vomit include:  

Hairballs

As cats groom themselves, they sometimes swallow their own fur. Look for a clump of hair in undigested food to determine if they are throwing up because of a hairball.  

Eating too much or too quickly

Sometimes overeating can cause vomiting or regurgitating. If your cat eats too fast, they may swallow a lot of air and get an upset stomach.  

Food sensitivities

Have you added a new food to your cat’s diet lately? They may be experiencing a food sensitivity to a new ingredient.  

Ingesting a foreign object

Cats are curious creatures and they may inadvertently eat a string or piece of plastic while playing with a toy. They can also swallow something they find on the floor, which may lead to vomiting.  

Unfortunately, there can also be more serious reasons behind a cat throwing up undigested food. Frequent vomiting can be a symptom of kidney disease, cancer, stomach ulcers, the ingestion of toxins or a foreign body in their gastrointestinal tract.  

When should I be concerned about my cat throwing up? 

In most cases, a single instance of undigested cat food vomit is not a cause for major concern. Your cat could experience an occasional vomiting episode due to stress, motion sickness or overeating. In fact, many cats will vomit and then eat again soon after. It’s time to be concerned about a vomiting cat if it starts happening more than a few times a month or if it is accompanied by other symptoms. 

If a cat is also tired, losing weight, has a fever, has blood in their vomit, has diarrhea or if they stop wanting to eat—it’s time to get veterinary help. Only your veterinarian can run the proper tests to diagnose and treat your cat when vomiting or regurgitation are frequent and part of a larger health decline.  

 

If your vet determines that your cat puking up food isn’t related to their regular diet, they may need more information. Because it can be difficult to remember every aspect of your cat’s routine, it is a good idea to make notes before your visit. Walk through a day in your cat’s life and jot down when they eat, what they eat and how much they eat. Take notes on when you have noticed the vomiting or regurgitation, including details of the event. A list of any changes to your cat’s life or diet is also very important to share with your vet. Visit our cat pharmacy if your vet prescribes medication for a previously undiagnosed condition. 

Pet prescriptions available to order at Petco

At-home remedies for throwing up undigested food 

If you notice your cat throwing up undigested food but otherwise acting normal, there is most likely no reason to worry. This is especially true if you only see your cat regurgitating one time rather than often or daily. They probably ate too fast, ate too much or had a hairball.  

You can help your pet by comforting them and offering water to help them remain hydrated. You can try the following tricks if your cat experiences infrequent vomiting in the future: 

Feed less at each serving

Some cats can overindulge and end up vomiting, but portioning your kitty’s food may help. Talk to your vet about how many calories your cat should be consuming and divide it into two or three meals throughout the day. 

Check the temperature of your cat’s food

If you’re feeding your cat soft food stored in the fridge, it may be too cold for your cat to tolerate. Try letting the food warm up to room temperature before feeding. You can also put the food in a plastic bag and run it under warm water until it reaches the proper temperature.  

Try to slow their eating

If you spread their food over a larger surface area, your cat may be forced to eat more slowly. This technique may curb some vomiting, and it lets your cat know there is still plenty of food available.  

Make meals consistent

If you offer your cat a different type of food every few weeks or feed them at different times, it can upset their stomach. Keep their feeding schedule regular and their bowl in the same place. 

Eliminate stressors

Everything from inconsistent feeding schedules to separation anxiety—even moving to a new house—may affect your cat’s health. Create a cozy nook for your cat with a cat condo, litter mats and regular water supply.  

Consult your veterinarian for the next steps if the issue persists. They may recommend switching to a food designed for cats with sensitive stomachs. Slowly transition to any new food over 7–10 days by gradually increasing the portion of new food you are feeding your cat. Check out our cat deals to find a new food option if your vet thinks this would help.  

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Reviewed by Dr. Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM

As Petco’s Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Miller is the lead veterinary subject matter expert, overseeing the company’s standards of excellence in animal care and welfare, growth in pet services and much more. Dr. Miller leads Petco’s medical team, supporting over 200 full-service hospitals and mobile vaccination clinics operating in over 1,000 Petco Pet Care Centers nationwide