Last Updated on: February 20, 2021 by Ingrid King

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Vomiting in cats is not normal. Far too many cat parents rationalize occasional, or even chronic, vomiting with explanations such as “he just eats too fast,” “she has a sensitive stomach,” or “it’s just a hairball.” Chronic vomiting can be an indicator of serious diseases of the small intestine, including inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal lymphoma.

Study of 300 cats with chronic vomiting

Dr. Gary Norsworthy, a feline veterinarian and owner of the Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio, TX, conducted a study on 300 cats who showed one or more of the following clinical signs:

  • vomiting 3 times or more a month for at least 3 months
  • diarrhea for 3 weeks or more
  • weight loss of 1 pound or more within six weeks
  • ultrasonographic evidence of small intestinal thickening

53% of the cats were male, 47% female. Median age of the cats in the study was 11  years.

Out of the 300 cats, 288 (96%) had abnormalities where 150 (50%) had chronic enteritis, 124 (41%) lymphoma, 11(4%) non-lymphoid neoplasia and 3 had other conditions. The remaining 12 (4%) were normal.” The results of the study were published  in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

These findings are staggering and make it abundantly clear that cat parents and veterinarians must stop diminishing the seriousness of chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Proper diagnosis is critical

To rule out other causes of gastrointestinal problems, your veterinarian will perform diagnostic tests that may include complete blood cell counts, blood chemistry, thyroid function tests, urinalysis, fecal analysis, abdominal x-rays, and ultrasound.  The most definitive way to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease or intestinal lymphoma is through biopsies of small samples of the intestinal lining.  Unfortunately, many veterinarians will use endoscopy to obtain these biopsies, which, while less invasive than surgical biopsy, will not always reach the abnormal sections of the intestine. Dr. Norsworthy found that the only way to definitively distinguish between inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal cancer was by obtaining full thickness biopsies surgically.

Intestinal disease is very treatable

Inflammatory bowel disease is usually treated with a combination of medical and dietary therapy.  Corticosteroids are used for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant properties, and they can also serve as an appetite stimulant.  Unfortunately, steroid therapy carries potentially serious longterm side-effects.

There is mounting evidence that treating the disease in its early stages will likely prevent a progression to lymphoma. The most common form of intestinal lymphoma, small cell lymphoma, is also very treatable.

It should be noted that dietary treatment may work for some cat with frequent vomiting and/or diarrhea if the symptoms are caused by food allergies or insensitivities. Increasingly, holistically oriented veterinarians are seeing a connection between diet and IBD.  These vets believe that commercial pet foods, especially dry foods, are a contributing factor to the large numbers of cats with chronic IBD.  They also discovered that many cats improve by simply changing their diets to a balanced grain-free raw meat diet.  Similar results may be achieved with a grain-free canned diet, but a raw diet seems to lead to quicker and better results.

Don’t ignore chronic vomiting or hairballs

Cat parents need to realize that hairballs are not normal. Yes, cats will vomit up the occasional hairball, but “normal” is an occasional hairball. Anything more than that could be cause for concern.

This article was first published March 19, 2014 and has been updated.

Photo by Lindsey Turner, Flickr Creatide Commons