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Dog and Cat Vomit

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Vomiting in cats and dogs is generally a sign of irritation within the digestive tract, which is a condition known as gastroenteritis. Vomiting is associated with irritation in the stomach (gastritis) or near the beginning of the small intestine.  One of the most common causes of vomiting in dogs and cats is eating things that upset the digestive tract, such as sticks, leaves, bones, or greasy foods.  Vomiting can also be caused by infection, intestinal worms, cancer, or diseases in other organs such as the kidney or liver.

The digestive tract: The digestive tract consists of different sections that have different functions, but all are surrounded by bands of muscle that keep material moving through the tract.  Food passes from the mouth down the esophagus and into the stomach, where acid and digestive enzymes begin the digestive process.  The food material then passes into the small intestine, where digestion is completed and nutrients are absorbed.  Finally, the remaining waste material passes into the large intestine (colon), where excess water is absorbed to form fecal material that leaves the body through the rectum.  Waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis move food material from one section to another.

Signs and symptoms: The character of the vomit can provide a hint as to the cause.  For example, sticks, bones or worms may be seen in the vomit.  Red blood indicates bleeding in the mouth, throat, or stomach, while a “coffee-ground” appearance suggests digested blood from the small intestine.  Your pet’s behavior can also provide clues.  Vomiting associated with a tense, painful abdomen, can be a sign of an intestinal obstruction, which is a serious situation that needs immediate veterinary attention.

Evaluation and treatment: Determining a precise cause of gastroenteritis can be difficult, and the cause for mild cases often remains unknown.  Typical diagnostic procedures include a thorough physical examination, a fecal examination to look for worms, x-rays to look for foreign material or signs of obstruction, and blood tests to check for kidney or liver disease.

In mild to moderate cases of vomiting, medications are often given to calm the digestive tract or the “vomiting center” in the brain.  Your veterinarian may ask you to withhold food from your pet for a time, or to feed multiple small meals of a bland diet.  In more serious cases, intravenous fluids may be needed to correct dehydration, and any underlying problems must also be treated.  Intestinal obstructions require emergency surgery to remove the blockage.

Q&A

Why do dogs and cats vomit?

Vomiting is generally a sign of irritation of the stomach or initial part of the small intestine.

What are some common causes of vomiting in dogs and cats?

One of the most common causes of vomiting is digestive upset from eating things such as sticks, leaves, bones, or greasy foods.  Digestive upsets can also be caused by bacterial or viral infections, intestinal worms, or diseases in other organs (eg, liver or kidneys).

Is vomiting an emergency?

Most cases of vomiting in dogs and cats do not require immediate medical attention.  However, signs of a tense, painful abdomen can be a sign of an intestinal obstruction that requires immediate veterinary attention.

How is vomiting evaluated?

The character of the vomit can provide clues as to the underlying area of concern, but determination of a more precise cause may require diagnostic procedures such as x-rays, and/or blood tests.

How is vomiting in dogs and cats treated?

Mild cases often respond to temporary changes in diet and use of soothing medications.  More serious cases may require intravenous fluids to correct dehydration, and surgery to remove a blockage.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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