The majority of pet owners will probably see their cat or dog vomit at some point in its life. Vomiting is extremely common in cats and dogs. Most episodes of vomiting are harmless, and can be attributed to a simple stomach upset. However, some cases of vomiting are signs of serious underlying disease. Vomiting can lead to dehydration and nutrient loss. It is important to recognise when your animal requires veterinary treatment.
Are retching, regurgitation, and vomiting the same thing?
No. Pet owners should be able to differentiate between vomiting, retching, and regurgitation because these similar behaviours can reflect very dissimilar problems in the body. The ability of the pet owner to distinguish between vomiting, regurgitation and retching helps the vet make a more accurate diagnosis.
Retching is associated with disorders of the pharynx (the back of the mouth) where food or water is trapped in the pharynx and accidentally enters the respiratory system (i.e. goes down the wrong way). An immediate response occurs with gasping, gagging, coughing, and retching.
Regurgitation is usually associated with disorders of the oesophagus. Instead of food going down the oesophagus into the stomach, it builds up in the oesophagus until it is passively regurgitated. Regurgitation usually occurs shortly after eating. The food material will not have reached the stomach, so it will appear undigested.
Vomiting is active ejection of food from the stomach or small intestine. It is typically preceded by a period of anxiety, restlessness, and salivation. There is an obvious abdominal contraction, and the food that is brought up will have been digested by stomach acid. There may also be bile in the vomit (appears yellow), which is indicative of intestinal involvement.
What are the causes of pet vomiting?
The vast majority of vomiting animals will have eaten something that they should not have. This is referred to as dietary indiscretion. Dogs are guilty of dietary indiscretion far more often than cats, and scavenging behaviour is a frequent precursor to an upset stomach.
Other causes of pet vomiting include:
• Dietary intolerance
• Motion sickness
• Parasites (e.g. roundworms, hookworms)
• Infections (e.g. viruses, bacteria)
• Swallowing a foreign body (e.g. balls, sticks, bone, thread, etc.)
• Haemorrhagic gastroenteritis
• Intestinal obstruction or intussusception
• Chronic gastritis
• Inflammatory Bowel Disease
• Systemic disease (e.g. kidney disease, liver disease, etc.)
• Drug side effects (e.g. painkillers)
• Vestibular disease
How should I treat a simple case of indigestion?
Initially, if your pet has had a mild vomiting episode, and it is still bright and alert, the animal can be managed at home. Your pet should be fasted for 12-24 hours, but still offered water at regular intervals. Following the fast, a bland diet should be fed before resuming the regular diet. Feed small amounts of boiled chicken, rice, pasta, or potatoes until the symptoms subside. The animal can then resume its normal diet.
If vomiting persists, or your pet seems particularly depressed or ill, take it to the veterinarian.
When should I be concerned about my pet’s vomiting episodes?
There comes a point when your pet’s vomiting may indicate that it is seriously ill and requires veterinary assistance. It is always to better to err on the side of caution and bring your pet in if you are at all concerned. Indicators that you should be concerned about your pet are:
1. Your pet has recently ingested a bone, garbage, toxins, plant material, antifreeze, drugs, chocolate, etc.
2. The animal is repeatedly vomiting in a short period of time and is looking depressed
3. There is blood in the vomit (digested blood can appear dark like coffee grounds)
4. Your pet refuses to eat at its next meal after a vomiting period
5. Other symptoms of ill health begin to develop (lethargy, dehydration, abdominal pain, etc.)
What will the vet want to know about the pet vomiting episodes?
Most veterinarians will require a thorough history of your pet’s illness in order to aid diagnosis of the problem. They will probably ask the following questions:
• How old is the animal?
• How is its appetite?
• Is the vomiting associated with feeding?
• Is the vomiting persisting?
• How often does the animal vomit?
• Has there been any weight loss?
• Is the animal salivating excessively?
• Does it have a history of scavenging behaviour?
• Is there any diarrhoea?
• What is the consistency of the vomit (blood, undigested food, bile, foreign objects, unproductive vomiting, etc.)?
Attention to detail will help the veterinarian make a speedier and more accurate diagnosis. Some veterinarians will ask for the owner to bring in a sample of the vomit.
How is the cause of pet vomiting diagnosed?
Veterinarians diagnose the cause of vomiting based on the history (as listed above), a physical exam, and other diagnostic tests, such as blood tests, urinalysis, X-rays, and ultrasound. The extent of the diagnostic work-up will vary. For instance, if the vet suspects your pet swallowed a foreign object, it may be necessary to take x-rays of the abdomen.
How is pet vomiting treated?
Treatment will rely on the underlying cause of the vomiting. Fasting is often sufficient for cases of dietary indiscretion. For more seriously ill animals, they may require supportive treatment, such as fluid therapy to counter dehydration. Do not attempt to treat your pet with human medications for vomiting unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian.